Editorial 1/ Genial revolution
Cow to the slaughter
Letters to the Editor
The Telegraph Diary

 
 
EDITORIAL 1/ GENIAL REVOLUTION 
 
 
 
 
The book of life is now officially open for writing. It has been publicly declared that the human genome has been transcribed in all its mind boggling detail — 3.1 billion biochemical deoxyribonucleic acid letters making up some 100,000 genes that define the human species. The practical benefits in medicine and biology of this huge flood of knowledge will be some time in coming. What scientists have provided is a genetic alphabet. What now follows will be the crafting of a language, the composition of words, paragraphs and prose from which practical knowledge will flow. Biologists will have their hands full. The gene sequences stored at GenBank, an international repository, passed 2.5 billion last year. The number doubles every 14 months. The human genome project has added to this information overload. Ninety seven per cent of the human genome has been deciphered. But for scientists it is still gibberish.

The delay caused by this backlog may be a blessing. When the locomotive was invented, critics warned passengers would asphyxiate if carried at such speeds. Similar jeremiads have dogged every scientific and technical breakthrough in history. The human genome project, the most high profile manifestation of the knowhow revolution taking place in genetics and biotechnology, has been attracting fear and loathing ever since it was launched. Most such concerns are based on ignorance and delusion. Some of it derives from regulatory and legal systems that lag far behind biological advances. However, there is a widening gap between the common person and the scientist that is being exploited by environmentalists and other groups to spread their ideologies.

Clarification is needed the most on privacy. Most countries are unclear whether a person’s genome is governed by privacy laws. At present, an individual’s credit card history gets more protection than his genetic map. There have already been cases of employees being dismissed for having genetic pointers to certain diseases.

There is also confusion over gene patenting. It is hard to see why deciphering a gene sequence should afford a person a patent. Yet, those who spend time and money to crack DNA codes deserve some sort of reward. Protection would be best afforded to those who find uses and applications for gene knowledge.

Then there is germ line modification. As the human genome is unravelled, it will become easier to have designer offspring. This will be similar to amniocentesis which allows parents to abort a foetus if it is found to carry severe genetic disorders. In general, this should be treated as a private decision of parents. Germ line modification could mean eradicating thousands of crippling genetic disorders. One beneficial side effect — as skin or hair colour become matters of personal choice — would be to bury the myth of racism.

Some have worried about the rise of a genetic underclass. It is likely the initial benefits of genetic engineering will go to those who can afford such treatment. But price tags will fall. In 1987, it cost $ 150 million to track down the gene for cystic fibrosis. It costs $ 300 to sequence a gene today. Iceland has asked a private firm to produce gene maps for its entire population. These are likely to be the basis for a comprehensive and equitable public health programme.

Genetic information is value neutral. It is likely to be abused more because of ignorance than knowledge. There is a common delusion genes maketh the man. The truth is far more complicated. Genes interact with each other and with the environment in ways science does not understand. Talk of “cancer genes” is a gross oversimplification. Having such a gene will not necessarily lead to the disease. And a suitably carcinogenic lifestyle can spell cancer for those who lack the gene. The point is that genetics will not change the core human concerns of individual choice and diversity. The human genome is the foundation for a brave new biological world that will help human beings both expand and fulfil their potential.    


 
 
COW TO THE SLAUGHTER 
 
 
BY MUKUL KESAVAN
 
 
The Indian state is directed by the directive principles of the Indian Constitution to discourage the slaughter of draught and milch cattle. This is not legally binding upon the state but like all directive principles, the state is meant to enforce this principle over time.

In India this constitutionally mandated ban has been imposed in all but two states, the exceptions being Kerala and West Bengal. Recently there have been renewed calls for the prohibition of slaughter on the ground that Indian abattoirs inflict needless pain upon cattle. The accusation of cruelty has been most forcefully levelled by an animal rights group called People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals which has sponsored a campaign against the import of Indian leather goods in Western countries.

In response to this campaign, government officials have promised to more stringently enforce regulations forbidding the transport of cattle from one state to another. Generally north Indian cattle are trucked to Bengal where they are slaughtered. PETA finds the conditions of transportation appalling because by the time they reach the abattoir, many animals are half-dead because of exhaustion or injury.

The cause of banning cow slaughter has influential local sponsors too. The campaign against cow slaughter in India cites animal rights, cruelty to animals, the economic wellbeing of the rural Indian population, but it’s fair to say that these reasons are red herrings. Cow slaughter in India is taboo because of the religious sensibilities of the Hindus who variously worship the cow as Nandi or sentimentally and rhetorically think of female cattle as embodiments of nurture and therefore as mothers: gau mata.

Since the late 19th century, cow slaughter has been a political issue in India. The issue has been constantly agitated not just in isolated ways but as a national problem. During the Khilafat/Non-cooperation movement, M.K. Gandhi saw the institution of the Khilafat as the “Muslim Cow”! Indeed, he specifically asked his Khilafatist comrades to urge Muslims not to sacrifice cows. So the quid pro quo for non-Muslim support for the sultan of Turkey, the so called Khalifah, was a Muslim moratorium on the killing of cows. During the Twenties and the Thirties, there was a similar reciprocity of provocation: when Hindus asserted their unrestricted right to play music before mosques, Muslims held out for an unlimited right to slaughter cows.

The insertion of the directive principle on cow slaughter could not have happened if India had not been divided. It was a republican sop to Hindu sentiment, halfheartedly written into the Constitution. Jawaharlal Nehru, who personally opposed a ban on cow slaughter, indirectly conceded it by transferring the responsibility for imposing such a ban on state governments, and not the Centre. He tried to camouflage this capitulation to Hindu sentiment by directing that should such a ban be imposed by a state government, its justification should be on “rational” economic grounds, not on the grounds of wounded religious sensibility.

It is important to establish the real reason behind this particular directive principle so that we can focus on the rights and wrongs of it without being diverted into irrelevant discussion of the place of the cow in the wealth of India or the cruelty of abattoirs or the perils of red meat or the merits of vegetarianism. The substantial issues this directive principle raises are these: one, is it legitimate to restrict the rights of others to protect the sensibilities of a religious community, and two, does it become okay to do so when the community constitutes the overwhelming majority of the republic’s population?

To answer the first question, it is important to ask what the consistent application of this principle would entail. It would mean more prohibitions to start with. There is another directive principle which instructs the Indian state to enforce a ban on the sale and consumption of liquor, prohibition in the historical meaning of that word. Yet, unlike the near total prohibition of cow slaughter, the prohibition on the sale and consumption of alcohol has been durably enforced only in Gujarat.

Tamil Nadu was a dry state for many years but is not now and Andhra Pradesh, having courted populist feeling by imposing prohibition, has now backtracked. If a Muslim political party or a fundamentalist Islamic organization demanded prohibition on the ground that the Constitution mandates it, as does Islam, what answer would the Indian state give them? Alcohol is bad for you, women suffer terribly at the hands of alcoholic husbands (in states like Andhra, women have historically favoured prohibition), Islam, Gandhi and the Constitution are against it. There’s no argument that you can make for banning cow slaughter that you can’t make for prohibition.

To test this principle further let’s look at smoking in the context of bans. When J.S. Bhindranwale was alive and the writ of militants ran in towns like Amritsar and Patiala, newspapers reported that cigarette vendors and cigarette smokers were being terrorized into submission. A new Sikh puritanism was enforcing no-smoking zones upon Punjab’s citizens. Newspaper readers were indignant. But seen in the light of our principle, smoking is a better candidate for the directive principle treatment than either cow slaughter or prohibition. It is anti-social in that non-smokers are forced into breathing in smoke and we know now that passive or secondary smoking is dangerous. It deeply offends Sikh sensibilities and given the fact that non-smokers involuntarily inhale the smoke around them, Sikhs are everywhere provoked by that which is anathema to them and their faith. Yet we all know that a generalized ban on tobacco would create a storm of protest if it were imposed to protect Sikh sensibilities.

Interestingly, there have been restrictions placed on smoking by the Indian state. Smoking is forbidden in nearly all public buildings and public transport and in some cases, even in public parks like the Lodhi Gardens in Delhi. The prohibition is, in the main, respected. It is respected because smoking has been shown to be a global health hazard and the Indian state is seen to be acting out of concern for the wellbeing of its entire population and not the sensibilities of a fraction of it.

Secondly, the restrictions on smoking are successful because they are restrictions, not a total ban. Smoking is controlled by designating no-smoking areas, health warnings, public education and punitive taxation. The act isn’t criminalized or driven underground as has happened in Gujarat with drinking. There is no significant black-marketing of cigarettes and no tobacco mafia.

Cow slaughter, on the other hand, has been criminalized. When it occurs, it occurs in a hole-in-corner way. Even abattoirs in states where it is legal, like West Bengal, are often illegally supplied with cattle from other states because not only is slaughter forbidden in most states of the Indian Union, it is also illegal to transport cattle from these states to other states.

This law, solely designed to thwart the trade in beef cattle, does nothing of the kind. It becomes a bludgeon in the hands of a corrupt police force that uses it to wring gratuities out of the beef trade. In response to the PETA campaign a defensive Bharatiya Janata Party government declared that it would monitor more stringently the illegal transport of cattle. For the BJP this is a win-win situation: the party pleases its home constituency by going after butchers and beef traders who aren’t generally called Agrawal, Singh and Sharma, and the sangh parivar, for once, is seen to be on the same wavelength as the international community of the politically correct.

We have seen this before, this twinning of humane causes and human prejudice. The pioneer in this field is that mega-starlet Brigitte Bardot who hates Arabs and loves animals and has found the perfect platform for both passions by leading a campaign to protect French cows from the ministrations of halal butchers. In India this double act will play even better to a larger, more receptive audience given the Hindu attachment to cows and constitutional sanction of the directive principles.

It’s clear that the ban on cow slaughter cannot be justified by an appeal to religious sensibility simply because there are several different religious sensibilities which aren’t given the same consideration when it comes to their taboos and anathemas. What about the second justification, the brazen assertion that India is a Hindu country and that this overwhelming majority has a right to have its sensibilities deferred to by those who may not share its feelings?

This is a bad argument simply because it is a non-constitutional one. Nowhere in the Constitution is there any warrant for treating a community as preeminent or its preferences as overriding.

Could concerned Hindus argue that the cow is a mother for Hindus and her murder therefore is matricide? Or that the cow is a goddess and therefore her (or his) slaughter pains Hindus in a way that cannot be compared to the Muslim distaste for drinking or the Sikh rejection of smoking.

If a Hindu was to argue this, what answer would he have to Catholics who oppose abortion because they believe it is murder. By what reckoning do Hindus rank killing adult bovines as more offensive than killing foetuses in the womb? What kind of society is it where killing human foetuses is an undebated, taken-for-granted social good subsidized by the state, while killing cows is an evil that needs to be combated by the directive principles of the Indian Constitution and prevented at enormous expense by the police. The Indian state allows the destruction of human foetuses. It even subsidizes it. It allows foreign agencies like Marie Stopes to set up shop to perform abortions. Abortions are advertised in every street corner by doctors, qualified ones and quacks, and there is no controversy, outrage or provocation.

There is a real issue at stake here, the question whether destroying the foetus means taking human life. Catholics believe it does and as a result oppose the legalization of abortion. I believe it doesn’t and support the Indian government’s position. Civil society accepts state policy in the matter of abortion because it is seen to be in the interest of women generally. If, for religious reasons, the government was to take the opposite view, it would be properly criticized for letting religion muddy its thinking. There are Catholic states like Ireland that restrict abortion and there too, liberal and secular opinion has insisted that the state not intervene and that the matter be left to individual conscience. By the same argument the slaughter, sale and consumption of beef should be determined by individual choice not government prohibition.    


 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

When the harder way is easy

Sir — What could be more shocking than an advocate committing suicide for being sexually abused by her male superiors in office (“Sex abuse drives lawyer to death, June 29)? The excuse always has been that lack of awareness made women refrain from seeking legal recourse. But this incident shows that a woman who is aware of the nittygritty of the law too is reluctant to bring charges of sexual harassment. Indeed, Sangeeta Sharma was at a greater disadvantage because she knew how easily her professional superiors could have turned her charge against her, had she been courageous enough. Or should we simplify the issue by blaming Sharma for taking the easy way out?
Yours faithfully,
Aneeta Chaudhuri, Calcutta

Undress codes

Sir — It is no surprise that many people in Mumbai have tried to justify the “stripping” of two teenage girls in a crowded street (“Crossfire over dare-to-bare case”, June 26). But what these “liberals” fail to comprehend is that such actions would have a serious effect on women in the country, leading to more girls falling prey to the concupiscence of men. For years we have been trying to ape the West, and now have crossed the line that separates the basic codes of acceptable conduct from gross vulgarity.

Yours faithfully,
Arnab Banerjee, via email

Sir — Why does society have to encroach on individual rights and liberties only when it comes to issues like nudity and vulgarity, while in most other cases where individual liberty is violated it remains blissfully indifferent, even apathetic?

Yours faithfully,
Reshma Singh, Calcutta

Sir — There is nothing aesthetic about the act of undressing by two university students in a crowded Mumbai street to meet the challenge thrown by the popular television programme, V Dares You. The news report quotes a media person “philosophically” stating, “Even in undressing, they remain clothed.” But this is preposterous. Stripping in public is certainly not a way of expressing one’s philosophic bent.

The main objective of programmes like V Dares You is to lure people into some audacious acts against the payment of a sum of money. The more daring the acts are, the more they evince the moral bankruptcy of the modern lifestyle. The programme must either be withdrawn or the portions detrimental to society be edited out.

Yours faithfully,
Prajna Mitra, Calcutta

Where the slip showed

Sir — My eyes were drawn to a mistake in the last section of the article, “How best to divide the forest’s riches” (June 12), written by myself. In its published form, the first sentence of the last paragraph reads, “State governments should recognize the value of this act which enables easy acquisition of land by those interested in exploiting the resources of tribal regions.” In the original version, I had written, “State governments should recognize the value of this act and take all necessary steps to see that it is followed in letter and in spirit. There is a move to limit the power of the gram sabhas in this act to enable easy acquisition of land by parties interested in exploiting the resources of tribal regions for commercial purposes.”

The edited version does not do justice to the meaning of the sentence.

Yours faithfully,
Vidhya Das, Rayagada

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THE TELEGRAPH DIARY 
 
 
 
 

Man for all seasons

There are some whose most impressive feat is staying power. There are various techniques for this. Pranab Mukherjee has a knack of wearing different hats at the same time and in the process staying on — and on — in the limelight. As is to be expected, the going is not always smooth. There are various piquant situations. As the head of the media department, Pranab and his team were recently pulled up over their failure to nail the National Democratic Alliance on the Kashmir autonomy resolution and the Emergency anniversary. Never mind the small hitch. Pranab had the last laugh when he was appointed to the all India Congress committee’s high profile team on Kashmir which included Kashmir veterans like Karan Singh, Ghulam Nabi Azad, ML Fotedar and Mohammad Shafi Qureshi. That is not all. Pranab is also tipped to head the economic review panel. At the moment he is heading the AICC’s national training institute, the campaign committee, manifesto committee and is chief whip of Rajya Sabha. Quite a satisfactory number on the hatstand, wouldn’t you say?

Adios amigo, adios my friend

Strange occurrences take place when the political horizons get fuzzy. Not that such happenings always cause distress. For example, the appointment of the Sikkim Congress president, Karma Topden, as ambassador to Mongolia does not seem to have caused any embarrassment in the Congress. Ambika Soni, the all India Congress committee general secretary in charge of Sikkim, even saw this as a point of pride. She claimed that the National Democratic Alliance government was so bereft of talent that it was “requesting” Congressmen to represent the nation. According to her, Topden had called on Sonia Gandhi when the offer was made to him. “You decide, it is upto you,” was Sonia’s reported response to Topden. He has been the AICC chief’s personal friend since the time she and Rajiv Gandhi were going around in Cambridge.

Topden played host to AICC secretary Mukul Wasnik when he visited Gangtok to search for a successor to Topden. Everything said and done, it seems to have been a very cordial and clean parting. “It has not been as if Topden stabbed our back or something,” Soni said. Quite, all was fair and aboveboard.

What the stars forecast

The national minorities commission has taken strong exception to attempts to communalize the culture of Bollywood following the one-upmanship between Hrithik Roshan and Shah Rukh Khan. The NMC is upset with a story in the RSS mouthpiece, Panchajanya. This alleges that the Dubai based underworld mafia is helping Shah Rukh, Saif, Amir and Salman Khan and that there is a nexus.

According to the commission, nothing can be worse than communalism creeping into the Bollyworld. It has a distinguished secular tradition representing true pan-Indian nationalism. The usage of Hindustani, the ability to draw talent from all castes and religions and the acceptability of film stars without any consideration of caste and creed is something to be rejoiced in, a commission member said.

Through the lens of the Emergency

The commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the imposition of Emergency served as an occasion for several non-heroes to stake tall claims about their alleged exploits. The real heroes, however, preferred to stay away from the media-generated hype. In one Emergency-related programme on a television channel, Dinanath Mishra, a Bharatiya Janata Party member of the Rajya Sabha from Uttar Pradesh, boasted with a straight face that he had brought out the special edition of the then Jana Sangh daily, The Motherland, on June 26, 1975. The senior BJP leader, KR Malkani, who was on the same show, interrupted Mishra mid-sentence. “False, false,” said Malkani while the camera was on, and went on to name the journalist who had actually brought out the special supplement of the paper a few hours after the imposition of the Emergency. Malkani, incidentally, was the editor of The Motherland and was arrested on the night of June 25-26, 1975, and had remained in prison for 19 long months.

Tying up loose ends

Sonia Gandhi seems to be changing her attitude regarding tie-ups. Since coalition governments are the order of the day she is considering tying up with secular parties to keep the communal forces out of power. The Pachmarhi decision can no longer stand. She reportedly said she would like to tie up with Mamata Banerjee, but cannot do it as long as the West Bengal firebrand is tied to the BJP.

Senior BJP leaders are used to life in a commune. A large number were fulltime RSS pracharaks before becoming part of the BJP. When in New Delhi, like everyone else, they too need a roof over their heads. Till recently, the bungalow of the Union power minister, R Kumaramangalam, had served as the quarters for peripatetic senior BJP leaders. But after the recent elections, Ranga demanded he be allowed to live in his own official bungalow. So Arun Jaitley had the Ashoka Road bungalow allotted in his name and put it at the disposal of the party. Given the large number of people wanting to share it, the BJP leaders were keen to get another.

When Sushma Swaraj got elected to the Rajya Sabha from UP, party leaders hoped she would allow them to use the bungalow allotted to her. But she had other ideas. Her husband, Swaraj Kaushal, a Rajya Sabha member from Bansi Lal’s Haryana Vikas Party, was allotted an even plusher bungalow, and she had it changed to her name. And got her husband another bungalow so that Bansi Lal could use it. Now who’s self-serving?    

 

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