The political economy of beef

  • Sujata Anandan, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Mar 03, 2015 20:31 IST

"Before you ever ask me that question again first bend down and look underneath the cow to make sure you are seeing an udder and not something else. I suppose you know how to make out the difference between the two?", an incensed Bal Thackeray had been at his obscene and insulting best as I asked him why he had torpedoed his own government's anti-cow slaughter bill in 1995.

Bringing the bill to the legislature was one of the first acts of the first-ever Shiv Sena-BJP government in Maharashtra and there were howls of protests from those likely to be affected.

Among them were not just the Quresh merchants but large sections of both Hindu and Buddhist Dalits and several Jain businessmen who were heavily invested in the beef trade.

Thackeray may have ignored the protests had they been limited to Muslims but then he was also conscious that they had contributed in large numbers to his party's victory, after being disappointed by the Congress for doing nothing to save the Babri Masjid. But Thackeray was also unnerved by protesting Dalit leaders, a couple of whom later joined forces with him for reasons of political expediency.

At the time I had no idea why a ban on beef should affect their interests. That is when one of their firebrand leaders explained to me the economics of beef eating and how such a ban would detrimentally affect their health leading to more poverty and hunger among these masses.

"A kilo of dal will last a family of four for only one meal. A kilo of beef will stretch to at least four days,'' he told me. For dal, once cooked, thick or gruelly, is finished at once. Beef, on the other hand, could first be eaten as meat. Then the 'rassa' could be watered down with some spices to last another day, he said.

"Later we can make a soup from the bones and the marrow has its own health quotient. And all this at a quarter of the price we would have to pay for the same quantity of daal.''

Then, as now, pulses sold at four times the price of beef which was cheaper than even lamb or chicken and Dalit groups were intensely upset at the move to ban cow slaughter in the state.

But it was the Qureshis, who actually dealt with the meat processing, and their non-Muslim financial backers who convinced Thackeray that they did not slaughter cows - only bulls and buffaloes. I should know the difference between a cow and a buffalo and bend down to make sure every time I thought a cow was being slaughtered instead of a bull, he raged.

Of course, it was embarrassing for Thackeray to take that position after years of raging on about cow slaughter but it was at his behest that the bill was put into cold storage after being passed by the Assembly. There was a BJP government at the Centre then and for several years afterwards nothing was done to secure presidential assent for the law till now.

While the Maharashtra government now bans the slaughter of even bulls, though not buffaloes, I wonder how long the ban will remain in place.

For, as one Sarvodaya activist told me, such bans only drive the trade underground, ''For it is not just beef and its exports that drive this trade''.

Vinoba Bhave's sarvodaya workers have been protesting for decades outside the Deonar abattoir, Asia's largest, to ban such slaughter for decades ''but leather exports from India are like trading in gold. Nothing pays better and India is the top exporter of leather in the whole world,'' Sarvodaya activists say.

The Deonar abattoir, moreover, is a saga of cruelty to young animals who are deliberately certified as non-economic to facilitate their slaughter. It all happens with the collusion of government officials since huge revenues are involved. "Nothing is going to change.''

After nearly four decades of futile protest, they should know.

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