The sweeping victory in the Assembly elections brought out a more hideous side of the Himanta Biswa Sarma led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Assam. The precarity of the people in one of the poorest states in the country and the big canvas of the suspension of almost all liberties of citizenship as a result of the pandemic is being used to a ‘T’ by the newly saffronised brigade. Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma’s outcry and his standing with a more vigilante state rather than human rights and constitutional values of the country don’t bode very well for the state. The motor-mouthed head of the state has come up with statements of ‘full operational liberty’ to the police department, constantly decrying human rights and the question of life and liberty, that would make any free society cringe with despair.
In this context, the troika of cow, drugs, and women are used to drive the narrative home for the saffron brigade. The safety and protection of women and children, and a society free of drug abuse is something no one considers trivial. There have been specific laws, policies, and institutions for redressal. But to equate the three and see it in the same lines is what leaves the stench and stain over the milieu of Hindutva politics in Assam.
The cow politics has cost the country dear and it has seen many crimes of lynching, extreme mob violence, and vigilantism and Assam also has contributed handsomely to the tally. Who could forget the lynching of Pehlu Khan in Rajasthan or the case of mob vigilantism on Shaukat Ali forcefully fed pork for selling beef in an eatery in the Biswanath town of Assam?
The Cattle Preservation Act, 1950 did exist in its earlier avatar from the 1950s which too had the welfare of the ‘Gau Mata’ at its centre but that did not seem enough for the ideologically Hindutva brigade. They had to come up with a dispute with the older version with charges of incumbency, thus, resultantly the pro version- the Assam Cattle Preservation Bill, 2021. As per earlier statements, ‘Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma had said in June that the proposed legislation would ban the movement of cattle to and from the State, primarily to check smuggling to Bangladesh. He had also told the Assembly that beef should not be consumed in areas where Hindus live’. Even in the currently conducted assembly session where the Bill is being tabled, the chief’s tone is firm and clear that BEEF aka cow will be protected synonymously to women and children. The chief has not taken much time to make a complete about-turn from the anti-Modi crusader in his glory days as Congress minister of Assam to becoming the Poster Boy of the BJP and its Hindutva agenda.
Now should there be an iota of doubt where the act hurts the most, why has there been criticism from the opposition, neighbouring states, and civil society? The farmers and tribals fear losing their right to food and livelihood, the minorities fear even more; some aspects that blare out like daylight are:
Arbitrary powers to the police personnel & legitimisation of vigilantism
The power to enter, inspect, search, seizure, and detain is granted to police officials of sub-inspector rank and above, veterinary officials, and any other state-assigned official under Sec. 11 of the Act. Apart from policing, the dangers of vigilantism are also encouraged. Sec. 18 of the proposed Bill provides legal immunity to persons ‘acting in good faith’ for acts done with ‘good intention’ to uphold the Bill. These specified provisions combined with the Chief Minister’s repeated claim of zero tolerance towards crimes related to cattle trade, transportation, and consumption, can only lead to an instigated mob mentality. Moreover, the act (under Sec. 15) also allows public display of photographs and names of persons considered an ‘offender’ which could be misused by vigilantes affiliated to RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) and other Hindutva forces.
Control on food habits & religious polarisation
In a state known for its predominantly tribal, and Adivasi or tea garden working population, there’s a very diverse array of cattle in the palate as food. The Bill certainly impeaches their fundamental right to food. The targeted population of Minorities comprises approx. 34% Muslims and almost 4% Christians and Buddhists (as per the 2011 census) here become the direct victims of this communal Act. Sec. 8 talks about a five kilometres radius prohibition on any slaughter or beef trade around Hindu or Vaishnavite sites of worship. This is even the butt of the joke in the assembly where the opposition humorously said how will this radius be defined when every stone and tree in this country becomes a temple. The Bill is certainly poised to achieve its agenda of forceful integration of tribes to the dominant Hindutva values and ethos by controlling the choices of food and livelihood. Curtailing the right to food, livelihood and cultural-religious rights of the minority population would definitely lend a major blow to the possibility of building any syncretic Assamese nationality in the state.
For profit of a few at the cost of actual herders and farmers
Sec. 7 introduces tedious permit & certification processes with the looming threat of penalty and jail terms in cases of transportation and exceptional cases of slaughter. The Assam chief minister has reiterated ‘zero tolerance’ on any form of cattle transportation within and outside the state. The complete autocracy of the NEDA (Northeast Democratic Alliance, BJP+) chief, in this case, is noteworthy when all its neighbours are beef and beef products consuming states. Conrad Sangma, the neighbourhood Meghalaya chief minister expressed his apprehension over the Bill which could affect the economy and availability of food in his state. This provision of ‘license raj’ on all the cattle-related trade aspects controlled by the state clearly indicates the monopolisation of the multi-million beef and cattle market economy. The majority of the cattle rearing in the state is done by the peasants and tribal communities as means to assist in their agricultural activities and aid in their economic sustenance. The complete control and criminalisation through this Bill would be a catastrophe for these marginalized population groups. The political-economic reading definitely points to the disincentivisation of cattle rearing by peasants which would usher in the age of big monopoly cattle ranches where neither the local breed nor the local herders are significant.
In this context, the palate of the cow is definitely going to create a storm in the region’s social and economic edifice. However much they try to camouflage the Bill under the directive principle 48 encouraging state endeavours, “to organise agriculture and animal husbandry on modern and scientific lines” and take steps for preserving and improving the breeds and prohibiting the slaughter of cattle; certain provisions of the Bill are in complete contrast to the liberty of food choices part of article 21 of constitution i.e., right to live- a fundamental right. While constitutionally the directive principles cannot override the fundamental rights, in a state where rule of law is being increasingly overshadowed by the rulers, it is definitely doubtful. Assam is a nascent BJP state and the haste of its chief Himanta Biswa Sarma to appease the masters is turning out to be a disastrous recipe. Maybe, he heeds the warning by the father of the Indian constitution, Dr B. R. Ambedkar, “’Bhakti’ in religion may be a road to the salvation of the soul. But in politics, ‘Bhakti’ or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship.” May the chief minister uphold his frequent quotes of Jyoti-Bishnu (Jyoti Prasad Agarwala and Bishnu Prasad Rabha), whose ideas of progressive, syncretic Assamese nationalism is not delved in narrow sectarian objectives but the building of a beautiful Assam.
Devyani Borkataki is a community activist who also works in the field of rehabilitation care for mental health conditions. Pranab Doley is an activist. Views expressed are personal.