Prime Minister Narendra Modi feeds cows at Garwaghat Ashram in Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh state on March 6, while campaigning for the state elections. His BJP party is accused of promoting cow protection for political advancement. (Photo by IANS)
Cow slaughter is the pet theme of India's pro-Hindu politics with one state making it an offence punishable by life in prison and, in another, activists beating to death a Muslim man for taking them to the abattoir.
The Gujarat government in western India recently amended its law against cow slaughter, making it an offence punishable with a life term like homicide. Activists said it is political gimmick ahead of state elections in November and has no relation with orthodox Hinduism's reverence for the animal.
Vijay Rupani, who heads the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government as its chief minister said in the legislative assembly that his party wants to turn the state "vegetarian" setting the tenor for the party's political campaign this year.
Pehlu Khan, a Muslim, died on April 5 from injuries sustained three days earlier when he and 14 others were beaten after they were accused of transporting cows for slaughter in Rajasthan state. The attack came from vigilante groups who protect the animal they consider sacred.
The slaughtering of cows and selling beef is either restricted or banned by law in most Indian states as some 80 percent of India's 1.2 billion people are Hindu and the majority consider it taboo to eat or even touch beef.
However, beef is a cheap source of protein for Muslims and Christians who together form 20 percent of the population as well as tribal and Dalit people. Championing the cause of the cow helps the BJP consolidate Hindu votes, according to secularists and rights activist.
The revised law in Gujarat is "nothing but a political gimmick to garner votes and divide communities," said Jesuit Father Jimmy Dabbhi, a social activist.
The amendment makes bail difficult and increases the jail term from a minimum 10 years to a life term of 14 years in jail. The previous maximum jail term was seven. The fine has also been increased ten times to 500,000 rupees (some US$8,330).
If the state's aim was welfare and social betterment, "there are many things that need to be banned or controlled but it is not happening. They are not interested at all," the Father Dabbhi said stressing that political power was the only aim.
Introducing the amendment, state's Home Minister Pradeepsinh Jadeja said he "felt proud as Hindu" and the amendment reflects the "feeling of millions of Indians."
A law prohibiting cow slaughter has existed in Gujarat since 1954. But just before the 2011 elections, India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was then the chief minister of Gujarat state, amended it and criminalized the transportation of cows and increased the fine.
"Once again, it is election time in Gujarat so the cow is to be protected and an emotionally charged atmosphere is created to reap electoral dividends. This is what this new law is all about," Father Dabbhi said.
If the government was really worried about cow slaughter, they would have "clamped down on illegal slaughter houses but they miserably failed to do that," said Hemant Shah, a rights activist and economics professor at Gujarat University.
An easy path to a Hindu agenda
A senior BJP leader, requesting anonymity, told ucanews.com that cow protection was part the larger "agenda of Sangh Parivar (a family of Hindu nationalist groups)" as they aimed to recreate India a based on high-caste Hindu systems and social norms.
However, India is still a secular country and the law could be challenged legally. Muslim leader Sufi Anwar Hussein Shaikh said the amendment could be challenged in court because it violates fundamental rights. "No one can impose what one should or should not eat," he said.
Pushing for cow protection is preparing the party for both the Gujarat election this year and for the 2019 national elections, he said. "Hindutva (Hindu hegemony) is the open agenda of the ruling BJP. Nothing new about it. The party wants an emotive issue to consolidate Hindu votes ahead of elections," Shaikh added.
The law has, as expected, enthused Hindus who work for cow protection.
Manzil Nanavati, a well-known activist for cow protection told ucanews.com that the changes in the law were welcome and wanted the government to implement it quickly.
Rajesh Shah, who runs an organization to protect cows in Gujarat, said the changes would be an effective deterrent. Shah claims to have rescued over 10,000 cattle from slaughter between 1998 and 2011.
Vijay Thakar a Hindu leader, felt that the changes were not enough. "We will have to awaken the society. Cows have been worshipped for centuries in this part of the world. It is time to declare the cow a national animal," he told ucanews.com.