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The Indian Supreme Court has upheld the suspension by a lower court of the ban on the trade of cattle for slaughter decreed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government in May this year. The Supreme Court's upholding of the suspension would prove a boost for the beef and leather industries, mostly run by Muslims who constitute a 14 percent minority in a country of 1.3 billion souls. The ban limited the trade in cattle to only agricultural purposes such as ploughing and dairy products, ostensibly to stop cruelty to animals, but widely perceived as a plank in the BJP's Hindutva agenda. This perception is lent weight by the absence of any similar measure by the government for any other animal. Modi had not long ago paid lip service to the growing disquiet against mob vigilante actions against cow slaughter or beef eating. However, his words have not had much effect as such incidents continue at the hands of violent Hindu mobs that consider the cow a sacred animal. Two such incidents have been reported since Modi intervened to condemn violence against people accused of cow slaughter or eating beef. India's diverse landscape in most matters is also replicated in the issue of cow slaughter and consuming beef. Cow slaughter is already banned in many states of India, but the Modi decree imposed a blanket ban throughout the country. The Supreme Court stressed the hardship the ban had inflicted, affecting livelihoods and curtailing the meat and leather industries worth sales of over $ 16 billion a year. The government assured the Supreme Court it would modify and reissue the May order. Speculation has it this could exclude water buffalo (not considered sacred), whose meat reportedly constitutes the bulk of India's 'beef' exports, which totalled 1.33 million tonnes worth $ 3.9 billion in the fiscal year ending March 31, 2017, as compared to 1.31 million tonnes the previous year. Petitioner Abdul Faheem Qureshi, head of the Muslim All India Jamiatul Quresh Action Committee, welcomed the Supreme Court's decision. So too did Tamil Nadu lawyer Ajmal Khan, representing the state's petitioners who were the first to challenge the ban, claiming it infringed their right to eat what they choose, a position that by now represents a flashpoint.

When the ban was imposed in May, there was an outcry in many states. Protests against the perceived over-reach by the BJP followed. Many states where cattle slaughter is legal vowed to fight the decree. Both before and after the decree, allegations of cow slaughter and beef consumption against Muslims and other minorities triggered murders and violent reprisals. An estimated 28 people have been killed by mob vigilante violence on the issue since 2010. The matter goes to the heart of the conflict between the secular ideals of the leaders of India's independence struggle and the communal saffron brigade that has sought over the years to replace both that leadership and its aspirations with its own narrow and bigoted worldview. One manifestation of this conflict was the reaction by some states soon after the ban when they organised beef festivals while counter-rallies by the BJP adorned cows with flowers. This represents nothing short of a struggle over the soul of India, a conflict with many overlays of history and the potential for widespread violence going forward. The Hindutva wallas will have to decide whether they want to preside over a majority Hindu state that acknowledges and upholds the rights of minorities or plunge ahead into the maelstrom of trying to carve out a 'pure' Hindu society. The former course would reflect wisdom and realism, the latter an invitation to bloodshed sooner or later. India's secular, liberal, enlightened forces are already out on the streets in protest at the cow slaughter 'pogrom' in motion. It is for wiser heads in the BJP to wake up to the ground realities of a diverse, multi-religious, multi-cultural India before they unleash a holocaust that would not spare them or their future either.



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