On May 22, Assam Governor Jagdish Mukhi announced in the assembly that a new legislation will be placed in the next session to ‘protect’ the cows in the state.
Addressing the inaugural session of the 15th Assam Legislative Assembly, Mukhi said, “We all revere and worship the cow. It is a sacred animal as it nurtures us with life-sustaining milk.”
Mukhi said cows are a symbol of the divine bounty of the Earth, and expressed happiness that the Assam government plans to introduce the Cow Protection Bill in the next session.
While Mukhi’s statement evoked mixed response – the opposition AIUDF feared that the proposed bill will encourage mob lynching like in the ‘cow belt’.
But, the BJP legislators supported the proposed Cow Protection Bill in chorus.
BJP legislators – Mrinal Saikia and Jayanta Malla Baruah spoke in favour of the proposed Cow Protection Bill.
Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said his government does not want beef to be consumed in places where cows are worshipped. He said people as a whole should leave their natural habits.
“There is no need for a Madina Hotel in Fancy Bazar or in Gandhibasti or Santipur as there is sensitivity. However, we can appeal to people to give up where there is no sensitivity,” Sarma said.
However, Himanta Biswa Sarma said the new Cow Protection law is not a blanket ban on cow slaughter. He claimed the new law is to simply stop the large-scale smuggling of cows from Assam, and stop inter-state movement of cattle.
As protecting the ‘Holy Cow’ or Gau-raksha is always an electoral issue in the cow-belt, there is huge ambiguity over the new Cow Protection Bill in Assam, and is sure to give rise to a series of discourses at different levels.
Though neither the Assam Governor, nor the BJP legislators cited any specific reason to introduce the new Cow Protection Bill, it is apparent that the move is primarily to establish a new set of values in the society.
Consumption of beef is not illegal in Assam, and the Assam Cattle Preservation Act, 1950 allows slaughter of cows above 14 years of age, with proper certificate by a veterinary officer.
Unlike the Hindus in the cow-belt, the majority Hindu Assamese population in Assam never felt it essential or ever demanded to bring a new legislation for cow protection.
After all, Assam is the ‘Land of Srimanta Sankardev and Azaan Fakir’. The two saints of medieval Assam were responsible for altering its socio-religious landscape, and the society always believed in the values of mutual respect.
Srimanta Sankardev inspired the Bhakti movement, while Azaan Fakir established Sufi Islam in Assam. The values and teachings of the two great preachers is the foundation of the socio-religious bonhomie between the Hindus and the Muslims in Assam.
It is evident that the move to introduce a new Cow Protection Bill will portray the new government as anti-Muslim, and will lay the foundation for a polarized society, which is definitely not ideal for a frontier state like Assam.
In addition to the issue of polarization, the proposed Cow Protection law will add new challenges for the government.
If the poor and marginalized farmers cannot sell their old, ailing and unproductive cows to the large-scale buyers from Meghalaya, Nagaland and Mizoram, they will be left with no other option but to abandon them.
It would be beyond the means of the poor farmers of Assam to continue to feed the unproductive animals.
Even now, there are several thousand stray cows spotted around the garbage landfill site at South Baragaon, at the outskirts of Guwahati city. The animals are seen scavenging on garbage and plastic wastes.
In states like Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh there are ban on slaughter of cows, and the state governments are struggling in controlling stray animals, especially on the national highways.
Farmers abandon the old, ailing and unproductive cows and buffaloes. The animals aimlessly wander on the streets, eating from garbage bins or paddy fields, and cause major road accidents almost every day.
Despite multiple government interventions, the problem persists in India’s cow-belt. The Gaushalas in the cow-belt don’t have resources to accommodate so many stray or abandoned animals.
The abandonment of cattle is unfortunate as they are quite an important resource, contributing to nutritional security and strengthening local livelihood.
India has more than five million stray cattle, as per the Livestock Census 2020, and the ban on slaughter in cow-belt has largely contributed to the problem of stray animals.
Setting up Gaushala across Assam to accommodate all the stray and abandoned cows, and funding them to sustain production of fodder, supply of feed and medicines is going to be a Herculean task for the cash-starved Assam government.
Though the Centre has been constantly supporting the Gaushalas under the Rashtriya Gokul Mission, most of the trusts running the shelter for cows are struggling because of acute financial constraints.
On October 22, last year, the Assam government had decided to fund Shree Guwahati Gaushala as the trust was finding it extremely difficult to feed about 1,300 cows it shelters.
Well known Assamese writer Mitra Phukan on Wednesday slammed chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma for the proposed Cow Protection Bill.
In a social media post Phukan said people of Assam did not vote for the BJP to bring about restrictions on beef-eating.
“We are not cow worshippers. Let people eat what they always have….,” she said, adding that the government has much more important issues to handle amid the pandemic.
Regulating food preferences is irrelevant and cruel, Phukan said.
Despite Assam Governor’s claim that cows are revered and worshipped; Assam, since independence, has performed poorly in milk production.
Contrary to the recommendations of the Indian Council Medical Research (ICMR), which is 208 ml per head per day, per capita per day milk consumption is only 74 ml in Assam.
The new Cow Protection law should be aimed at augmenting the productivity of the local non-descript cattle population of Assam, which always remained neglected because of its poor productivity.
Otherwise, the local cows will soon represent the bulk of the stray animals on the roads and garbage dumps in Assam.