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The Significance of Article 48 in India’s Constitution: Examining the Debate and Decision on Cow Protection in the Constituent Assembly

GS paper 2, Indian Polity

The Debate in Constituent Assembly:

  • In November 1949, as the Indian Constituent Assembly was nearing its end, a clause was proposed to be included in the Directive Principles of State Policy: “That the State shall endeavour to organise agriculture and animal husbandry on modern scientific and shall, in particular, take steps for preserving and improving the breeds, and prohibiting the slaughter, of cows and calves and other milch and draught cattle.”
  • This clause to prohibit the slaughter of cows in the Constitution has been a matter of intense controversy and debate since the new republic was formed.
  • The inclusion of the clause must be seen in the background of the significance the animal held during the nationalist movement and the shades of majoritarian sentiment carried within it. It also needs to be understood in context of the Partition and the atmosphere of religious animosity that it created.
Rajendra Prasad referred the question of cow protection to the Constituent Assembly with a request that it be looked as part of its deliberations on ‘Fundamental Rights’. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Cow in the Indian National Movement:

  • The cow has had an intriguing presence in the Indian psyche and mentions of devotion to cows appearing in Hindu scriptures.
  • From 1890s, the Indian National Congress, which spearheaded the freedom struggle, increasingly turned to predominantly Hindu-related imagery as a means to connect with the masses.
  • The imagery of Hindu deities like Ganesh and Ram, religious epics like the Ramayana and Mahabharata were used to connect with the masses. The cow was also used in a similar way.
  • Accusations of the British slaughtering cows in large numbers were spoken about in public gatherings.
  • To protect the cow was seen as a means of protecting ‘Mother India’. In 1925, Mahatma Gandhi helped establish the first all-India cow protection organization, the Gorakha Sabha.
  • Cow protection, urged Gandhi, “was one of the important duties enjoined upon Hindus as a part of their religion.”
  • However, the higher authorities in the Congress party, wary of Muslim alienation, rejected the claim for a complete ban on cow slaughter.
  • As discussions of cow slaughter gained momentum, there emerged a feeling of alienation among Muslims.
Figure From the 1890s, it increasingly turned to predominantly Hindu-related imagery as a means to connect with the masses. (Wikimedia Commons)

Why Article 48 was added to Constitution:

  • Article 48 is a directive principle of state policy that lays down that the state shall take steps to preserve and improve the breeds of cows and other milch and draught cattle and prohibit the slaughter of cows and calves and other milch and draught cattle.
  • It was added to the Constitution to protect the cow, which was seen as a means of protecting ‘Mother India’, and to reflect the significance the animal held during the nationalist movement and the majoritarian sentiment carried within it.
  • It was also added to address the religious animosity caused by the partition and to prevent alienation of the minority community.

The cow in the Constituent Assembly

  • Before independence, cow slaughter was seen as a practice among both British and Muslim rule
  • With the partition of India and the creation of Pakistan, the Hindu right within Congress and beyond believed that the new Indian nation would be based on Hindu ideals, including safeguarding the cow
  • The cow protection movement, led by industrialist Seth Ramkrishna Dalmia and his newly created Anti-Cow Slaughter League, sought to pass legislation to stop cow killing
  • The league arranged for sadhus to carry out sit-ins in front of the house of Prime Minister-elect Nehru and designated August 10 as National Cow Day
  • Dalmia’s petition to stop cow slaughter attracted around 164,000 signatories and anti-cow killing resolutions were passed by independent organizations
  • Senior leaders within Congress were also flooded with requests to legislate against cow slaughter
  • Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was concerned about the proposal being based solely on Hindu sentiment and the tone it was taking
  • President of the Constituent Assembly, Rajendra Prasad, referred the question to the Assembly for deliberation on ‘Fundamental Rights’.
  • Pandit Thakur Dass Bhargava from East Punjab argued for cow protection from an economic perspective, stating that improving agriculture and cattle breeds were interdependent.
  • R V Dhulekar made his argument on more religious grounds, comparing the cow to a mother and stating that many people would be willing to kill for the protection of the cow.
  • The proposal was met with resistance from the chairman of the Drafting Committee B R Ambedkar who stated that it could not be included as part of Fundamental Rights as cows are not citizens.
  • President Rajendra Prasad came up with a resolution and proposed the needs of the holy cow in the chapter devoted to Directive Principles of State Policy, resulting in the inclusion of Article 48.
  • As a result of Article 48, several state governments hastened to enact laws prohibiting the killing of cows, and currently 24 out of 29 states in India have laws criminalizing cow killing.

February 2024