At the heart of the fundamental right of freedom of expression is free speech. But the human right to freely express oneself is not limited to free speech.
We all express ourselves in different ways. A child expresses hunger, and other needs, before learning to speak. Form of dress is an expression of your personality. Personality attributes express themselves in different ways. Protest in all its manifestations represents expression. Expression of cultural traits of individuals, communities, nationalities may also be discerned from custom and the food we eat.
Through speech we merely communicate our thoughts, feelings, desires attributable to that moment. Such expressions may be transitory. What is fundamental and inalienable is the individual’s right to freely express himself or herself. This, of course, is subject to caveats. Such expression should not be abusive, defamatory, immoral or in any way forbidden by law.
The preceding enunciation is necessary to put in perspective controversies that have bedevilled the national discourse that has consumed public attention. I am talking of vigilantes who beleaguer, maim or even take people’s lives to allegedly save a cow; of anti-Romeo squads who allegedly prevent ‘eve-teasing’; of sentinels of morality who take revenge for what is called ‘love jihad’; and of self-appointed nationalists who brand all those who dare to oppose this government’s policy prescriptions in Jammu and Kashmir and towards Pakistan as ‘anti-national’.
What I eat is part of my freedom of expression. It is part of my identity. Also my desire to eat what I want, unless prohibited by law, is a matter of my choice. Exercise of choice is part of a person’s individuality. No one can pre-empt my right to exercise that choice. The recent decision of the Ministry of Environment prohibiting trade of cattle and other animals meant for slaughter is baffling. This is sought to be accomplished by issuing a notification under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Regulation of Livestock Markets) Rules 2017 (‘Rules’).
Cattle under the new Rules include bulls, bullocks, buffaloes, cows, heifers, steers, calves and camel. Apart from a written declaration that cattle will not be sold for slaughter, an undertaking will have to be given to market committees that cattle will be sold for agricultural purposes and not for slaughter. Under the Rules, records of such sales will have to be preserved for six months. Given this, the grievance of the States that the Union is seeking to interfere in areas within their exclusive domain is justified, despite a facile clarification by the Finance Minister.
Such Rules are, first, beyond the scope of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960. Since the said Act does not prohibit the slaughter of animals, the Rules under the law cannot seek to impose any such prohibition. Second, Article 19(1)(g) makes carrying on any trade, business or profession a fundamental right. Unless a trade is prohibited by law or taken over by the state, restrictions of the kind imposed by the Rules regarding sale of cattle are constitutionally suspect.
Lastly, sacrifice of an animal, including cattle, as part of religious tradition, or slaughter for consumption, is part of the fundamental right to freedom of expression. Even otherwise, it is arbitrary and irrational to allow non-milch cattle not to be traded for slaughter as that affects a number of farmers’ right to livelihood.
The government is not unaware of the adverse consequences of the notification on livelihoods of the more than 22 lakh people employed in the meat industry. Farmers too would suffer. Maintenance of uneconomic cattle costs a farmer Rs. 40,000 a year, a huge cost for small farmers to pay. Of the overall meat production, cattle are a bare 5%, buffalo 23% and poultry 46%. After the new definition of cattle, 28% of the meat trade will be affected. In 2014, India toppled Brazil and became the highest beef exporter globally with a volume of $4 billion. The leather industry too will be badly hit. Meat exports fell by 13% during April-December 2016. The worst is yet to come.
Hides and bones of slaughtered cattle are used not just in the leather industry but also in the manufacture of soaps, toothpastes, buttons, paint brushes, surgical stitches, pharmaceutical products and musical instruments. India’s leather industry accounts for around more than 12% of the world’s leather production of hides and skins.
India also accounts for 9% of the world’s footwear production. If cattle are not slaughtered, they would need to be protected and cared for. This will, in turn, impose an unprecedented burden of Rs. 3000 a month on owners, apart from massive adverse economic consequences. What is under threat is the ‘mixed crop-livestock farming’ system. Livestock supplement farm incomes by providing employment, draught animals and manure (Economic Survey: 2015-2016). The state itself slaughters the highest number of buffaloes (6.2 million). With the new Rules, none of them can be bought from the market.
For electoral reasons
The government’s decision clearly has no rational basis. Its objective is to keep the communal pot boiling so that the issue of slaughter of cows, prohibited in most States, continues to occupy the public space, to emotionally exploit majoritarian sentiments. That it will adversely impact consumption, trade, business, livelihoods does not matter as long as it delivers electoral benefits. Besides, the real issue, that of freedom of expression, gets buried, encouraged also by shrill debates in the electronic media.
While the mayhem caused continues, the self-proclaimed chowkidar watches unmoved. While he does not express himself, his government chokes others’ freedom of expression.
Kapil Sibal is a former Union Minister and senior Congress leader