A day before Bihar votes for final phase of the electrifying assembly elections, an advertisement issued by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) showing a woman hugging a holy cow has become the talk of the town. The BJP advertisement was carried by several newspapers, which highlighted some of the controversial comments on beef row made by the allies of ‘Mahagathbandhan’ – an alliance floated by the Janata Dal (United), Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and Congress. The advertisement questions JD (U) leader and Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s silence over the controversial remarks made by his alliance partners. Over the years, a majority of Indian states, including the New Delhi area, have passed controversial slaughter laws.
The animal is known by Hindus as “Kamdhenu”, that which fulfils human needs, and it has a central place in religious rituals as well as free rein to roam in streets — scenes familiar to anyone who has visited India. Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is the driving force behind the spread and hardening of cow rights legislation across the country. Critics say the law deliberately targets Muslims, who tend to be the butchers, fuelling religious tensions that explode periodically in India with deadly consequences. Early this year, violence erupted in the hilly state of Himachal Pradesh when a Muslim butcher killed a cow in a fit of rage after it had failed to give milk for more than three years. Indian Hindu pilgrims feed a cow at Sangam, the confluence of the Ganges, Yamuna and Saraswati rivers, in Allahabad.
Amidst outrage over the lynching of a 50-year-old Muslim man in Uttar Pradesh over allegedly eating beef, RJD president Lalu Prasad had said ”Hindus too eat beef ”and accused BJP and RSS of communalising the issue. Another RJD leader Raghuvansh Prasad Singh had kicked up a political storm by saying that in Vedas it is mentioned that ‘rishis’ and ‘maharishis’ used to consume beef. Amidst controversies and uproar around beef ban, Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah recently said, “I will eat beef now. Who are you to question me? Though I’ve not consumed beef till now, I will do it now. It’s my right.” Meanwhile, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, who has openly advocated for Nitish Kumar, tweeted: “Have these ads in Bihar been given by BJP’s fringe elements? Or by BJP top brass?” Life for 42-year-old Ashok Malik, a hardline Hindu activist who lives on the outskirts of New Delhi, is dedicated to one cause: stopping the slaughter of cows. Malik’s cow protection team of 30 men is trained to chase trucks transporting cows and raid slaughter houses with the police to nab those selling beef in the Indian capital. The law allows police to search houses, shops and warehouses and arrest anyone who stores, sells or consumes beef from Indian cows. Offenders face jail terms of up to seven years and fines of Rs. 50,000.
At the end of July, the state of Madhya Pradesh passed an amendment to a Cow Slaughter Act 2004, so that offenders should also face a jail term rather than just a fine. The issue of cow care and protection has often dominated state politics owing to patronage from the BJP, which relies on the votes of Hindus for its main support. Every year, young BJP workers are chosen to be a part of the Gau Raksha Samiti (Cow Protection Committee), where they are trained to gather information about butcheries and conduct surprise raids.
The biggest losers in this mix of politics, religion and animal rights are India’s 300 million Muslims, one of the country’s most economically deprived groups. Official reports frequently put Muslims at the bottom of India’s social and economic ladder — beneath even low-caste “untouchable” Hindus. They tend to be the butchers, meat traders and leather workers for whom the ban has the biggest impact. At a later stage, the concept of worshipping the cow was introduced by several rulers and temples to save the animals, which were vital to provide milk for communities. Despite the ban on slaughter, beef is still available to those with the right contacts and it can be eaten legally if it is imported from abroad from a previously slaughtered animal. Cow protection activists, however, project a very different economics.
Let’s come back to Bihar and Cow politics, the Election Commission has directed political parties not to publish ads in newspapers without its approval in Bihar. This is the first time in the history of the poll panel that it is pre-censoring political ads. It also means that any ad that has not been submitted to the Election Commission for clearance cannot be published on Thursday, the crucial last and final day of polling before votes are counted on Sunday in the bitterly fought Bihar assembly election. The Election Commission had last week issued a strongly-worded advisory asking the chief electoral officer of Bihar to ensure that two controversial BJP ads were not published till the election process was over. One attacked RJD chief Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar on reservation, the other on vote-bank politics. The Grand Alliance had complained about both. The fifth and the final phase today will see voting in 57 of Bihar’s 243 constituencies. Let’s see how this last attempt of BJP casts it magic over voters.