Jawaharlal Nehru and the Danish Minister for Agriculture, Karl Skytte at the Lidebjerggard cow farm, Demark, in June 1957. (Photograph: Photo Division/Government of India)

Why Nehru Fought The Cow Slaughter Ban

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Broadly speaking, there was no blanket prohibition on cow slaughter in British India, except during World War-II when wartime shortages necessitated a ban on killing useful cattle. During much of the colonial period, Muslims were told by the law that they could slaughter cows provided that they did so in a walled enclosure, away from the gaze of Hindus, and discreetly, without much fanfare. Jawaharlal Nehru intended to keep things that way. However, he fought a losing battle within his own party over this question.

Why Nehru Fought The Cow Slaughter Ban

In 1938, Nehru wrote a letter to Muhammad Ali Jinnah, and said that there had “been a great deal of entirely false and unfounded propaganda against the Congress suggesting that the Congress was going to stop [cow slaughter] forcibly by legislation.” He assured Jinnah that the Congress did “not wish to undertake any legislative action in this matter to restrict the established rights of the Muslims.” Jinnah, on the other hand, told a foreign journalist that Muslims in India had “no – and I repeat, no – sympathies with the Hindu”, because “We eat the cow, the Hindu worships it.” “We cannot live together”, he added.

In a speech in July 1947, Mahatma Gandhi said that a law banning cow slaughter would “mean coercion against those Indians who are not Hindus.”

India did not consist only of Hindus, he said, but also “Muslims, Parsis, Christians and other religious groups”. “I shall therefore suggest”, he said, “that the matter should not be pressed in the Constituent Assembly.” “Pakistan may be said to belong to Muslims”, he said, “but the Indian Union belongs to all.”

However, on August 7, 1947, a few weeks before Indian independence, Rajendra Prasad wrote a letter to Nehru in which he said that he had received around 164,000 “postcards, letters, packets and telegrams [demanding] that cow slaughter should be stopped by legislation.” The agitation, he said, had “reached practically all Provinces and very large numbers of people.” “The Hindu sentiment in favour of cow protection is old, widespread and deep-seated”, he wrote. “I think that the matter does require consideration”, he concluded.

 Rajendra Prasad shaking hands with Jawaharlal Nehru. (Photograph: NMML/Government of India)
Rajendra Prasad shaking hands with Jawaharlal Nehru. (Photograph: NMML/Government of India)

Nehru, however, was skeptical about this. In a letter to Prasad that same day, he wrote that while nobody could “possibly doubt the widespread Hindu sentiment in favour of cow protection”, there was “something slightly spurious about the present agitation”. He believed that Seth Ramakrishna Dalmia, a Hindu industrialist, was behind the agitation. “Dalmia’s money is flowing and Dalmia is not exactly a desirable person”, he wrote. Nehru also said that the question of cow slaughter went to the very heart of whether India should be thought of “as a composite country or as a Hindu country.”

Nehru felt that while cow slaughter could be banned if there were economic justifications for doing so, it could not be done “purely on grounds of Hindu sentiment”.

He wrote that he felt “greatly distressed” by the “Hindu revivalist feeling in the country at the present moment”. In a moment of self-doubt, Nehru added that he considered himself “a poor representative of many of our people today” on account of his views on cow slaughter, and that he “felt honestly that it might be better for a truer representative to take my place”, for that “would do away with the unnaturalness and artificiality of the present position.”

Jawaharlal Nehru in the Constituent Assembly with Rajendra Prasad and Vallabhbhai Patel. (Photograph: NMML/Government of India)
Jawaharlal Nehru in the Constituent Assembly with Rajendra Prasad and Vallabhbhai Patel. (Photograph: NMML/Government of India)

However, despite the objections of Nehru and Gandhi over legislation banning cow slaughter, two members of the Constituent Assembly, Pandit Thakur Dass Bhargava and Seth Govind Das, succeeded in introducing Article 48 into the Constitution – a directive principle of state policy calling on a ban on cow slaughter. Both argued that this would benefit India’s economy. Thereafter, Das prepared a draft to amend the Indian Penal Code seeking to make cow slaughter a criminal offence.

In September 1951, Nehru wrote a letter to Das and said that many members of the Cabinet believed that the amendment “was opposed to the letter and spirit of our Constitution.”

Not to be outdone, in July 1952, Das introduced a private member bill in the Lok Sabha to ban cow slaughter in India. Nehru vehemently opposed the bill on two grounds. Firstly, because the Attorney General of India, MC Setalvad, had advised the government—and even addressed the Lok Sabha on this question—that a central law banning cow slaughter was beyond the competence of Parliament. Secondly, Nehru believed that the bill would not achieve its object. “I am prepared to resign from [the] Prime Ministership but I will not give in”, he said. He called the cow protection agitation “futile, silly [and] ridiculous”, and said that the government would “stand or fall on this and not give in because of agitation of this kind on this point.”

 Jawaharlal Nehru being showed a cow shelter during his Gujarat visit on Feb 12-13, 1949. (Photograph: NMML/Government of India)
Jawaharlal Nehru being showed a cow shelter during his Gujarat visit on Feb 12-13, 1949. (Photograph: NMML/Government of India)

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The Congress issued a whip and the bill lost by a vote of 95-13. Nehru later explained to Purushottam Das Tandon (who had ignored the whip) that the bill would also have caused problems for the government in the “North-East Frontier Hills and the Tribal Areas”, where one of the slogans that were being raised against the government was that cow slaughter was going to be prohibited by law.

Against Prime Minister Nehru’s better instincts, Congress governments in a few states thereafter enacted laws banning cow slaughter. According to Granville Austin, the ban was extended to much of the country during the Prime Ministership of Indira Gandhi, Nehru’s daughter, who introduced the word “secular” into the preamble to the Constitution. This was despite the secular ideals of leaders like Gandhi and Nehru, who did not believe in enacting legislation to ban cow slaughter, though they might have believed in protecting the cow. Cow slaughter in some form is now banned in a majority of states in India.

Abhinav Chandrachud is an advocate at the Bombay High Court.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Bloomberg Quint or its editorial team.