With apologies to Gopal Krishna Gokhale, what Haryana thinks today, India might think tomorrow. Politicians like Manohar Lal Khattar, the chief minister, whose police force burrows through mounds of biryani looking for scraps of forbidden beef, reflect a national obsession with religious trivia to the detriment of social freedom and good governance. This column has dealt before with the absurd preoccupation with beef. The subject bears revisiting as a senior policeman has now reportedly discovered a link between beef and security. The late Nirad C. Chaudhuri may have lamented that most Indians speak poor English because they were not weaned on a diet of beef broth and rare steaks. For Bharti Arora, the IPS officer entrusted by the Khattar government to head the police teams supposedly checking cow slaughter and smuggling, the money earned from these nefarious activities funds terrorist violence.
If that were true, the answer to all our problems would lie in eliminating India’s bovine population. Butchers, restaurateurs and exporters should be offered incentives to complete the task as quickly as possible. Cows spell danger. The Greek princess who wanted to send us a herd of ancient Australian cattle may have been a Pakistani agent bent on India’s destruction, even if her mother Queen Frederika did study Vedanta in Chennai. Seriously, however, I am not arguing here that Raja Rajendralala Mitra was right to claim in Beef in Ancient India that not only is there no scriptural prohibition, but venerable authorities can be cited to prove beef was both a desirable and an essential food in those days when Hindu civilisation didn’t need the political construct of Hindutva to be great and glorious. Nor am I claiming that Vivian Derozio’s Young Bengal peers were model citizens because they exulted in guzzling beef. The Jawaharlal Nehru University group calling itself the New Materialists is as irrelevant to my present thesis as pleas that dalits, Muslims and foreign visitors can’t be denied their normal cuisine. It doesn’t matter that the United States reckons India has outstripped Brazil to become the world’s biggest seller of beef, specially in China and West Asia.
My point is that any state government that is serious about its role and wishes to continue to enjoy public confidence should devote itself to improving public welfare instead of pandering to bigots to win votes. Apart from distracting attention from nation-building, such gimmicks encourage superstition and obscurantism, paving the way to Gurugram for Gurgaon in a “Hindu Pakistan”. This is not Haryana’s sole folly. The promise to address “common citizens” — what about uncommon ones? — only as “Sir” or “Madam” is equally ridiculous. Of course, the public must be treated with a courtesy and consideration that authority rarely displays in India. But if the directive is meant for verbal exchanges, what are the vernacular equivalents of Sir and Madam? If it refers to letters, the English language has set forms that are invariably polite because the English are instinctively polite, sometimes excessively so.
There was the famous occasion when the Duke of Wellington ending a letter to a junior with the then customary “I remain, Sir, your humble servant” added “Which you know damn well I am not.” Whatever courteous phrase a Haryanvi minister or official might be forced to use, it’s most unlikely to reflect his (or her) actual attitude to a “common citizen”. Mr Khattar’s government has a lot on its plate. Its Operation Romeo Returns programme must round up hundreds of cheeky youths to crush what is infelicitously known as “eve-teasing”. Bhupinder Singh Hooda, the former chief minister, has to be investigated for alleged land scandals. Digambar Jain monks must be placated and Robert Vadra nailed. No wonder the Haryana police gets the second highest number of complaints in the country.
The most serious task for any government interested in governance is to ensure that the Sutlej Yamuna Link Canal, work on which was halted in 1990, is activated. The closure was Punjab’s doing but the opening should be Haryana’s first priority if the government were not so engrossed in banning beef that gau raksha samiti activists in Mewat district, with its substantial Muslim population, are accused of rape and murder. Meanwhile, the police must ensure that Mewat’s 10,000 biryani stalls and sellers looking for customers from all communities during Id obey Haryana’s cow welfare commission chief, Bhani Ram Mangla, who doesn’t want the rice contaminated with forbidden flesh. “It is part of their duty to check that beef is not consumed, as it is illegal in India”, says the bushy-bearded Anil Vij, a state minister, not quite accurately. Haryana, where the punishment for cow slaughter is 10 years’ jail and for trading in beef five years, is an Indian state. But it isn’t India. Beef is legal in many other parts of the country.
Be that as it may, it’s the checking that intrigues me. Being familiar with mutton, pork, beef, venison, chicken, duck, turkey, pigeon and various game birds all my life, having sampled rabbit, kangaroo and reindeer, and once having disappointed my Australian hosts in Darwin by telling them that no one who has ordered a steak in Delhi can regard buffalo as an exclusive Darwin delicacy, I don’t think I can tell cooked beef from some other meats by sight and smell alone. Samples have been sent to laboratories but the only reliable preliminary test is by taste. That’s like the municipal screening committee of a town in northeastern England where I worked as a reporter in my youth privately viewing a French film no fewer than 25 times before deciding it was too pornographic for public exhibition. Political expediency ought not to force the police into similar posturing.