In post-independence period most states in India have enacted cow protection laws which impose prohibition of cow slaughter which may be relaxed under special circumstances. The laws are made following Article 48, which states that:-
“The State shall endeavour to organise agriculture and animal husbandry on modern and scientific lines and shall, in particular, take steps for preserving and improving the breeds, and prohibiting the slaughter, of cows and calves and other milch and draught cattle”.
The Article puts ‘and’ before mentioning the prohibition of slaughter of cows. The proposition can be taken both as conjunctive and disjunctive. In one sense it would mean that ban on slaughter must be understood as a necessary accompaniment of the direction to the executive to provide good management of cattle stock which may include putting a ban on the slaughter of milch stock. In the other disjunctive sense, the Article would imply that prohibition is an objective by itself which is not guided by any other consideration than the absolute virtue in stopping all forms of killing of cattle stock under every circumstance giving cows legal rights of a person. By and large, the article has been interpreted by courts in the conjunctive sense even as laws on prohibition of cow slaughter were upheld. The debates on this issue within the Constituent Assembly and public demonstrations leave no doubt that to a large section of people the law on prohibition is meant to fulfill a religious purpose and the refusal to impose an all India ban on cow slaughter is riled as fake secularism. This development is not new and the first recorded legislative debate on this subject in Municipal Council of Bombay in 1922 is an eye-opener that makes the minds of opposing parties very clear .
In Municipal Council of Bombay, the Gau Rakshas Seva Samaj offered to take over all old and decrepit cows provided the municipality could build stables and provide grazing grounds. It argued that cow slaughter had lead to a great decrease in cultivated products, scarcity of milk for mothers and infants and to disease and death. Two ears of ‘jawar’ (millet) were produced as exhibits, the bigger one having been grown in a field where cow dung had been used.
The President of the Sunni Anjuman-i- Islam wanted that cow slaughter to be permitted on religious grounds during Bakri Id. He argued that 85% of Muslims survive on beef so also the Christian community and a ban would raise the price of mutton. (Mutton then was sold 4 annas to a pound whereas beef was 2)
The debate is a curious mixture of religious and economic arguments which both sides made to defend their positions with Hindus arguing that cows are never uneconomical to maintain alive and that they should never be slaughtered whereas Muslims pleading that there is a religious need to eat beef on festival and that poor Muslims depend on cheap beef meat. Hindus did not openly state the religious significance of cows but they veiled their sentiment under exaggerated claims of the economic value of cows. Muslims stuck both to religious as well as economic reasons.
After the partition of India, most States have made cow protection laws and the plea of Muslims that beef eating was part of religious practice was struck down by the Apex Court. Though the law on prohibition was upheld it was done on economic grounds only and that there should be an absolute prohibition on slaughter was not entertained. The debate has since gone forward but the parameters of the dialogue has not changed.
 Source: Rustom Masani: Portrait of a Citizen
Author: B K Karanjia Bombay Popular Prakashan 1970