By Ila Ananya
“First and foremost, it is about the right to food.”
Activist and lawyer S Selvagomathy from Madurai is adamant when she says this. She has just spent the day dealing with a case on education for girls, and it’s already late evening when we talk. “I’m on the field,” she’d said mysteriously when I first called her, “children’s issue.” For the rest of the day, she didn’t respond to my frantic messages, except to tell me not to mistake her unresponsiveness, and that she’ll call me.
We finally talk only the next day, when the Kerala Assembly unanimously passed a motion against the Centre’s outrageous 23rd May notification of the ‘Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Regulation of Livestock Markets) Rules, 2017’. Only O Rajagopal, from the BJP, opposed the motion. It was also a little more than a week after she got the Madras High Court to stay the Centre’s notification for four weeks. Rule 22 of the notification placed bizarre restrictions on the sale of cattle, and 45-year-old Selvagomathy’s petition has become a model, setting aside personal beliefs (she’s a strict vegetarian), to preserve diverse opinion.
“The petition is also about the right to profession; not only of farmers, but of everybody connected to the cattle industry,” she says. After telling me she’s more comfortable talking in Tamil (“You don’t understand even a little bit?” she asks), she rattles off a list of other rights — right to life and worship — that the new livestock rules infringe on. And as always, the harshest effect is on religious minorities, and Dalits; people she has worked with closely, particularly in cases of bonded labour and women’s rights.
Selvagomathy, the managing trustee of Justice Shivaraj V Patil Foundation for Social Legal Education and Development, Madurai, is one of the two lesser known characters among the many, many players in the beef ban story. She grew up in Tirunelveli, where her father worked in a bank, and studied law in Salem.
On the other side of this rather highly-charged fence, is well-known animal rights activist Gauri Maulekhi, who works for the NGO, People for Animals, and is advisor to Union Minister Maneka Gandhi. It was Maulekhi’s 2014 Supreme Court petition against the cruelty involved in smuggling cattle into Nepal for the Gadhimai festival (where she says more than five lakh animals are sacrificed in a day), that formed the basis of the government’s new notification.
Now, Maulekhi and Selvagomathy represent two positions on this escalating and polarised debate. When they’re placed side by side, it seems like there is neither common ground, nor a solution. And perhaps there shouldn’t be.
There have been many protests and a lot of violence since the Centre’s notification came out — beef festivals were held across Kerala, where youth Congress members reportedly slaughtered a cow on the road. On 30th May, a student from the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, was assaulted by right-wing students after he organised a beef eating festival on campus. In Bangalore, students outside Town Hall were detained by the police for trying to organise a protest against “cultural fascism”, while members of the Hindu Jagarana Vedike attacked members of the Student Federation of India (SFI) and Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI).
“The misfortune of this country is that people just don’t read,” Gauri Maulekhi says when I first talk to her. She sounds irritated. “There’s not a single place in this notification that says that cattle cannot be slaughtered.” Instead, Maulekhi says, “These rules just say that if you have cattle to be slaughtered, take them to a legitimate place. Sell it to whoever you want to sell it to, just don’t bring it to a livestock market — the livestock market is only for legitimate agricultural use,” she says.
According to the notification, anybody selling cattle to an animal market must have a letter from the owner stating the cow isn’t for slaughter. And when someone buys cattle from the market, they need to promise they aren’t buying it for slaughter.
What has annoyed Maulekhi is the media’s “misreporting,” harping unapologetically about a cattle slaughter ban soon after the notification. She’s referring both to the media, and what she calls the protesters “parading up and down slaughtering cows” when she says that nobody reads, repeating exasperatedly that a beef ban is really just “a wild stretch of the imagination”.
Perhaps it’s because we are talking about her work, but Maulekhi is more relaxed and less on guard the second time I speak to her. She’s been closely involved in developing a birth control programme for stray dogs, and campaigns against keeping elephants captive. But for Maulekhi, animal sacrifice (which is indirectly the beginning of this beef story too), has always mattered deeply. It started before the Gadhimai petition in 2014, when she’d filed another petition against animal slaughter in the Uttarakhand High Court. Uttarakhand is home, she says, and back in 2011, she’d won that case too, getting a ban on animal sacrifice in all religious places across the state.
Maulekhi’s clearly-stated arguments about the new regulations — to check animal cruelty, illegal sales, and smuggling of cattle across the border into Nepal and Bangladesh — have the potential to make you feel doubtful. Like you haven’t actually read the Centre’s notifications closely enough.
Her reasoning is that it took the Centre (which she says has “done everything right”), two years to come up with these rules after the SC approved of her 2014 petition and its committee’s draft regulations. She believes the rest is meaningless politicisation with no basis: “If the Opposition really has run out of ideas to show the BJP down, they should just work harder, because this was a silly one,” Maulekhi says.
People in Chennai say that on 4th June, their Facebook newsfeeds were filled with everybody repeating the same quote from Selvagomathy’s interview with Economic Times. “Yes, I am a pure vegetarian. If someone came and forced me to eat an egg, I will not be able to eat it. It would be an act of violence. But I felt that telling non-vegetarians that they cannot eat certain kinds of meat is equally a violation of their rights,” she had said. She talks as passionately about this as she talks about opening centres for women who’ve survived domestic violence where they’ll find everything under one roof — legal and police aid, medical assistance, and counselling.
This “I’m a vegetarian but…” quote from Selvagomathy’s interview became a big part of enthusiastic, fully-fed-up-with-the-government -type social media statuses, but when we speak, she hasn’t seen them yet. Like the people sharing her interview, she says insistently that, “The government’s agenda is to ban cow slaughter.” It’s swift and indirect — everyone, from families who can’t afford to eat other meat, farmers who don’t have the resources to take care of old cattle (which they usually sell to buy new productive cows), to those involved in buffalo meat export (primarily Muslims), will be affected by this rule.
The guise of an animal cruelty debate has been co-opted to push larger casteist and anti-minority beliefs of the government. As translator and columnist Ravi Shanker recently wrote, this ban has been “cleverly done in a way that would make Chanakya proud”. He says it’s the same “cleverness” that went into overdrive even back in 1950, when people involved in the Constituent Assembly deliberations tried to make the ban on cow slaughter a fundamental right (and as he says, of whom, is not clear). It was Ambedkar who’d ensured it was made one of the Directive Principles as compromise.
Shouldn’t the government’s argument be seen in the light of the beef bans and the violent fall out in various states across the country? From numerous horrifying examples of Dalit and Muslim men being killed by self-proclaimed gau rakshaks when they simply transported beef (and the Una incident when they were violently beaten for skinning a dead cow), we know that it isn’t as easy as changing the rules. Maulekhi’s response to this is almost too smooth. “I don’t condone any kind of violence in the name of cattle,” she says. Then she adds, “Certain political fringe people are going to do naughty business; that is their problem, but we object.” Except, it isn’t just “naughty business”, and the government’s objection has never come through.
Even the most recent plea in the SC, filed by petitioner Mohammed Abdul Faheem Qureshi, challenging the government’s notification, has pointed this out too — that the new rules will lead to more instances of violence against minorities in the name of ‘saving cows’, which has disturbingly become a legitimate reason for violence.
So where do we go from here? Is the controversy dying down? Maulekhi believes it is, because people have now read the rules. “How much can three out of 36 states [and Union Territories] do?” she asks, adding confidently that the Centre is strong enough to deal with such pressure. “After all, they brought in demonetisation, which is much more inconvenient to many more people, but it was for the greater good,” she says. We actually don’t have any documentation or data to prove that demonetisation did any good, with actual data on it still coming in.
Selvagomathy laughs and says we can’t expect anything of the government’s new U-turn about seriously considering people’s recommendations about the rules. She says she is going to fight until this rule is amended because the new cattle slaughter notification does nothing for the ‘greater good’ either — there’s no end in sight, but there’s no compromise either.