Stretching the law for the sake of holy cows

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By equating cow slaughter with culpable homicide, some state governments are falling into the trap of propagating certain religious beliefs over others

By Harish Narasappa

Illustration: Anand Naorem

IMPRISONMENT IS one of the extreme forms of punishment that a State can impose, as it deprives a person of his/her basic liberties. A maximum punishment of seven years’ imprisonment is very serious indeed. You must commit a grave offence to go to prison for such a long time. The Indian Penal Code prescribes a punishment of a maximum of seven years’ imprisonment for offences such as attempt to commit culpable homicide, counterfeiting currency, voluntarily causing grievous hurt, kidnapping, attempt to commit robbery, cheating, criminal breach of trust, forgery, falsification of accounts and criminal intimidation, among others. These are serious crimes; to put them in perspective, remember that the maximum punishment for an attempt to commit murder is 10 years’ imprisonment and that under the Prevention of Corruption Act is seven years. Now, to this list of serious offences against fellow human beings and the State, some states have added a new criminal act — slaughter of cows and allied activities.

I find it incredulous that legislators have thought it fit to equate the slaughtering of cows with causing grievous hurt to a fellow human being or a serious act of corruption causing severe loss to the exchequer and society.

I believe this is a reflection of the loss of our society’s commonsense ability to identify criminal behaviour and how to treat such behaviour. As students of law, we were taught that the State should be careful about ‘criminalising’ any activity because of the connotations that come along with such criminalisation — first, restriction of the offender’s freedom and second, violation of public morality and consequent association of moral turpitude with the offender.

THE CONSTITUTIONAL confusion on cow slaughter has been the basis for criminalising certain kinds of cow (mainly productive cows) slaughter ever since our ‘secular’ republic was established. However, the same confusion ensured that certain other kind of cow (non-productive cows, bulls, etc) slaughter was permitted. The avowed basis for such criminalisation was not, however, public morality but the needs of the agrarian society and the animal husbandry industry. The recent move to increase punishment for cow slaughter and the criminalisation of other activities that were protected until now does not appear to be based on the confused constitutional ground. Instead, they appear to be based on satisfying certain religious beliefs.

Competing religious beliefs cannot be the subject matter of criminal law

Accepting religious beliefs, howsoever widely accepted, as public morality for the purposes of criminalising behaviour is a slippery slope. It essentially becomes a tool for propagating certain religious beliefs over others. The threat of imprisonment for non-conformists ensures a greater adherence to the favoured religious belief, whatever it is.

The content of criminal law, more than that of any other branch of law, has to be based on accepted public good and societal morality and not that of any particular section of society. The criminalisation of cow slaughter does not meet this test as a significant section of society adheres to a different set of beliefs and morality. Competing religious sentiments and beliefs cannot be the subject matter of law, least of all criminal law — they have to remain in the religious domain.

Animal rights activists argue that animal rights should be protected on the same footing as human rights, although some of them only object to the manner of killing animals and not consumption of meat itself. It is a good philosophical argument but one that does not justify criminalisation until society accepts that all animals have the same fundamental rights as humans. I’m a vegetarian and come from an agrarian family that rears cows as well. I personally don’t endorse the choice of people who kill animals or eat meat, but should they be criminals merely because I and my fellow travellers do not like it? The answer has to be no. Criminal law has to be based on surer footing.

Harish Narasappa is Lawyer and co-founder, Daksh. 
letters@tehelka.com

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