The ‘Beef’ in the Constitution


I thought the beef ‘ban’ was silly. One of those laughable reforms over which friends would shake their heads while clinking their glasses and reaching for the next cocktail beef sausage. And yet when I see the emotions stirred up on social media, I worry. I would’ve thought that support for this would be limited to the rabid, extreme right wing tribe whose intelligentsia spout statements on peacock parthenogenesis. But no, I see the seemingly rational argue for this, justifying it with angles ranging from dietary ‘science’ to purported prevention of cruelty. I have had friends exit social media groups over arguments on this, friends from school days… A few days ago, I read (again on social media) about calls for a ‘Dravidanad’, the United States of South India, urging the South to unite together to prevent the imposition of Hindi and the beef ban. Has this issue polarised people so much that sedition is actually being discussed??

Article 48 of the Indian Constitution mandates the State to prohibit the slaughter of cows, calves and other milch and draught cattle. Article 48 is a Directive Principle of State Policy (DPSP) which is a guideline or principle given to the federal institutes governing the state of India, to be kept in citation while framing laws and policies

48. Organisation of agriculture and animal husbandry The State shall endeavour to organise agriculture and animal husbandry on modern and scientific lines and shall, in particular, take steps for preserving and improving the breeds, and prohibiting the slaughter, of cows and calves and other milch and draught cattle”

This should include cows, buffalos, oxen, donkeys, goats, camels, elephants, horses etc. as they are either milch or draught cattle. In 2005, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutional validity of laws prohibiting the slaughter of cattle – which was a no-brainer as the court had only followed the directive written in article 48 of the constitution.

But why was this article written into the Constitution in the first place? I thought I would find the answer in recent history around the time that the constitution of India took shape, but the fact is that the roots to this run way deeper than one would imagine.

Most of the first millennia didn’t present much of a problem. The Vedic period saw buffalos and cows slaughtered frequently for consumption and in sacrifice. Sacrificial slaughter in the jhatka tradition continues today also all over India especially in West Bengal during Durga Puja. The latter part of the first millennia saw laws emerging against the slaughter of cows and the eating of beef. The cow had by then become a symbol of a ‘benevolent giver’ providing much needed nutrition in the form of dairy products, fuel and fertiliser from dung and being the draft animal to plough the fields or to pull a cart. This symbol was an easy one to project and to identify with and the concept of the gau mata became entrenched mostly within the North Indian Hindu psyche.

The medieval ages saw rulers bow down to this symbol either due to personal devotion to the gua mata or due to the shrewd recognition of the cow as a unifying cause to rally against a common enemy. Indian kingdoms and empires ruled by the Islamic rulers of Arab and Turkish origin had allowed the slaughter of cattle. For local rulers and those opposed to these Islamic rulers, the cow became a symbol of the cultural overthrow which had taken place. It would have been easy to brand the killers of a ‘benevolent giver of life’ as the enemy and unite factions against them. The Maratha empire for instance although inclusive of various religious minorities enforced a strict ban on the slaughter of cattle. Ranjit Singh the founder of the Sikh empire, had strict laws against the slaughter of cows in his domains. Establishing the Sikh empire by defeating the last of the Mughals and by resisting various invading Afghan armies, Maharaja Ranit Singh would have found the cow a uniting cause to fight against his largely Islamic enemies. It was not just Hindu and Sikh kings who found upholding the cow useful, the Mughals too, Humayun, Jahangir and Akbar recognised the importance of deference to all creatures bovine and established some degree of restrictions to their slaughter.

The arrival of British rule changed things. The hegemony of British rule meant that policy could be autarchic. Slaughter houses were established all over India, the first one in Calcutta by Robert Clive. Discontent over British rule was simmering and the veneration to the holy cow was a major cause of the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857.

Cow slaughter was used as a rallying cry by Gandhiji, Bal Ganghadhar Tilak, Lala Lajpat Rai and others. The leaders of the Swaraj movement repeatedly assured the Indian masses that on achieving Swaraj, the first action of the Swadeshi Government would be to pass laws banning the slaughter of cows and their progeny. Gandhiji revered the cow and has even stated that, “As for me, not even to win Swaraj, will I renounce my principle of cow protection.” However, in all fairness, Gandhiji did not believe in a total ban on cow slaughter and also stated that, “I do not doubt that Hindus are forbidden the slaughter of cows. I have been long pledged to serve the cow but how can my religion also be the religion of the rest of the Indians? It will mean coercion against those Indians who are not Hindus. We have been shouting from the house-tops that there will be no coercion in the matter of religion. …if anyone were to force me (religiously) I would not like it. How can I force anyone not to slaughter cows unless he is himself so disposed?”

The British also brought in certain controls to the slaughter of cattle when they found themselves facing a shortage of cattle. Young cattle and those capable of producing milk were not allowed to be slaughtered. This decision was purely an economic one to encourage the rearing of cattle for purposes other than that for meat.

Every ruler would have recognised the delicate nature of the cow in India. On the one hand was a religious symbol who had inspired and rallied the masses for centuries and on the other hand was an easily available and relatively cheap source of meat for a huge population on the brink of starvation. Although the leaders of the Freedom struggle promised to pass laws banning cow slaughter, the basic premise of the Constitution to be a secular nation triumphed and the lawmakers stopped short. However, a significant concession was made and article 48 was born. The existing British rule about restrictions on slaughter would have definitely helped. Indian writers of the Constitution relied heavily on British principles after all. Article 48 would have been piggy backed onto this existing rule. If at all any dissent existed, it would have been waved away with the argument that it was only a Directive Principle of State Policy and not a law. Therefore, the individual States were free to formulate their own law with regard to cow slaughter.


And it happened exactly like that, states like Gujarat and Rajasthan banned all forms of cattle slaughter, and most of the other states brought in selective rules of cattle slaughter except for Kerala and the states of the North-East where all cattle can be slaughtered and consumed. The ambiguity was left in the Constitution because no Government wanted to pass a law which would go either way. It was a sure shot way to lose vote banks on either side of the beef divide.

However, with a right wing Government in power and one which suddenly realised its muscle after the U.P. election it was a sort of inevitable outcome. But even then, an overt ban has been avoided so that the Government can justify its actions citing prevention of cruelty and the application of health norms. In reality, the restrictions on sale and slaughter houses have effectively crippled the beef industry.

I believe firmly that in a democratic, secular nation, the choice of what I eat should not be dictated by the whims of a political party. This is a basic freedom which is to be guaranteed by the Constitution. No less.

India produced 3.643 million metric tons of beef in 2012, of which 1.963 million metric tons was consumed domestically and 1.680 million metric tons was exported. India ranks 5th in the world in beef production, 7th in domestic consumption and 1st in exporting. In this context, Article 48 is as hypocritical as it gets but no lawmaker will dare to attempt to remove it and no political party has the will or the strength to do it. I wonder, when it was drafted, the creators of the Constitution ever dreamed of the consequences of their actions.


~ by inmyneed on June 1, 2017.

One Response to “The ‘Beef’ in the Constitution”

  1. Very nicely researched and reasoned argument and I totally agree with it!! In a country like India where secularism had triumphed for almost 70 years it is shameful that the majority is now trying to impose its will on the minority. When article 48 is already available mandating States to protect bovine creatures why does the central government feel the need to try and force the issue now? It can only be to further the political agenda of the ruling party and to inflame sentiments of the Hindus to gain more votes!!

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