Stuck in a moo-mentThe irony is unmissable. For the BJP, the cow is now a millstone around its neck
One of the limitations of any ideology that whips up fervour based on an emotional response is how it translates into policy decisions. Often, one finds politicians coming up with hare-brained schemes that at best have no correlation with policy impact, and at worse, upend an entire system that had been running smoothly and required a more measured intervention. Consider Trump’s calls for a wall across the US-Mexico border: during his campaign Trump promised to make Mexico pay for the wall, a highly emotive call that pleased his more conservative voters. Now, it turns out, Trump is demanding $5 billion from his own government to build the wall amid a partial federal shutdown that could derail the entire US government.
Closer home, there’s another calculation based on a emotion that has gone awry. Yogi Adityanath, the current chief minister of UP, has now imposed a 0.5 percent ‘gau kalyan’ (cow welfare) cess on liquor and road toll charges, ‘besides doubling an existing 1 per cent levy on the incomes of wholesale produce markets’. In conjunction to this cess, he has also ordered his officials to move all stray cattle to cow shelters by 10 January. These are in line with other measures taken by the central and UP governments to protect cows under the Narendra Modi government. In 2017, it was declared that cattle could no longer be traded for slaughter across India. Second, the Adityanath government began a crackdown on illegal slaughterhouses across the state. Third, there have been several lynchings and beatings in the past four years by self-styled ‘gau rakshaks’ that have generated an aura of fear among those who wish to dispose of their cattle, so much so that there are few who will risk transporting even buffaloes, ‘over whose slaughter there is no restriction’.
The obvious response by BJP supporters will be that these policies are intended to rein in cow slaughter, which some Hindus consider sacred. But it may well be that cows, which played a role in bringing the BJP to power in 2014 with such massive numbers, may well be responsible for not allowing a second term victory for Modi – or at the very least, contribute towards a decline in north India’s rural seats.
Cud have, should have
In the wake of the ban on cattle slaughter and fear of gau-rakshaks, the Indian farmer is resorting to another means of disposing of his unproductive cattle: they are simply letting them loose. Consider the news reports that have appeared in the last week alone. A group of desperate villagers in western UP tried to convince a dairy owner to accept a truckload of stray cattle. But the dairy refused, saying they already had 2,500 stray cattle to take care of. Another report highlighted how farmers in UP are staying up all night to protect their winter crops from raiding cattle. A frustrated farmer told the Indian Express reporter that they’ve so far chased the cattle with sticks, but soon it may not be so. ‘Ab kya hum bandook uthayen (So do we take up guns now)?’ he asked. And the state police has now lodged complaints against 30 individuals for ‘herding stray cattle inside a government school’ in Shahjahanpur.
Towards the Indo-Nepal border that straddles Dudhwa and Bardiya national parks respectively, UP farmers have come up with another novel solution: abandoning the stray cattle in Nepal’s jungles. A Down to Earth magazine investigation into the practice said residents of Semri village in Sitapur district ‘collected Rs 37,000 from households, hired 22 tractors and loaded 255 stray cattle into them’ in April this year. ‘All of them wielded weapons to meet any untoward incidents… the cattle were abandoned in the Katarniaghat Wildlife Sanctuary’ between Dudhwa and Bardia, the report said. After a fracas with locals, in which more than a dozen people were injured, a train came and ran over 30 cattle.
The investigation suggested this was not a stray incident, and has occurred in other border districts such as Bahraich, Sravasti and Khiri. A local BJP cadre gave the reasoning that abandoning the cattle in Nepal ‘doesn’t create tension among villages and the animals are left safe as Nepal is a Hindu nation’.
Apart from the diplomatic tensions that could arise (and the basic error that Nepal remains a Hindu nation) and the sheer idiocy in letting loose domesticated cattle in a protected area (with resultant diseases threatening endangered animals), the investigation gives us deep insight into a monumental policy failure that was based on religious emotion and little else. Several commentators here have noted how the ban on cattle slaughter has destroyed a delicate symbiotic relationship between Hindu farmers who wished to get rid of their unproductive cattle and Muslim butchers and leather workers who bought the cattle. ‘The “Hindu” farmer never had any issue with the “Muslim” butcher. The latter was actually doing a service by taking his unproductive animal and even paying him Rs5,000-10,000 that could, in turn, be used to part-finance a new milch cow for Rs 25,000-30,000,’ journalist Harish Damodaran has written. The many lynchings since 2014 have broken down Hindu-Muslim communal amity in these regions. The ban on illegal slaughterhouses has affected the legal meat processing and export industry equally, with few incentives to transport even unproductive buffaloes—buffalo meat accounted for INR26,000 crores in exports—because of the fear from cow vigilantes.
Elsewhere, Damodaran has explained the Adityanath government’s feeble attempts at developing ‘cow shelters’ for abandoned cattle. At the most, the government shelters can house 6-7 lakh cattle. ‘As against this, [UP]’s total cattle population in 2012 was 19.55 million, of which at least two million were surplus. Now, if even half of these aren’t allowed to die, about a million animals would be added annually and will have to be kept in gaushalas till they are 14-15 years old.’ The Adityanath government is, in other words, trying to stop a flood with a bandage.
Such reports are not unique to UP alone. In Maharashtra, where a BJP government introduced a beef ban in early 2015—and where an agrarian crisis has been in the making for years—farmers are ‘desperate to sell their cattle to raise some money’, but the ban has made it nigh impossible to find buyers. In Madhya Pradesh, farmers ‘simply chase [stray cattle] from one field to another’, leading to tensions. So it is in Rajasthan, where ‘cattle have simply vanished from the village’s landscape’. The entire livestock economy, which contributes 26 percent to the agricultural sector in India, is now in the doldrums.
The irony is unmissable. For the BJP, the cow is now a millstone around its neck. If it drops the slaughter ban, its core Hindu upper-caste voters will accuse it of giving in to revisionism. If it does not, its rural voters may vote against it. This, combined with the several other reasons for disaffection among India’s voters, means that the next few months will be critical for Modi and his army of cheerleaders.
No holy cows
The lessons from India’s cow slaughter ban are there for all of us to see. In Nepal’s case, it holds a mirror to society, and to policy-making. Apart from the consequences of more unproductive cows from UP being abandoned in Nepal’s jungles, the impact of the ban on rural economies is something very few policy experts would have thought about. But the fallout—and the likelihood that the ban will impact rural voters in India’s most populous state—also tells us that policies formed without adequate research and based on voter sentiment can trigger butterfly effects detrimental not just to society, but also to a ruling party’s prospects. There’s also a consideration here about the limitations of religious or nationalistic chauvinism: when it’s a choice, the voter may discard ideology for livelihood.
Ethno-nationalist ideologies—like BJP’s Hindutva, Trump’s white nationalism or Oli’s Pahadi nationalism—propose to serve a particular majority’s interests based on their emotive appeal and have worked spectacularly well in electoral democracies. Such ideologies are excellent for whipping up fervour and getting one elected. But when the time comes to rule, populism may not be the best route to policy. In India’s case, it’s the cow that’s telling us so.
Mulmi tweets at @amish973