Friday, March 31, 2017

Life in Prison For Killing a Cow: Law and Religion in Gujarat

At the end of March, 2017, the state of Gujarat in India extended the punishment for slaughtering cows from seven years in prison to life-imprisonment. The penalty for transporting beef was also raised to a maximum of 10 years, from three. The severity hinges on religious assumptions presumed to be beyond questioning or reproof.

Vijay Rupani, the chief minister of Gujarat, provided an explanation. “To Indians, the cow symbolizes all other creatures. The cow is a symbol of the earth, the nourisher, the ever-giving, undemanding provider.”[1] So the cow stands for not only all animals that live on Earth, but also the planet itself. To kill such a symbol is tantamount, I suppose, to killing that which nourishes us. Of course, were every cow alive killed, the other creatures of the world would go on, as would our planet, so the emphasis here is on a symbol. Interestingly, the viability of the symbol is thought to save “the whole world from both moral and spiritual degradation,” Rupani added.[2] From a rational standpoint, the claim that people would lead immoral lives in India were cows not protected suffers a lack of causation. Empirically speaking, whether people are ethical, such as at Enron, Authur Andersen, Wells Fargo, and Uber, bears little or no relation to whether one food-source is used or protected.
A person who slaughters a cow for food could spend the rest of his or her life in prison. Prime facie, the punishment can readily seem so excessive that a disrespect for human life may be implied. Even adding in the matter of a living symbol does not alter this point. In fact, the implication is that a symbol is more important than the quality of a human life. For a symbol to take on a life of its own at the expense of actual human beings suggests that the very notion of a symbol has been misunderstood. The mistaken assumption of causality between the protection of cows and the lack of moral and spiritual degradation can be taken as an indication that the very notion of symbol has been warped.
If I am correct in my assertion that the religious and moral assumptions are tenuous (i.e., too extreme), then this case illustrates the danger of superimposing law on top of religious belief. The danger springs from the vulnerability of the latter to a false sense of infallibility. Even the perception of excess can be blocked, and the excessiveness in the law is similarly not caught. Put more generally, the human mind is vulnerable when it comes to religious assumptions, and this fault-line can run through public policy resulting in much harm. It is precisely the allowance for radically disproportioned harm to other human beings that should be the red flag indicating that something has gone very wrong. That this criterion is not the criterion is, I submit, the fault of us all.

1. Nida Najar and Suhasini Raj, “Indian State Expands Penalty for Killing a Cow to Life in Prison,” The New York Times, March 31 2017.
2. Ibid.