Asia-Pacific, Headlines

INDIA: Opposition to Cow Slaughter Bill Undercuts Pro-Hindu Agenda

Ranjit Devraj

NEW DELHI, Aug 22 2003 (IPS) - The failure by India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to muster support from its allies for a controversial bill aimed at a nationwide ban on the slaughter of cows is a sign of these supporters’ larger opposition to the government’s pro-Hindu policies.

For more than five years the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), totalling 20 big and small regional parties, put up with the ruling BJP’s pro-Hindu agenda that included everything from re-writing school textbooks to attempts at building a temple on the site where Hindu fanatics destroyed, 10 years ago, a mediaeval mosque at Ayodhya town in northern Uttar Pradesh. Although they do not see eye-to-eye on many issues, the BJP and its allies need each other to stay in power.

On Tuesday, they stood together firmly to fight off a no-confidence motion brought against the government of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee by the opposition led by the Congress party. But it was a different story on Thursday when the BJP sought to introduce a bill to ”provide for effective measures for the prevention of cruelty to cows” by banning its slaughter in this majority-Hindu country. The cow is sacred to many Hindus, but is equally viewed as a cheap source of protein by other Hindus and by others.

To its embarrassment, the BJP found its own allies, led by the powerful Telugu Desam Party (TDP), more vocal in opposing the bill than the opposition. The TDP, which rules southern Andhra Pradesh state, has never flinched from criticising the BJP’s policies and was particularly bitter about the handling of an anti-Muslim pogrom unleashed by the BJP-led government in western Gujarat state last year.

Yet it has continued to ensure the survival of the Vajpayee government to protect its own interests. What has really kept the coalition together is a common fear that the BJP shares with the regional parties: the monolithic Congress party that led the country to independence from colonial rule in 1947 and ruled it for most of the succeeding years. Though out of power at the centre for more than seven years now, the Congress party directly rules 15 of India’s states. It has been favoured by many political analysts to make a comeback in the next general elections and is capitalising on a carefully cultivated ‘secular’ image. This has made the allies anxious not to be seen as associating with pro-Hindu causes dear to the BJP, prompting them to be uncharacteristically vociferous against a bill banning the slaughter of cows. Chandrababu Naidu, who leads the TDP and is chief minister of southern Andhra Pradesh state, said laws meant for the protection of the cow or any other animal were best left to be decided upon by the legislatures of the individual states. ”Besides, we were never consulted,” said Naidu, a powerful regional leader who has been pushing the idea of greater federalism for India’s ethnically and linguistically diverse states. ”If this bill is passed, nearly 1.5 million tannery workers will lose their jobs and millions of dollars earned through the export of leather goods will be lost,” said M Karunanidhi, leader of the DMK party and former chief minister of southern Tamil Nadu state. Karunanidhi has already made several public warnings that the DMK would quit the NDA if the BJP persisted with its ‘communal’ policies and strayed from the set ‘common minimum programme’ of the coalition. Predictably, the greatest opposition to the bill came from the Congress party and its allies in a grand ‘secular’ opposition that is gradually being given shape to put up a united front against the BJP-led NDA in elections which are due by September next year. The polls, however, can be called earlier. Kerala state, where religious minorities, including Christians and Muslims, make up half of the population, cannot afford to ban beef. The state’s Chief Minister A K Antony has made opposition to the bill clear. Similarly, the Marxists who rule West Bengal have the support of the opposition Trinamul Party when it comes to beef, which seems to be popular among large sections of the people in the state. ”There are serious economic implications to banning cow slaughter,” said Mamta Banerjee leader of the Trinamul Congress, an ally of the BJP. The leader of the Muslim League, G M Banatwalla, dismissed the whole bill as an election gimmick and pointed out that beef was food not only for Muslims and other minorities but also large sections of Hindus. ”Parliament, in fact, does not have the right to pass such a law which is in the state domain,” said Satyavrat Chaturvedi, spokesman for the Congress party. ”India is a nation of diversity,” he added. This is not for the first time that BJP allies have found themselves on the same side of the Congress party, the Communists and other professedly secular parties. For example, they have opposed plans by the BJP to introduce a uniform civil code (UCC) or common personal laws for all of India’s one billion people regardless of faith and age-old customs and practices. Shabana Azmi, the well-known actress and member of Parliament, said there was a real need for personal laws that were friendly to women of all religions. ”But any change in existing laws can only be effected after intense discussions and consultations.” The inability and even reluctance of the BJP to push through pro-Hindu laws have brought upon it the wrath of fundamentalist organisations that have greatly contributed to its rise to power from being an obscure party barely a decade ago. In recent times, there have been calls for the resignation of Vajpayee, considered to be a moderate in the BJP, by such affiliate organisations as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) or World Hindu Forum, which masterminded the demolition of the Babri Masjid mosque at Ayodhya and has been pushing for the building of a grand temple on the disputed site. Vajpayee’s greatest success has been an ability to strike a balance between fundamentalists within his BJP and secular-minded allies within the NDA. He is said to prefer letting his government continue until September 2004, when he would have completed six-and-a-half years in power – a record for a coalition government.

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