The Bombay High Court on Wednesday directed the Maharashtra government not to take any coercive action against citizens for possession of beef for a period of three months or till the final hearing of the petitions.
"We direct the State government that it shall not take any coercive steps or initiate prosecution for three months or till the pendency of this petition.
"Though an FIR can be registered (for possession of beef) no other steps shall be taken. The State shall not invade the privacy of citizens to find out if they are in possession of beef or other forms of beef," the court ruled.
A division bench of Justices V M Kanade and A R Joshi passed the order on a bunch of petitions challenging clause 5 (d) of the controversial Maharashtra Animal Preservation (Amendment) Act.
Section 5 (d) of the recently amended Act bans possession and consumption of the meat of cow, bull or bullock slaughtered outside the State of Maharashtra.
The court noted that the State government had brought in a sudden ban on possession without giving any time frame for individuals to dispose off their beef products.
"There is no material before us to show if the State had any compelling reasons to impose a ban overnight...As a result of sudden imposition of ban on imports, goods lawfully in possession of individuals or lawfully imported have suddenly become illegal. Therefore, we are of the view that the State government has not granted a reasonable time to the citizens of Maharashtra for disclosing beef products. The State's (imposition) is patently unwarranted," the court observed.
Advocates for the petitoners had contended that section 5 (d) of the Act was arbitrary and invaded the rights of the citizens to choice and privacy. Senior counsel Aspi Chinoy, representing one of the petitioners, said there was “no discernible public interest” behind section 5 (d) and it was in conflict with Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006 and Livestock Importation (Amendment) Act, 2001.
The Maharashtra government justified the ban arguing that eating beef was not a fundamental right and the particular section was needed to successfully implement the amended Act. Advocate-General Sunil Manohar said since Maharashtra’s economy was predominantly agricultural there was a need to protect and preserve cow progeny which was the backbone of the State’s agricultural economy. The decision was not rooted in religion the government said.
The Act came into force after President Pranab Mukherjee, on March 2, 2015, gave his assent to the almost 20-year-old Maharashtra Animal Preservation (Amendment) Bill 1995 that was pending for approval.