Sri Lanka: The incendiary politics of beef

By P.K.Balachandran/Weekend Express

Colombo, September 10: When the Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa got the unanimous approval of his parliamentary group for legislation to ban cow slaughter, it was not the first attempt to have the practice banned. Despite toying with the idea of banning cow slaughter from time to time, no government has thought it fit to legislate on it.

This is probably because cow slaughter is entangled with larger issues, which have been religious, social, economic and political. Of these, the most important one has been Buddhist-Muslim relations. The cow slaughter issue has tended to come up when these relations are strained, and brushed under the carpet when they are fine.

In his comprehensive study of cow protectionism in Sri Lanka, James Stewart of Deakin University (Cow Protectionism in Sinhala Buddhist Sri Lanka, January 2013) says that it is linked to aspects of Sinhala Buddhist culture, its closeness to Hindu beliefs and practices, and also a periodical social or political need to use it to differentiate Buddhists from people following Abrahamic religions like Islam and Christianity. The latter need comes to the fore or recedes, depending on the political need and cultural climate of the time.

In Buddhism, ideologically, all sentient beings (beings which can feel pain) are to be respected and protected. No special place is accorded to the cow. Nevertheless, the issue of cow slaughter tends to come to the fore when the indigenous people have to distinguish themselves from “outsiders” identified with a radically different culture and set of practices, such as Europeans, Christians and Muslims.

Though Theravada Buddhism, which is practiced in Sri Lanka, is theoretically antithetical to Hindu practices and beliefs, Hindu practices and ideologies are an integral part of Sinhala Buddhism at the folk level. Hindu ideas such as cow protection and abhorrence of cow slaughter, and dislike of beef eaters have become part of Sinhala Buddhist culture.

Stewart recalls that Robert Knox, who was a prisoner of the king of Kandy in the late 1600s, observed that many Kandyans were disdainful of captive Europeans, who they referred to pejoratively as ‘beef eating slaves’. Dutch records show that the Sinhalese in Galle rioted against Dutch traders and soldiers because the latter were killing cows for food.

However with the decline of Buddhism following the establishment of Portuguese hegemony in the 16 th.Century, Sinhalese Buddhists began to eat beef and over the next 300 years of European rule, beef eating had become common, says Aryadasa Ratnasinghe in Daily News (Feb 5, 2002). It was only in early 19 th.,Century, when there was a Buddhist revivalist movement in Sri Lanka, that cow slaughter and beef eating became an issue again.

Ratnasinghe recalls how Anagarika Dharmapala, the Buddhist revivalist, went from place to place in his vehicle, displaying a banner which read “Gawamas nokanu” (Don’t eat beef). At that time, beef-eating was a common in Sri Lanka even among Buddhists as it was cheap, selling at 30 cents a pound.

Between Anagarika Dharmapala and the 21 st.Century, the cow slaughter issue went into oblivion because the Buddhist-Muslim conflict had given way to other issues. But in the 2000s, the issue came to the fore once again with the Lankan government getting serious about accommodating the minority Tamils and Muslims in the polity by devolving power to ethno-based provinces (The North-East for the Tamils and a separate enclave for the Muslims in the South East). Sinhala Buddhist nationalists and Buddhist monks raised the cow slaughter issue to alienate the Buddhist majority from the Muslims.

In 2009, parliament discussed a private member’s bill calling for a total ban on the slaughter of cattle presented by a Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist MP Wijedasa Rajapakshe. Rajapakshe said that a ban on cattle slaughter would give thousands of new job opportunities in the dairy industry. He further said that cattle slaughter had become a source of bribery, corruption and counterfeit licenses. The absence of a ban was also responsible for cattle-theft. Sinhala-Buddhist politicians wanted the government to go beyond the Animals Act of 1958 as amended in 1964 ,which prohibits the slaughter of cows and calves below age 12.

In September 2012, the Kandy Municipal Council passed a resolution banning animal slaughter within the municipal limits. In 2013, a 30 year old Buddhist monk, Bowatte Indraratna Thera committed self-immolation in protest over the killing of cattle by Muslims. The act was committed near the main entrance of the Temple of the Tooth to have a religious effect. In January 2016 the then President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, asked the authorities if, in case of a ban on cow slaughter, beef could be imported to satisfy the minorities. But the matter was not pursued as other anti-Muslim issues like Halal certification and the burqa grabbed the attention of Buddhist radical organizations like the Bodu Bala Sena and the Sinhala Ravaya.

Meanwhile, the anti-cow slaughter movement was incorporated in the larger animal protection movement. But primacy was given to slaughter of cows in the literature and hoardings of the movement. The Mettasutta, a popular and well-known text amongst Sinhala Buddhists, was used by the Organization for the Preservation of Life.

The reason for the use of the cow as a symbol in the animal protection movement is that the cow is adored by the Sinhala Buddhists for the milk it gives. Milk is seen as the source of life, and the cow is equated with the life giving and loving mother. Stewart refers to the famous Baila performer Nihāl Nelson who had penned a song that deals directly with cow protection. The song is called Kiri Ammā which means Milk Mother. The song is a reference to a Sinhalese goddess also called Kiri Amma.

“It would seem that the deity Kiri Ammā is associated with the Hindu deity Kāma Dhenu, the mythic cow of endless lactation. The Organization for the Preservation Life carries a piece of advertising that prominently utilizes an image of Śhiva, Parvātī, and Kāma Dhenu—the latter, of course, being a precursor deity to Kiri Ammā. A billboard of the organization carries a picture of a cow with a caption asking “How can we eat this?”

Availability of Beef

Livestock experts Amali Allahakoon, Cheorin Jo and Dinesh Jayasena say in the journal NCBI Resources, that beef is the second most important meat item in Sri Lanka, though far behind chicken. In 2013, in terms of availability per capita per year, chicken came first with 7.09 kg; beef second with 1.8 kg; pork 0.32 kg; and mutton 0.1 kg. Zahrah Imtiaz writing in Ceylon Today said that beef production had gone up marginally from 32.29 mt in 2003 to 35.94 mt in 2011. However, according to the Census and Statistics Department, cattle slaughtering came down from 207,000 in 2004 to 170,000 in 2013. Beef is exported, with 70.5 metric tons of it being sent abroad in 2013.

Downside of Slaughter Ban

As in 2016, Mahinda Rajapaksa, has now said that while banning cow slaughter, the government will allow import of beef to cater to communities which eat beef. But this will mean spending precious foreign exchange when the government is badly strapped for it. The other question that arises is: After a cow ceases to yield milk what will the poor farmer do with barren cows? The burden of feeding them will result in him letting them loose to roam freely causing other problems. Professional dairy farmers will see the cost of maintaining old cows as a disincentive. And finally, If the government wants to export barren cows, will Buddhist monks allow it?

It is not yet clear if the government of the Rajapaksas will actually ban cow slaughter. It is suspected in some circles that the proposal may just a tactic to get Sinhala Buddhist support at time when the government is trying to get the highly controversial 20 th.,Constitutional Amendment bill to increase the President’s powers, passed with a two-thirds majority.

The latest on this issue is what the cabinet spokesman Kehliya Rambukwella said: According to him what the Prime Minister said at the parliamentary group meeting was only a proposal and that at a decision on banning cow slaughter will be taken after a month’s consultation will all stakeholders.

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