Consuming, selling or possessing beef in Maharashtra is not illegal if the meat is from outside the state, the Bombay high court ruled on Friday but upheld a ban on slaughter of cows, bulls and bullocks.
The court struck down two provisions of a controversial slaughter ban law that prohibited the import of beef and criminalised its possession, saying the statutes violate the right to privacy and choice of food guaranteed under the Constitution.
“The state cannot intrude into his home and prevent a citizen from possessing and eating food of his choice,” said a division bench of justice Abhay Oka and justice SC Gupte.
“The state cannot prevent a citizen from possessing and consuming a particular type of food which is not injurious to health or obnoxious.”
The Maharashtra government said it will seek legal opinion on challenging the order as officials said permitting beef from outside the state made it difficult for enforcing agencies to prove a crime.
“We will consult our legal advisors and decide the next step. We are considering the option to approach the Supreme Court,” said chief minister Devendra Fadanvis.
Last year, the BJP state government extended a 1976 law that banned cow slaughter and beef possession to bulls and bullocks, making sale or consumption punishable with a five-year jail term and Rs. 10,000 fine.
This triggered a fierce debate on rising intolerance and freedom of choice with activists saying the ban unfairly targeted Muslims – the biggest players in the beef industry and violated constitutional rights.
Petitioner Harish Jagtiani said restaurants will be allowed to sell imported beef again and that the court ruled in favour of people’s right to eat the food they want, “wherever they want”.
“We’re thrilled. It’s a total vindication,” Jagtiani said.
The bench said section 5D of the Maharashtra Animal Preservation Act, 1976 that prohibited cow, bull or bullock meat possession infringed on a citizen’s rights.
“The state cannot control what a citizen does in his house, which is his own castle, provided he is not doing something contrary to law,” said the bench. The court also said the section had no rational nexus with the object sought to be achieved– to protect cow and progeny from slaughtering within Mahharashtra.
The court also scrapped section 9B that criminalised beef possession, saying only conscious possession of cow, bull or bullock meat – procured from Maharashtra – will invite penal action. The burden of proving this would be on the state and not on the individual, the court said.
“As far as the choice of food was concerned, the citizens were required to be let alone especially when the food of their choice was not injurious to health,” the judges said.
Both provisions were added by a 1995 amendment – brought in by the then Shiv Sena-BJP government -- and enforced 20 years later – in March 2015.
Senior state animal husbandry department officials said the government will have to completely evolve the system if it doesn’t challenge the verdict.
“Anyone can claim the flesh was brought from outside the state and proving the crime will become a tough task,” said a senior official.
The reverse burden of proof might also create hurdles for the police, home department officials said.
The bench upheld provisions extending the slaughter ban to bulls and bullocks primarily in view of the fact that the Supreme Court upheld the validity of a similar Gujarat law.
It also considered the material supplied by Maharashtra to prove its argument that the ban was necessary to sustain the predominantly agriculture economy of the state.
The bench also turned down petitioners who said the ban infringed on the religious rights of Muslims guaranteed under the Constitution. The challenge said poor Muslims --who cannot afford goats – sacrifice bulls, cow or bullocks during Bakr-i-Eid. But the court ruled that such sacrifice wasn’t an essential religious practice of Islam, citing a Supreme Court bench that ruled the same.
Since the BJP stormed to power in the Lok Sabha elections two years ago, cow slaughter has emerged as a hot button topic.
Several Hindu groups and BJP leaders demand a nationwide ban on cow slaughter, citing scriptures that describe the cow as the “mother” of civilisation. But activists and Opposition say the proposed ban is used by the ruling party to fan communal feelings for electoral benefit.
In the past two years, Hindus and Muslims clashed repeatedly over suspected incidents of bovine slaughter with vigilante cow protection groups mushrooming all over north India.
The simmering tensions exploded last year when Mohammad Ikhlaq was lynched by a mob in Uttar Pradesh after rumours spread that he killed a calf for its meat.
(With agency inputs)