Well-known anthropologist Verrier Elwin once wrote, "The humble cow stood between the tribes in the Northeast and Hinduism," adding that he would not have known the cow would become such an important issue.
The Supreme Court's order upholding the 1994 policy of the Gujarat Government banning cow slaughter on October 26, could not have a been better timed. The seven-judge bench led by Chief Justice RC Lahoti maintained that the ban was in the public interest.
However, banning the slaughter of cows will also violate two Fundamental Rights enshrined in the Constitution: The freedom to live at the place of one's choice (Article 21) and the right to carry on any occupation, trade or business (Article 19(1)(g)).
Thus, this prohibition, if we go by a strict interpretation of the Constitution, indulges in satisfying the interest of a particular section in India's multi-cultural, multi-religious society which is against the principle of secularism.
Cow slaughter should not be seen only through a legal perspective, as it involves religious, political as well as economic implications. Political parties have been searching for a way to balance the interest of those who worship cows and those who consume them.
Therefore, the recent decision of the court has put them in dilemma on whether to support the ban or to go against it. If they are for a ban then it will surely dent their Muslim as well as Christian vote-bank. And if they show their unwillingness for the ban, then they would hurt the sentiments of millions of Hindus.
Barring a few Hindu organisations like the VHP and the Bajrang Dal - and to some extent the BJP - no other political party supports the ban, at least not vocally.
Seen from an economic perspective, the proposed ban will severely hit the leather industry, which employs some 2.5 million people across the country. Annually it earns $1.8 billion from exports. There are nearly 4,000 tanneries that employ over 2.5 million people, nearly a third of them women.
According to data available, while 60 per cent of the raw hide for the leather industry comes from slaughtered animals, 30 per cent coem from 'fallen animals' and 10 per cent from imports. The demand for Indian leather in the international market is also quite high. Besides, beef in our country costs less than half the price of lamb or chicken. It is the preferred source of first-class protein for the poor, who constitute a majority of India's population.
An important reason, which has created a schism between those who support the ban and those who don't, is a flawed belief that cow slaughter was started in India by foreign invaders (read Muslims) during the Middle Ages.
Scholars believe that the demand for a ban on cow slaughter began as late as 19th century, which was then a popular tool of mass political mobilisation. However, historical as well as contemporary accounts reveal that animal sacrifice, including slaughter of cows, was a prescribed ritual in many Indian traditions. To what extent these were followed will not be known.
The principle of secularism has its own share of problems, and since it is part of the Constitution, one cannot shy away from the many predicaments which are bound to arise. The need is to carefully draft a policy which provides for an organised, humane method of transporting and slaughtering the animals.