One of the limitations of any ideology that whips up fervour based on an emotional response is how it translates into policy decisions.
Often, one finds politicians coming up with hare-brained schemes that, at best, have no correlation with policy impact, and, at worse, upend an entire system that had been running smoothly and required a more measured intervention.
Consider the predicament in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh (UP).
Yogi Adityanath, the current chief minister of UP, has recently imposed a 0.5 per cent “gau kalyan” (cow welfare) tax on liquor and road toll charges, besides doubling an existing 1 per cent levy on the incomes of wholesale produce markets.
He also ordered his officials to move all stray cattle to cow shelters by January 10.
These are in line with other measures to protect cows under the Narendra Modi government.
In 2017, it was declared that cattle could no longer be traded for slaughter across India. Second, the Adityanath government began a crackdown on illegal slaughterhouses across the state.
Third, there have been several lynchings in the past four years by self-styled “gau rakshaks” (self-appointed groups that claim to protect cows) that have created an aura of fear among those who wish to dispose of their cattle.
Supporters of the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) government believe these policies are intended to rein in cow slaughter, which some Hindus consider sacred.
But it may well be that cows, which played a role in bringing the BJP to power in 2014 with such massive numbers, may also be responsible in not allowing a second-term victory for Modi – or at the very least, contribute towards a decline in north India’s rural seats.
Cud have, Should have
In the wake of the ban on cattle slaughter and fear of gau-rakshaks, the Indian farmer is simply letting his unproductive cattle loose.
Consider the news reports that have appeared in the last week alone. A group of desperate villagers in western UP tried to convince a dairy owner to accept a truckload of stray cattle. The dairy refused, saying they already had 2,500 stray cattle to take care of.
Another report highlighted how farmers in UP are staying up all night to protect their winter crops from raiding cattle. The state police have lodged complaints against 30 individuals for “herding stray cattle inside a government school” in Shahjahanpur.
Towards the Indo-Nepal border that straddles Dudhwa and Bardiya national parks respectively, UP farmers are abandoning the stray cattle in Nepal’s jungles.
A Down to Earth magazine investigation said residents of Semri village in Sitapur district “collected 37,000 rupees (Bt18,000) from households, hired 22 tractors and loaded 255 stray cattle into them” in April 2018.
After a fracas with locals, in which more than a dozen people were injured, a train came and ran over 30 cattle.
The investigation suggested this was not a stray incident, and has occurred in other border districts such as Bahraich, Sravasti and Khiri. A local BJP cadre gave the reasoning that abandoning the cattle in Nepal “doesn’t create tension among villages and the animals are left safe as Nepal is a Hindu nation”.
Apart from the diplomatic tensions that could arise (and the error that Nepal remains a Hindu nation) and the sheer idiocy in letting loose domesticated cattle in a protected area, the investigation gives us deep insight into a monumental policy failure based on religious emotion. Several Indian commentators have noted how the ban on cattle slaughter has destroyed a delicate symbiotic relationship between Hindu farmers who wished to get rid of their unproductive cattle and Muslim butchers and leather workers who bought the cattle.
“The ‘Hindu’ farmer never had any issue with the ‘Muslim” butcher’, journalist Harish Damodaran has written.
The lynchings since 2014 have broken down Hindu-Muslim communal amity in these regions.
The ban on illegal slaughterhouses has affected the legal meat processing and export industry equally, with few incentives to transport even unproductive buffalo – buffalo meat accounted for 2.6 billion rupees (US$364 million) in exports – because of the fear from cow vigilantes.
Such reports are not unique to UP alone. In the western Indian state of Maharashtra, farmers are “desperate to sell their cattle to raise some money”, but the ban has made it impossible to find buyers. In another state Madhya Pradesh, farmers “simply chase from one field to another”, leading to tensions.
So it is in the state of Rajasthan, where “cattle have simply vanished from the village’s landscape”.
The entire livestock economy, which contributes 26 per cent to the agricultural sector in India, is now in the doldrums.
The irony cannot be missed. For the BJP, the cow is now a millstone around its neck. If it drops the slaughter ban, its core Hindu upper-caste voters will accuse it of revisionism. If it does not, its rural voters may vote against it. This, combined with the several other reasons for disaffection among India’s voters, means that the next few months will be critical for the BJP.
No holy cows
The impact of the ban on rural economies is unprecedented.
But the fallout – and the likelihood that the ban will affect rural voters in India’s most populous state – also tells us that inadequately researched policies based on voter sentiment can trigger butterfly effects detrimental not just to society, but also to a ruling party’s prospects. There’s also a consideration here about the limitations of religious or nationalistic chauvinism: when it’s a choice, the voter may discard ideology for livelihood.
Ethno-nationalist ideologies – like BJP’s Hindutva (the idea that Hindu faith and values are India’s defining ideology), US President Donald Trump’s white nationalism or Nepal Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli’s Pahadi (inhabitants of the Himalayan region of Nepal) nationalism – propose to serve a majority’s interests and have worked spectacularly well in electoral democracies. Such ideologies are excellent for whipping up fervour and getting one elected. But when the time comes to rule, populism may not be the best route to policy.
In India’s case, it’s the cow that’s telling us so. As Nepal continues to introduce new policies or projects, it would do well to remember the Indian experience with cows.
Reason, not emotion, should be the guiding factor behind any policy formulation.
Nationalism has its limitations, and this is evident with the ban on cow slaughter in India.
The writer is a senior columnist with The Kathmandu Post, Nepal.
The Asian Writers’ Circle is a series of columns on global affairs written by top editors and writers from members of the Asia News Network and published in newspapers and websites across the region.