Cattle slaughter ban and common sense
Posted on September 22nd, 2020

By Rohana R. Wasala

It was reported in the media (September 8, 2020) that prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s proposal for a ban on cattle slaughter received cabinet approval as well as the approval of the government parliamentary group. Some Buddhist monks and allied groups who have long been agitating for such legislation to be enacted raised euphoric cries and invoked blessings on the prime minister and the president. I don’t know how the two privately reacted to the acclamation they received on the basis of a controversial measure tentatively proposed, but not finally agreed upon: Did they accept the still unearned accolades with a feeling of exultant self-vindication or with a sense of gnawing doubt that the whole thing might misfire? They are more likely to experience the latter state of mind, because this ban cannot be imposed without harmful repercussions, given the unalterable ground realities that must be recognized and accommodated before enacting and implementing the proposed ban. This is so particularly in relation to the prevailing economic and political crises in today’s globalized world, of which Sri Lanka is a small member, hardly noticed except for her strategic location and her beleaguered state due to the same circumstance, trapped between three superpowers, two global and one regional. The domestic fallout could be even more critical. This is the worst imaginable time for such a radical measure to be implemented, however popular it could be among a section of the people.

But let’s not be too alarmed. Media minister and Cabinet spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella (a good choice for the latter job, in my view) managed to assuage the fears of sceptics like me who are not convinced about the actual benefits, but are really concerned about the possible unsavoury economic, socio-cultural, and political consequences, of a ban being imposed on cattle slaughter, when Rambukwelle told the local media that prime minister Rajapaksa ‘hopes to ban cattle slaughter’ and that ‘he  would decide when to submit the proposal to the government’. The government announced that a final decision will be delayed by a month (as reported in the online Istanbul/Turkey based TRT News Magazine). Rajapaksa’s cautious non-commitment hints at the possibility of  a reassessment of the pros and cons of the move and points towards the likelihood of sanity finally prevailing. But this will need a lot of reverse convincing to do among the convinced (I mean, among those who are for the ban).

From my point of view (for what it is worth), it is vitally important to be mindful of how the ban would be viewed abroad as well as among domestic non-Buddhist religious minorities, though it might go down well with a majority of Buddhists and Hindus. There is no question about trying to assert our rights as an independent sovereign nation and to pursue political and economic policies that we believe serve the best interest of our people. However, divisive party politics of the recent years have landed Sri Lanka in such a vulnerable situation globally that any government  that even occasionally dares to defy undue superpower pressures in order to accommodate the legitimate demands of its own people gets labelled as undemocratic, autocratic, oppressive, and therefore ripe for replacement. For a Sri Lankan government to be on its best behaviour is no guarantor of its survival in a context where India, China, and America are each looking after their own national interest in a competitive relationship with one another at the expense of Sri Lanka’s very survival. But what can we do about it?  I think that the present government under the joint leadership of the president and the prime minister is doing what it can in these internationally beleaguered  and internally treacherous times. Insisting on passing potentially divisive legislation is no way to help them. 

Today, with Gotabaya Rajapaksa as President, we have the first executive head of government since independence who has found a way to consult with the Maha Sangha as a monolithic entity through non-political, non-sectarian interaction. He appointed a board of monks called the Bauddha Upadeshaka Sabhawa (the Buddhist Advisory Council) to advise him and had its first meeting on April 24, 2020. It consists of the Mahanayake Theras of the Three Nikayas and a group of prominent scholar monks, who are specialists in various fields connected with the Buddha Sasana in which they have time-honoured claims and commitments. The monks meet with the president on the third Friday of every month. In their last meeting on September 18, they commended the president for taking steps, in accordance with their proposals, for, among other things, the protection of historical sites of archaeological importance, development of Pirivena education, designing of a national educational policy, control of the drug menace, etc. But, as far as the Derana TV news coverage was concerned, there was no mention of the cow slaughter ban proposal. Can’t this be an indication that it is not being perceived as such a pressing issue? 

There is no gainsaying the fact that Buddhist monks worked tirelessly for the victory of the nationalist camp, and they did not do so for any personal benefit. There are a number of activist monk groups each articulating different issues of broad national interest such as environment protection in addition to the central issue of the threat to the Buddha Sasana, the predominantly Buddhist nation (the people) and the unitary state that comes from the handful of foreign sponsored separatist racists and religious extremists among the peaceful mainstream Tamil and Muslim minorities respectively. These traitorous elements dominated the previous regime. The president appointed the Buddhist Advisory Council partly in recognition of the service they did in helping to save the country from misgovernance, but primarily in fulfilment of the constitutional requirement of giving foremost place to Buddhism. We can expect nothing but good from this interaction between the prominent Nayake and scholarly monks and the president. Is it likely that they will  fail to understand the problematic nature of the proposed ban on cattle slaughter?  

Be that as it may, we can’t overlook the fact that some well known leading activists, heads of some animal rights and public health maintenance related organizations, welcomed the proposal with great enthusiasm, despite the principal proponent’s non-committal stance. These included such prominent personalities as the Justice for Animals and Nature Organization chairman  Ven. Dr Omalpe Sobhita Thera, founder of Sarvodaya Dr A.T. Ariyaratne, and GMOA head, medical specialist Dr Anuruddha Padeniya. They  published a public announcement cum invitation to ‘all professional and civil organizations’ asking them to attend a meeting  at the ‘Sangha Headquarters’ on Alvitigala Mawatha on September 20. They are urging the enforcement of the ban proposal. An announcement cum invitation was issued on September 17, the day that marked the 156th birth anniversary of Anagarika Dharmapala who had pioneered the agitation for putting an end to cattle slaughter. In his time, probably, it was more meaningful and less controversial to do so than today. This announcement appeared in the online Lankaweb Forum page the same day, where I read it. It must have been published elsewhere, too. The author and principal signatory to the document, Ven. Sobhita, wrote (in translation): ‘It need hardly be stressed that the principled, determined and fearless enactment of the praiseworthy decision taken by the government MPs headed by the prime minister requires the approval and support of the general public. We believe that we are going to get your fullest cooperation in this regard. We intend to call a meeting of delegates from such organizations and take decisions in connection with organizing the relevant future activities to achieve this aim.’

Personally, I have the highest respect for these three eminent persons (who have already done much commendable service to Mother Lanka in their different capacities) and the others mentioned in the document and also empathize fully with their commitment to the cause they believe in,  but I do not share their conviction about the feasibility, the functionality or the actual benefits of the proposition that they are wholeheartedly supporting. I would support a movement with the same devotion to stop animal slaughter in general, not just cattle slaughter, if there was such a movement, but I know that it is an unlikely initiative, an impossibility even. I don’t see any rationality in such a project. The kind of free rational thinking that the Buddha advised the young Kalamas to adopt without blindly following him – the way to Enlightenment, budh,rational intelligence, that Narendra Modi, invoking the common intellectual heritage of India which we too share through Buddhism, meant in the quote at the top, as opposed to yudh, war/conflict, as the best way to resolve problems – seems to be at a premium – there is paradoxically little available of it – in the sacred Treasury of Theravada Buddhism that Sri Lanka is often claimed to be. Occasional submergence of practical rational thinking as in this case – our rational faculty sometimes becomes manifest in its humblest form of common sense – could prove costly in more than one sense for the whole country.

Rational minds can conceive of alternative ways of dealing with a problem, when sometimes the most direct solution is likely to create worse problems than the original problem itself like the cattle slaughter ban, if implemented, will certainly do. It is not likely to contribute towards enhancing intercommunal goodwill as already implied above. Many Muslims are employed in the meat industry, and there are secondary industries like tanning (making leather out of animal hides), shoe making, and the manufacture of leather products such handbags, waist belts, saddles, some percussion instruments, etc. Import of beef from abroad will lead to increase in prices, in addition to the loss of jobs, and the drain on scarce foreign exchange that it will entail. We may easily imagine the problematic implications for the important dairy milk industry, the development of which is essential for stopping the import of toxic milk powder.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. For all communities in general who make Sri Lanka their home, and for the majority community in particular, these are desperate times indeed. However, cattle slaughter is not one of the burning problems that make the times desperate for them. There are much more serious problems they are faced with such as the menacing, so-called MMC Compact, the deleterious Yahapalana constitutional legacy – 19A – that prevents the executive and the legislature from readily restoring the democracy,the independence of the judiciary, and the rule of law and  the communal harmony that it effectively destroyed, the inevitable Covid-19 related economic consequences in the form of devastating blows on large income generating sources such as the tourism based hospitality industry and skilled and unskilled foreign employment, disruption of domestic industries due to mandatory lockdowns, social distancing, and other health restrictions imposed on physical movements in order to meet the pandemic emergency, all leading to the new administration’s devoted attempts to eliminate the drug menace and other forms of crime and corruption even more challenging and even more difficult than they are. 

Don’t the Ven. Mahanayake monks  and leading lay Buddhists have to devote their attention to barefaced threats to the Buddha Sasana both within it and outside of it, such as bogus Arhants explaining the Dhamma in idiosyncratic ways that confuse the average Buddhists with little education in the philosophy of Buddhism (the majority) for whom it is a religion like any other, and even egg them towards looking more promising faiths; disguised non-Buddhist men and women in yellow robes  spreading superstitious beliefs and practices under the label of Buddhism; proselytising preachers and faith healers misappropriating Buddhist symbol to enmesh credulous innocent Buddhists in their superstitions; some truly ignorant or sincerely ill-meaning You Tubers circulating the patent myth that Gautama Buddha was born, attained Enlightenment, and preached the Dhamma in Sri Lanka, ignoring the abundance of established historical evidence that proves that he was indeed from the subcontinent, and making money by turning out videos that feature illiterate ‘scholars’ who save their skin by hiding behind the hypocritical slogan ‘Here is the evidence. Believe it or leave it’, but there is only fake evidence. The Buddhist leaders must put their own house in order before driving our beleaguered nation into further crisis by trying to reform the world.

It is not that the monks and lay Buddhists who are agitating for a ban on cattle slaughter have forgotten what they can learn in this regard from the Buddha Gautama’s own policy of not forcing morality on people, but of helping them adopt moral behaviour by understanding evil as evil and good as good through self realization as illustrated in  the story about Chunda Sukara/Sukarika (Chunda the pig killer/keeper/professional pork seller). This pig keeper slaughtered his pigs after torturing them in unimaginably cruel ways. And he was a neighbour of the great sage. But he never responded to his teaching of avihimsa and eventually died a wretched death, unreformed.

Perhaps we can learn something from India in this regard. According to the Wikipedia, India  (pop.1.3 billion) is nearly 80% Hindu (with 14% Muslim, and 6% others). Beef eating is generally taboo for Hindus. It’s been estimated that the number of vegetarians in India equals the number of vegetarians in the rest of the world put together. But it seems to adopt a relaxed attitude towards cattle slaughter. The law governing cattle slaughter varies from state to state, and is flexible in some states. On 26 May 2017, the Ministry of Environment of the Government of India led by Bharatiya Janata Party imposed a ban on the sale and purchase of cattle for slaughter at animal markets across India, under Prevention of Cruelty to Animals statutes, although Supreme Court of India suspended the ban on sale of cattle in its judgement in July 2017, giving relief to beef and leather industries”. So, the cattle slaughter ban in India was made ineffective even before it was hardly implemented.

No doubt, this was a disappointment to prime minister Modi, his BJP, and others who supported the ban. It is no less so, it is interesting to learn, to most Muslims of India as well. Researchers Naghmar Sahar and Rashid Kidwai of the Observer Research Foundation of India say: The majority of Muslim leadership in India has, all along, been always in favour of a nationwide ban on cow slaughter, but somehow successive regimes have refrained from banning it” (India Matters/Aug. 12, 2019/ ‘A century of giving up beef: Muslims demand nationwide ban on cow slaughter’). Muslims have been making this demand in deference to Hindu sentiment, in the interest of peaceful coexistence with Hindus. The useful lesson in common sense we can learn from India’s experience with cattle slaughter banning is too obvious to need explaining. 

Can’t the Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Christians who disapprove of cattle slaughter think of a more efficient and easier way to minimise it (as eliminating is impossible) than trying to impose unenforceable legislation to ban it altogether? Just stop eating beef!

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