Why Mahatma Gandhi Was Right to Oppose a Ban on Cow Slaughter

October 14, 2015 • Commentary
This article appeared in Economic Times (India) on October 14, 2015.

The BJP is trying to appropriate Mahatma Gandhi’s legacy. In many speeches, including the Madison Square Garden jamboree last year, Narendra Modi praised Gandhi and his ideals. The Swachh Bharat campaign is inspired by Gandhi’s emphasis on sanitation.

So, in the current beef controversy, Modi should ask, what did Gandhi say on cow slaughter? My friend Suman Dubey says the answer is available in Gandhi’s prayer discourse of July 25, 1947, from the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Volume 88, published online by the Gandhi Heritage Portal.

In this discourse, Gandhi mentions that Rajendra Prasad, future president of India, has received tens of thousands of letters demanding a ban on cow slaughter, and his own response is unambiguous. “In India, no law can be made to ban cow slaughter. I do not doubt that Hindus are forbidden the slaughter of cows. I have been long pledged to serve the cow. But how can my religion also be the religion of the rest of the Indians? It will mean coercion against those Indians who are not Hindus.

Holding on to their beliefs: Madan Mohan Malviya with Gandhi

“We have been shouting from the housetops that there will be no coercion in the matter of religion. We have been reciting verses from the Koran at the prayer (meetings). But if anyone were to force me to recite the verses I would not like it. How can I force anyone not to slaughter cows unless he is himself so disposed? It is not as if there are only Hindus in the Indian Union. There are Muslims, Parsis, Christians and other religious groups here. The assumption of the Hindus that India now has become the land of the Hindus is erroneous. India belongs to all who live here.”

Gandhi gets to very heart of the matter. India is not a Hindu nation. What makes India unique is its vast diversity, multiplicity of peoples and tolerance. I have personally received hate mail from Hindu fanatics asking how I can advocate beef‐​eating when Saudi Arabia bans pork. My reply is that I take the greatest pride in asserting that we are far superior to Saudi Arabia, and must not go down the Saudi path by banning beef.

Break Laws, Not Skulls

To drive home the enormity of Hindus imposing their practices on non‐​Hindus, Gandhi asks, “If we stop cow slaughter by law here, and the very reverse happens in Pakistan, what will be the result? Suppose they say Hindus would not be allowed to visit temples because it was against Shariat to worship idols. I see God even in a stone but how do I harm others by this belief ? If, therefore, I am stopped from visiting temples, I would still visit them.”

This is a straightforward call to revolt against unjust laws, to worship idols even if forbidden by law. In this passage, Gandhi asserts categorically that laws imposing the religious practice of the majority on the minority should be broken by the minority. If he were alive today, he would, in similar vein, say that if various Indian states have banned cow slaughter, then non‐​Hindus should break such unjust bans. He might be shot again for this. But it would be his stance.

The principle he enunciates on idol worship applies equally to cow slaughter. He makes no distinction (as some politicians do) between allowing beef consumption and allowing cow slaughter — they go together. Yet, many states have banned cow slaughter, even though beef consumption is legal.

Ironically, despite its Islamist zealotry and discrimination against Hindus, Pakistan has not banned them from praying to stone images that Islam abhors. In this respect, Pakistan has shown greater religious tolerance than India has in regard to cow slaughter. Gandhi urged in this 1947 discourse that the Indian Constitution must not ban cow slaughter. But he died long before the Constitution was finalised, and that document, alas, included a directive principle, with many caveats, aiming for a ban on cow slaughter.

This empowered several Congress‐​ruled states, all paying lip service to Gandhian ideals, to pass laws against cow slaughter. None of them has listened to what the Mahatma said. Many have banned cow slaughter to please Hindus and then winked at illegal slaughter to please Muslims, the sort of chicanery that Gandhi castigated. To seriously appropriate Gandhi’s legacy, Modi should announce next Gandhi Jayanti that he will follow the Mahatma’s principles on cow slaughter. Some will laugh at this as impossible, saying the RSS is fanatically against any tolerance or compromise. That is not true.

Goa is the Goal

Manohar Parrikar, Union defence minister and former Goa chief minister, is the most likely successor to Narendra Modi. Parrikar has been a loyal RSS man all his life.

Yet, he and his successor as Goa chief minister, Lakshmikant Parsekar, have said Goa will never ban beef since it’s wrong to interfere in people’s eating habits, and the Christians constituting 38% of Goa’s population have always eaten beef. The same principle needs to be extended to all states of India.

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