Suspicions of a “secondary agenda” to the 23 May order revising regulations on the sale of livestock at cattle fairs would appear to have been confirmed by the central government not standing in the way of the Supreme Court according nationwide application to the Madras High Court’s order “staying” that controversial notification. Although outside court the ministry of environment and forests had promised a review of the order, the government was vague when the issue was taken up at the apex court. It neither challenged the order of the Madras High Court, nor did it specify by when revised guidelines would be formulated. Hence the Chief Justice of India had no hesitation in extending the scope of the High Court order. The wishy-washy stance of the government has its critics contending that the 23 May order was actually a case of “testing the waters”, and when the “backdoor ban” on the consumption of bovine flesh backfired ~ on several counts ~ the government opted not to push the matter any further in its present formulation. There would be an element of the craven to the government’s silence, it would prefer its order to lapse rather than admit it was flawed.

What was ostensibly a move to protect animals from ill-treatment did not have even a semblance of effect on that score. Instead the vaguely-worded restrictions on the sale of cattle intended for slaughter became “licence” for cow-vigilantes to unleash a reign of terror against cattle traders even if they were in possession of necessary documentation: and the police simply allowed the rot to spread ~ perhaps under the impression that the gau rakshaks had official blessings. After all, more than one BJP leader (chief ministers included) have spoken against cow slaughter, but conveniently failed to differentiate between cows and buffaloes. Whether the “lifting” of the 23 May order (albeit temporarily) will restrain the vigilantes is an open question. Several critics of the government see parallels between the cattle order and the frequent advice to “go to Pakistan if you wish to eat beef”. Hence not unwarranted is the extreme view that echoes the Shakespearean line “mischief thou are afoot, now take what course thou wilt” ~ the vigilante-genie cannot be put back in the bottle.

The “beef” angle apart, the cattle regulation ran into trouble as it was widely seen as another encroachment on the authority of the states. And it threw the livestock economy into disarray ~ hitting even the traditional “Kolhapuri chappals” extremely hard. The issue, technically, remains before the court, but revising the 23 May order would be a mistake ~ it needs to be scrapped in entirety and well-considered, fresh regulations need to be drawn up. The cow demands positive protection ~ not underhand moves aimed at minority communities.