Two Supreme Court judgments, 47 years apart, on cattle slaughter bans differ on whether beef is a “poor man’s food” even as Maharashtra’s total ban on cattle slaughter raises questions about a State’s authority to decide its citizens’ dietary habits.
In 1958, the Supreme Court held that “there is no getting away from the fact that beef or buffalo meat is an item of food for a large section of the people in India.”
But in 2005, the Supreme Court over-rode that and said the 1958 verdict only reflected “India’s panic” due to food scarcity of that era. The court said now the “real problem facing India is not availability of protein-rich diet, but unequal distribution.”
In 1958, a five-judge Bench led by then Chief Justice of India S.R. Das was deciding the constitutionality of cattle slaughter ban laws in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh.
Chief Justice Das, who authored the judgment for the Bench, held that cattle, except cows of all ages and calves of both cows and buffaloes, not capable of milch or draught can be slaughtered. The court classified such cattle as “useless.”
In fact, the apex court found that keeping “useless cattle” alive would be a “wasteful drain” on the nation’s cattle feed. If slaughtered, they would feed the poor.
Chief Justice Das termed beef as the common man’s diet.
“The comparatively low prices of beef and buffalo flesh, which are nearly half that of mutton or goats’ flesh, is the main reason for their demand,” the Bench held.
“Poorer people, therefore, who can hardly afford fruit or milk or ghee are likely to suffer from malnutrition if they are deprived of even one slice of beef or buffalo flesh which may sometimes be within their reach,” the apex court held in 1958.
Four decades later, the apex court reversed its stand in 2005. This time, it upheld Gujarat’s total ban on cattle slaughter, regardless of whether the bovine is useless or useful.
Chief Justice of India (retired) R.C. Lahoti, heading a seven-judge Bench wrote the majority opinion for the court. The Bench pooh-poohed the reasoning that beef was the poor man’s protein-rich diet.
“Beef contributes only 1.3 per cent of the total meat consumption pattern of the Indian society,” the court held.
Nutrition is not “necessarily associated with non-vegetarian diet and that too originating from slaughtering cow and its progeny,” Chief Justice Lahoti’s judgment observed.
“The concept of food security has undergone considerable change. Forty-seven years hence, it is futile to think that meat originating from cow progeny can be the only staple food or protein diet for the poor population of the country,” the 2005 verdict observed.
Acknowledging the Gujarat government’s version comparing the dung of a cow to a “Kohinoor diamond”, the Supreme Court disagreed with its 1958 verdict that useless cattle can be slaughtered.
“This is the land of Mahatma Gandhi, Vinobha, Mahaveer, Buddha, Nanak and others. It will be an act of reprehensible ingratitude to condemn cattle in old age as useless and send them to a slaughterhouse. We have to remember... The weak and meek need more protection and compassion,” the apex court observed.