Protests have erupted in many places against the Indian government's ban on sale of cattle for slaughter. Many say the new order violates the basic right of people to choose what they eat. Murali Krishnan reports.
Days after India's federal government imposed a nationwide ban on the sale and purchase of cattle for slaughter, the Madras High Court in the southern state of Tamil Nadu stepped in to suspend the order for four weeks. It further asked Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party-led government to give reasons as to why its order should not be scrapped.
The petitioners, both residents of the southern city of Madurai, argued the new rules should be canceled as the provisions went against the Constitution, "breached the cardinal principle of federalism" and was against the fundamental rights of citizens.
In another development, the High Court in the northern state of Rajasthan on Wednesday recommended that the cow should be declared the national animal of India and also suggested that punishment for cow slaughter should be raised from the current three years imprisonment to a life term.
They highlight how the cow has been thrown into the center of Indian politics.
Last week, the Indian government passed new rules that buyers and sellers at cattle markets or animal fairs will have to pledge in writing that the animals, which are considered holy by many Hindus, will not be slaughtered for food or any other purpose. The regulation covers bulls, bullocks, cows, buffalos, steers, heifers and calves, as well as camels.
The issue has snowballed into a national controversy, prompting criticism from some state governments and meat exporters.
Anger has been palpable in some southern and northeastern Indian states, where beef and buffalo meat is a common delicacy. The states of Kerala, West Bengal, Meghalaya and Puducherry, which allowed cow slaughter, have said they will resist the ban.
In Kerala, protesters slaughtered an ox in public over the weekend, triggering outrage and counter demonstrations by BJP activists where cows were adorned with flowers. Over 300 beef festivals have also been held across the state.
Even at the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology in Tamil Nadu's capital Chennai, around 80 students participated in a "beef fest."
"It is anti-federal, anti-democratic and an anti-secular move. This is nothing but an attempt to usurp power from the state governments. We will oppose it completely," said Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan. He has written to all non-BJP ruled states to oppose the ban.
His West Bengal counterpart, Mamata Banerjee, was equally vociferous describing the move as "arbitrary" and an attempt to "encroach into state power."
Impact on business
Some states have also criticized the ban as a blow to beef and leather exports that will leave hundreds of thousands jobless and deprive millions of Christians, Muslims and poor Hindus of a cheap source of protein.
The Indian cattle market is estimated to be a $4 billion industry that employs over 2.2 million people and the move is expected to have a major impact on world beef and leather markets.
The controversial ruling hampers India's supply of beef and leather. India is the world's second-largest producer of footwear and leather garments and sold $13 billion worth of goods last year - nearly half to clients abroad who are growing skittish, industry groups say.
"The move will not only hurt farmers and put many out of work. It will also impact industries like food processing and leather," Fauzan Alavi, spokesperson for the All India Meat and Livestock Exporters Association, told DW.
Businesses say the latest decree ran counter to Modi's goal of creating jobs and luring foreign investment, and said retailers could look next door if the disruption continued. Neighboring Bangladesh and Pakistan - both major garment producers - are mainly Muslim and cow slaughter is not an issue there.
Move to placate conservatives
The ban was welcomed by animal protection bodies and organizations running cow shelters.
Many view the ban on the slaughter and sale of cattle in Hindu-majority India as a move by the government to appease Hindu conservatives. Many Hindus regard the cow as a sacred animal, and since the Hindu nationalist BJP came to power in 2014, many states have actively started enforcing bans on slaughter.
A vigilante campaign against beef consumption and those suspected of smuggling cows has led to the killing of many Muslims and lower caste Dalits in a number of states.
According to international NGO Human Right Watch, vigilante campaigns against beef consumption have led to the killing of at least 10 Muslims, including a 12-year-old boy since May 2015. Scores more have been injured in seven separate incidents of mob violence.
In July 2016, in the western state of Gujarat, vigilantes stripped four Dalit men, tied them to a car, and beat them with sticks and belts over suspicions of cow slaughter. In a number of cases, the attackers have also robbed their victims of cash and cellphones, and damaged their property.
And last month, a mob brutally attacked five members of a nomad cattle-herding family in Jammu, including a 9-year-old girl, on suspicion that they were taking their cows for slaughter.
Following the volley of protests and the plethora of angry representations it has received, the government may modify its ruling and rethink a new regulation banning cattle trade for slaughter.