What next for the 25,000 cows discharged from the Indian army?

As 39 military farms close, there is a quandary over what to do with the sacred cattle

The Hindu nationalist government has enforced the law protecting cows since assuming office in May 2014. Above, villagers in Assam state, India. Photograph: EPA/STR

The Hindu nationalist government has enforced the law protecting cows since assuming office in May 2014. Above, villagers in Assam state, India. Photograph: EPA/STR

 

The Indian army faces the difficult proposition of disposing of about 25,000 of its cows and bulls following the imminent closure of all 39 of its military farms across the country, farms that were founded 130 years ago by the colonial administration.

The dilemma for the army lies in the fact that the slaughter of cattle is banned in most states where these farms are located, as the animal is sacred to India’s majority Hindu community.

Prime minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government has enforced the law protecting cows since assuming office in May 2014, with 18 of India’s 29 provinces handing down extended jail terms, fines or both for the killing of cows.

This has been further enforced by predominantly Hindu lynch mobs that scour the countryside looking for people they suspect of either abandoning cattle or selling them for beef.

Over the past three years such mobs have killed at least 23 people, mostly Muslims, across India.

The country’s ministry of defence and army headquarters in New Delhi are in advanced discussions with the federal agricultural ministry and the animal husbandry department to determine the future of the military cows, but they have found no solution so far.

“A plan has yet to emerge for the well-cared-for military cows to enter the chaotic civilian world,” quipped former major general Sheru Thapliyal. It will be a daunting prospect for them, he added.

Military milk

This quandary follows the recent ministry of defence decision to close down by October all military farms – spread over 8,100 hectares – in almost all Indian provinces. The farms were started by the British in 1887 to provide to the military milk that was in short supply.

Over decades these farms became embroiled in corruption, with some cases still under investigation, prompting the government to close them down and reallocate the land for badly needed military housing.

Cow protection has become a major social and political issue in India, with opposition parties and activists protesting fiercely against it.

A judge in New Delhi who recently sentenced a man for killing a motorcyclist in Delhi with his car in 2008 explained this phenomenon best.

“The sentence for killing a cow is five, seven or 14 years in different states; but the sentence for causing the death of a human being through rash or negligent driving [under the law] is only two years,” said additional sessions judge Sanjeev Kumar.

In May the federal BJP government delivered a blow to the cattle trade with a decree banning cattle owners from slaughtering their unproductive animals after they had gone dry and were too old to till the fields. They were also legally bound to keep them alive at great expense until they died naturally.

All cattle traders and buyers are also legally bound to declare that their animals are being traded and acquired exclusively for agricultural purposes. Any breach is criminally punishable.

This in turn has forced the closure of scores of abattoirs across India, jeopardising the annual export of beef and hide worth over €3.27 billion.