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Uproar over new law to ban beef in Indian state

Coalition of Muslims, Christians and Hindu farmers threatens to mount protest if bill is approved by the governor of Karnataka.

KOLKATA // A coalition of local Muslims, Christians, civil-rights activists and a Hindu-dominated organisation of farmers has warned that it will mount statewide protests if the state government enacts a law barring the slaughter of cows. Opponents say the legislation is "anti-poor, anti-farmer and anti-democratic", The controversial Karnataka Prevention of Slaughter and Preservation of Cattle Bill was passed by the state assembly in March and by the state's Legislative Council over fierce opposition last week. The Karnataka governor, HR Bhardwaj, has not said whether he will approve the bill.

Along with prohibiting the slaughter of cows in the state, the bill bans the sale, use and even possession of beef. It also places restrictions on the transportation of cattle and prohibits the sale, purchase or disposal of cattle for slaughter. Under the proposed law, offenders could be punished with prison sentences ranging from one to seven years or fined between 25,000 rupees (Dh1,951) and 50,000 rupees, or both.

"Beef is eaten not just by Muslims and Christians. Dalits and tribals are also eating beef. What the government is trying to impose is nothing but an attack on the food habits of the poor and the downtrodden," said Mavalli Shankar, the president of the low-caste Hindu Struggle Society, which is organising protests against the bill. Rev Manohar Chandra Prasad, leader of the Church of South India, said: "If the bill becomes a law, eating beef will be illegal in the state. Then, if any Christian is found eating beef, he will be charged not only by police, but also be targeted by Hindu militants who consider cow holy... Hindu militants have violently attacked many Christians on false charges of conversion and have vandalised churches in the past. Now for the 'offence' of eating beef Christians can be attacked again."

Before the BJP came to power in Karnataka, it had promised to bring in a stricter anti-cow slaughter law and effectively ban consumption of beef. As soon as the party formed the government in the state in 2008, it began preparations for such a law. The Karnataka Prevention of Cow Slaughter and Cattle Preservation Act of 1964, which failed to stop slaughtering of the cows or consumption of beef, was repealed earlier this year and the new bill introduced in the state assembly.

Protests against the bill have picked up steam in recent months. On June 28, in Bangalore more than a dozen groups, including the Rajya Raitha Sangha (state farmer organisation), Komu Souharda Vedike (Communal Amity Forum), the Dalit Sangharsha Samiti, which fights for the rights of Dalits, and the Beef Merchants Association organised a rally that drew 20,000 people. U R Ananthmurthy, an acclaimed Kannad author and professor, who tore up a copy of the bill during the protest, said the legislation was communally motivated. It would make criminals out of ordinary Muslims and Christians, and would put farmers in distress because they would not be able to sell off their cattle, he said.

"If the bill is implemented old and used cattle of the farmers would have no takers and it would cause a great imbalance. Cutting across religious lines people should come forward to oppose the bill, which is an interference in the dietary habits of people," he said on national television. Another Jnanpith-winning Kannad writer, playwright and actor Girish Karnad, said that the BJP-led government was operating with a Hindutva agenda threatening the poor, uneducated and minority communities.

"The government is not talking about protecting cattle out of compassion, but it is rather part of the BJP's hidden anti-minority agenda," Karnad said. M Venkatswami, chief of the Samatha Sainik Dal, said that the state would see more demonstrations if the government did not shelve the "anti-constitutional" bill. "Dalits, backward castes, Muslims, Christians, farmers, writers and intellectuals have united in protest against this draconian bill. Ours is a powerful front. We shall not rest until we see this anti-people bill scrapped," Mr Venkatswami said.

Karnataka Siddaramaiah, the opposition leader of the Congress Party, said: "The bill is against the secular character of the constitution and it can be enacted only in Hitler's regime, not in a democracy. It forces non-vegetarians to become vegetarians ... If beef vanishes from the shops, the price of mutton would shoot up to four-fold, to 1,000 rupees. It will severely impact cost of living and food problems will increase."

But Karnataka's home minister, V S Acharya, said that the latest bill was "in tune with the sentiments of the majority [Hindu] community" and the government was prepared to deal with the protests. Sunil Dugar, a member of the local government's Public Distribution System Committee, added that the proposed law against cow slaughter and consumption of beef would be pushed through "at any cost". "Only mercy killing of the cattle would be permitted. There will be a total ban on slaughter and consumption of the cattle," Mr Dugar said.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae