While the government and citizens must uphold the Constitution, every law, every statute and every clause is and ought to be subject to public reasoning and re-examined in the court of the latest knowledge and understanding of the world.
This is from my column in The Hindu (2015-2016)
Soon after the ongoing controversy over the ban on the consumption of beef erupted, we had the ironical situation of its proponents seeking legitimacy by pointing to the Indian Constitution and its opponents seeking credibility through arguments from religious and social traditions.
The framers of the Constitution recommended that the future governments of the Indian republic strive to prevent cow slaughter, largely because the issue was too politically charged for them to settle in the late 1940s. If the creation of a enlightened Constitution upholding liberty and equality was a remarkable achievement for the times, the insertion of the clause — involving hypocrisy and subterfuge, as Frank Anthony put on record in the Constituent Assembly — on cow slaughter was not its finest momoment. On this issue, they effectively passed the buck.
As long as it is in our Constitution — and it will probably be there for a long time, given the basic structure doctrine — every generation of Indian citizens will have to deal with the question of cows and their slaughter. To be sure, nothing in the Constitution penalises the possession or consumption of beef, as lynch mobs and politicians would have you believe. Yet those who seek to prevent the slaughter of cows have no less an authority than the Constitution of India on their side.
Then as now, arguments purporting to protect the cattle wealth are sophistry. The only reason there is a Directive Principle concerning cow slaughter is the consideration for Hindu sensibilities.
Therefore, perhaps, the opponents of “beef ban” have energetically offered Hindu religious tradition and practice to demonstrate that the slaughter of cows prevailed during Vedic times and that consumption of beef was not uncommon even among brahmins. The great Upanishadic sage Yajnavalkya is reported to have consumed beef only if were tender. Both the Ramayana and Mahabharata mention the consumption of beef. Charaka, Sushruta and Vagbhata, known for their treatises on medicine, refer to the therapeutic uses of beef.
K. T. Achaya, a delightful scholar of Indian food, writes that “beef was freely eaten: there are four names for this meat in the early Tamil language, showing that it was a common and well-liked food. He also notes that by the time of Al-Biruni’s visits to India in the 11th century CE, social attitudes had turned against the eating of beef. Even so, many communities in different parts of India continue to eat beef — not all Hindus share the same sensibilities. There is no hard and fast rule against beef within the parameters of the broad Hindu faith.
However, whether or not the ancient Hindus ate beef is beside the point. The question of whether the Indian republic ought to be concerned with cow slaughter is not a sectarian one. It should be answered from the ground of reason. For our Constitution is not grounded on theology or tradition but firmly in the Enlightenment values of reason, individualism and liberty. There was no precedent for equality of citizens, fundamental rights and universal franchise in Indian tradition, until the Constitution came along in 1950. The Indian state is a Republic of Reason, not an altar at which the tenets of the many faiths and spiritual paths of the Indian nation are worshipped.
So the arguments for and against the beef ban must be based on reason. If democracy is not to become an instrument to impose majoritarian mores on the entire population, the only way is to use reason for public persuasion.
Of course, it is hard to single out the cow for special protection on any rational ground, but there is a case for vegetarianism Michael Pollan, who considers some of the ethical dimensions of our diet in The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, contends that “were the walls of our meat industry to become transparent, literally or even figuratively, we would not long continue to raise, kill, and eat animals the way we do.” It is possible to persuade people of the merits of vegetarianism without recourse to sanctimony.
Similarly, the case against the beef ban ought to rely on science, public health, nutrition and economics. There is enough evidence that beef is a relatively inexpensive way for the poor to have access to dietary protein, and thus is useful in tackling the widespread malnutrition in our country.
Now many prominent participants in the beef controversy are engaged in it solely to reap dividends of the politics of bigotry. Yet the issue of cow slaughter and beef consumption is an unsettled question of public policy that we, for the reason that it is in our Constitution, must find ways of setting to rest. The more we use public reasoning to argue the matter, the less space we give to divisive politics by cow.
It is popularly argued that solutions can be found within the religious framework — all we need to do is empower the moderates and they will persuade the extremists. In societies where the effects of the European Enlightenment have been indirect or peripheral, this seldom happens. For instance, in countries where Islam is dominant, it is unlikely that moderate Muslims will be able to prevail over their less moderate counterparts.
As Sam Harris (founder of Project Reason) puts it, “ (while) moderation in religion may seem a reasonable position to stake out…it offers no bulwark against religious extremism and religious violence. The problem that religious moderation poses for all of us is that it does not permit anything very critical to be said about religious literalism. We cannot say that fundamentalists are crazy, because they are merely practicing their freedom of belief; we cannot even say that they are mistaken in religious terms, because their knowledge of scripture is generally unrivalled. All we can say, as religious moderates, is that we don’t like the personal and social costs that a full embrace of scripture imposes on us. This is not a new form of faith, or even a new species of scriptural exegesis; it is simply a capitulation…”
We must not, therefore, play the game according to the rules and out-of-bounds markers set by a religion, or indeed, by all of them.
While our modern Constitution enjoins us to do so, the use of reason and critical inquiry in public policy is not something that started in 1950. The Arthashastra is a strong advocate of the use of reason in politics, holding that the “study of critical inquiry is always thought of as a lamp for all branches of knowledge, a means in all activities, and a support for all religious and social duty”.
It is unambiguous in placing reason and critical inquiry above other considerations: “Investigating by means of reasons, good and evil in the Vedic religion, profit and loss in the field of trade and agriculture, and prudent and imprudent policy in political administration, as well as their relative strengths and weaknesses, the study of critical inquiry anvikshiki confers benefit on people, keeps their minds steady in adversity and in prosperity, and produces adeptness of understanding, speech and action.” Arthashastra, 1.2.11).
This tradition of reason in our politics is too precious to be allowed to fall victim to dogmatic assertions of the primacy of tradition, theology or indeed clauses in the Constitution.
Narendra Modi, first as candidate and then as Prime Minister has stated that the Constitution is the government’s only holy book. In doing so, he was trying to reassure the world that his government will not engage in discrimination on the basis of religion, caste or creed.
While we can appreciate the sentiment behind the Prime Minister’s words, we must remember that the concept of a ‘holy book’ is antithetical to a society that organises its public affairs around reason.
The rest of my The Hindu columns are here
Of course, government and citizens must uphold the Constitution and live by its lights. That said, every law, every statute and every clause is and ought to be subject to public reasoning. For instance, the criminalisation of homosexuality, the existence of multiple personal laws, the low bar to what is considered sedition and indeed the advice against cow slaughter — to name a few contemporary issues from our penal code and Constitution — must be re-examined in the court of the latest knowledge and understanding of the world.
They should stand only when they stand to reason.
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