In the ‘ABC’ of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s core agenda – Ayodhya, Article 370, the ban on cow slaughter and uniform civil code – the ‘cow slaughter ban’ has always troubled the northeastern states, and restricted BJP’s spread there.
In August 2003, the Atal Bihari Vajpayee cabinet mooted a central law to ban cow slaughter but was met with howls of protests from chief ministers of Meghalaya and Nagaland. Neiphiu Rio was then the Nagaland CM. He is now a Lok Sabha MP and an ally of the Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance government at the Centre.
Rio is yet to speak out on the issue, but is unlikely to have changed his views on the subject. For a move to ban cow slaughter hurts the people of northeast the most, as a legendary Meghalaya politician brought out during the debate on the no-confidence motion against the 13-day old Vajpayee government in 1996.
That debate is mostly remembered for Vajpayee’s impassioned speech in the Lok Sabha, but is also notable for another little known masterpiece. A brief speech from George Gilbert or ‘G.G.’ Swell, a veteran Independent MP from Shillong, who told the House that he was voting against Vajpayee for one reason alone. The one thing that his “close friend” was “sincere” about was to have a total ban on cow slaughter, Swell said according to the transcript of the debate available on the Lok Sabha website.
Swell, who incidentally was the Opposition (including the BJP and the parties that comprised the National Front)’s joint candidate against Congress’s Shankar Dayal Sharma, the eventual winner, in the presidential elections of 1992, said that “in the North-East, beef is the cheapest source of protein for the majority of the people.”
An MP from BJP interrupted Swell, telling him that he should be ashamed of advocating cow slaughter. “They are ashamed of us and we are ashamed of them,” Swell replied.
“They can never impose their hegemony on the North-East. The Mughal emperors tried to do that by sending the army to Assam and each time they had been turned away from the banks of Brahmaputra. They cannot impose their way of life on the people of North-East,” he said.
Swell said the policy to ban cow slaughter was economically unsound and that 80 per cent of the cattle population in India was uneconomic. “Very few cattle in this country give proper type or quantity of milk. Many of them just go on champing out blades of grass and leaves, leaving the country barren, and are turning the country into a desert,” he said.
The five times Lok Sabha MP, who also served a stint in the Upper House, said the uneconomic cattle can be used as draught animals but not for long. “What do you do with all these cattle? Are you going to watch them? You are going to allow them to champ up all vegetation in the country. What are you going to do with it? This is uneconomic.”
Swell said there was a need for all-round reform, one of which was for Indians to reform the way they approached their cattle.”Treat your cattle well. Get the benefit out of them. What are they going to do with all these stray cattle? Either you eat them or you kill them, do something,” he said.
Swell’s was a lone voice, but an important one from the north-east and not easy to ignore. He had played a key role in the formation of the state of Meghalaya and was much admired across party lines for his spotless public life of over four decades. Swell passed away in 1999.
Most northeastern states have the bulwark of Article 371(A) - similar to Article 370 for Jammu and Kashmir – where the central law cannot take effect, for example in Nagaland without it being ratified by that state’s legislature.