The author is professor of philosophy and of law and governance, Jawaharlal Nehru University
As the dynamics of politics makes it almost inevitable that the precedent set by some states in banning cow slaughter will gain momentum, this sensitive issue raises questions of the highest moral, political and constitutional delicacy. Although they should be of no consequence for the purposes of public reason, the shamelessness of our times obliges anyone writing on these issues to come clean on their personal beliefs. This author shares many of the high sentiments associated with the cow: I have been a vegetarian all my life and would probably prefer to live in a world where animal slaughter was not as thoughtless and ubiquitous as it currently is. If I were to inadvertently eat meat, I would probably, like most Hindus, experience more angst if I came to know I had eaten beef. I think enhancement of cattle wealth is a good value for society to hold. I can even see the logic in Gandhi’s claim that revering cows might be a good manifestation of a commitment of reverence towards all life. In short: I can see why the sacredness of cows ought to be of value. But I don’t think acknowledging its sacredness, or even the fact that it is associated with the sentiments of a vast majority, is sufficient reason for banning cow slaughter.
There are many reasons why the fact that even the majority might regard the cow as sacred does not give sufficient argument for the state to ban cow slaughter. First, we have to admit, that the banning of cow slaughter is a partisan religious argument. There is a lot more integrity to an argument that would ban all animal slaughter on some principled ground concerning the interests of animals. But no society in human history has even come close to accepting that proposition. If we are therefore singling the cow out for protection, it can be only be because treating the cow as sacred is part of particular religious traditions. But that fact alone should put into doubt the legitimacy of using state power to impose a ban.
We could admit that we are in no position to really take seriously the reverence for all life forms literally. But that should not be an argument against taking one small step in this direction by protecting cows. This argument is disingenuous on two counts. First, the claim of reverence towards all life forms is difficult to take in anything other than a rhetorical manner. No one, even all the pious Jains I know, seriously professes it. That reverence would involve changing the basis of civilization to an extent unimaginable.
And second, it is downright duplicitous to suggest that the choice of a cow as the animal to protect is motivated by a reverence for all life. It is, in the context of our lifestyles and other beliefs, nothing but an expression of a religious identity. Is it an accident that we are talking just about cows' We have all the rights to express this identity, spend as much on serving cows as we want, buy out every cow that is a candidate for slaughter. We have a right to appeal to others to voluntarily desist from cow slaughter or to abstain from beef. What we do not have the right to do is enforce this identity using the coercive power of the state.
We need to make a couple of things gracelessly clear. The fact that the religious sentiments of a community are at stake is not a sufficient argument to squelch the project of creating a free and equal society. If I accept a ban on cow slaughter I will have nothing to say to many members of the Muslim personal law board who continue to appeal to religious sentiments to deny many of their own constituents the right to equal citizenship. I will not be able to say anything when people demand a ban on artistic creativity in the name of community sentiment. I will not be able to say anything to those who resist freedom and equality in the name of identity, ideology or religion. Accepting a ban on cow slaughter is accepting the fact that religious sentiment is sufficient warrant to invoke state power. That is a frightening prospect. Whatever its function as a short term palliative, in the long run it will jeopardize liberty and justice alike.
Second, living with difference requires a reluctance to use state power even in the service of many values that one thinks are of the highest importance. For one thing, the applications of state power, in some instances, diminish the moral worth of the action at stake. It is one thing to conscientiously recognize the value of cows; it is another to simply think we have fulfilled our moral duties on the cheap by getting the state to ban cow slaughter. Given the character of the parties that are yelping the loudest on behalf of the ban, it is hard not to associate the demand for banning cow slaughter with an insidious moral hypocrisy. It is very unlikely that what is at stake in the current demands is the interests of a cow as a being, rather than as a symbol of identity. If we were serious about the interests of the cow we would probably be better off ridding this country of the scourge of plastic bags that kills more cows than we care to admit. Gandhi was right in thinking that go raksha smacks too much of pride; we could instead concentrate on go seva, which does not necessarily require the interposition of state power.
Living with difference requires a recognition that not all the things that we hold sacred are universally held to be such. All calls for state power being used on behalf of that sacred value ought to take cognizance of this fact. A closed society, or a fundamentalist one, is distinguished by just this feature: it takes religious sacredness to be a sufficient argument to invoke state power, independent of considerations of individual liberty or what it means to treat citizens as equal.
We ought to protect not just the rights of those who do not share our beliefs; if someone feels alienated enough from their own traditions to lapse into eating beef, they also have the right to do so. And frankly, given the rank brutality of so much Hindu society towards many of its own members it is difficult to think that what we are witnessing is a sudden outpouring of genuine morality. Given the political ascendancy of Hindutva, determined to recast this nation on the basis of a politics of resentment, it is also difficult to think that we are also witnessing an outpouring of genuine piety.
Gandhi was right in thinking “there is no service or protection of the cow in trying to save her by force”. The invocation of state power does just that. If we value the cow as sacred, we ought to do the utmost for its welfare, mindful of one simple fact: that some individuals may not share our views. To call for a Central ban on cow slaughter is to cave in to fundamentalism. At the very least, leave the matter to the states. And in this point in our history, drawing the distinction between fundamentalism and civilization, between individual rights and collective narcissism, between values freely professed and coercively imposed is probably our most important political obligation. Bans, of any kind, based on religious sentiments negate that obligation.