An Indian court has, for the first time ever, appointed itself the legal guardian of millions of cows in a move to protect the animals considered sacred to the country’s majority Hindu community.
The Uttarakhand High Court not only banned the slaughter of all cattle in the mountainous state 240 miles north of New Delhi, but also the sale and consumption of beef.
The move follows similar protections rolled out by state governments following the election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which holds staunchly traditional views on cattle. This is the first time, however, that a court has taken the initiative.
Citing ancient Hindu and Buddhist scriptures, which propagated cow protection, the judges threatened prosecution for anyone abandoning or maltreating their cattle and ordered the appointment of mobile infirmaries within three weeks.
The judges also ordered shelters for the animals to be set up for every cluster of 25 villages in a response to a petition by a local farmer claiming that waste from slaughtered cattle was contaminating the local water supply.
Additionally, special squads headed by senior police officer and a veterinarian too would patrol the countryside once every 24 hours to further ensure cow protection.
“The (cow) shelters should be constructed on scientific lines taking into consideration the comfort of the animals to be housed there” the judgement declared, adding that the cost of erecting and maintaining these premises would be borne by the state government.
The ruling – using the ancient ‘parens patriae’, or legal protector doctrine – was well-received in Uttrakhand.
Since Mr Modi’s election in 2014 many of the 20 of 29 Indian states ruled by ruled by BJP governments directly or in coalition introduced assorted measures to protect cattle.
In Modi’s home state of western Gujarat state and northern Haryana province, for instance, both of which are ruled by the BJP, slaughtering cows is punishable with imprisonment of up to 14 years.
The zeal to protect cows has also resulted in at least 60 people being lynched or beaten to death by Hindu mobs on suspicion of either abandoning the animals or selling them for slaughter or simply for possessing beef.
Almost all such victims were Muslims, for whom consuming beef is not banned on religious grounds.
This, in turn, triggered allegations by activists and opposition parties that these attacks were ‘sponsored’ by local BJP leaders to pander to Hindu sentiments ahead of the upcoming general elections that are due before May 2019.
The BJP strongly denies these charges and accuses its rivals of provoking anti-Hindu propaganda.
Meanwhile, the sentimentality over cow protection has placed the Indian Army in a difficult situation over disposing off some 25,000 of its prize cows and bulls following the recent closure of 39 military farms founded 131 years ago by the British Colonial administration.
Unable to slaughter these animals for beef, the army has been forced to sell its cattle livestock to government-run dairy farms for pittance, with high yielding milch cows from Europe fetching a mere £10 – some 100 times less what they originally cost.