In September 2020, the Sri Lankan cabinet approved Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s proposal to ban domestic cattle slaughter. Cabinet spokesman and Mass Media Minister Keheliya Rambukwella announced that the decision would pass into law in ‘due course.’ The move may be considered a way of ‘thanking’ the country’s Buddhist majority, who have long lobbied for a beef ban, or to win support and maintain favour with the same group. Ultimately it is a politically motivated decision designed to appease the island’s majority population of Sinhalese Buddhists.
According to Mr Rambukwella, the current governments ban follows requests from ‘various quarters’ and was mostly put forward as a ‘good gesture’ toward the Buddhist community. Under the proposed ban, beef imports are still permitted, and would be sold at a concessionary price to those who consume it. In addition to this, a programme will be launched for ageing cattle which can no longer be used for agricultural purposes.
Rampant and rising Islamophobia
Others are less convinced. In 2017, scholars Mohammad Agus Yusoff and Athambawa Sarjoon, of the Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia and University of Peradeniya respectively, suggested that such campaigns are actually motivated by religious and ethnic concerns:
‘The underlying motives are actually ethnic, religious, and material well-being. In this instance, anti-halal and animal welfarism is just a vehicle for attacking Muslims’ religious practices and businesses. It is part of a wider anti-Muslim movement that appeals to general Buddhist principles, which, on the surface, seem reasonable, but in reality it is used as a device to target and marginalize Muslim communities from the trade and business sectors of the country.’
Anxiety in Muslim-Buddhist relations in Sri Lanka is certainly detectable, particularly since the 2009 civil war. In recent years, anti-Muslim violence and vitriolic comments about Muslim cultural practices and traditions by Buddhist nationalist groups have exacerbated interreligious tensions. The 2019 Easter Sunday Bombings in which over 250 people died when hotels and Christian services were attacked by Islamic extremists also undoubtedly intensified existing Islamophobic rhetoric.
As well as having some potentially devastating economic effects on the Muslim community, the ban on cow slaughter could further entrench religious intolerance. For some time, state actions have demonstrated its discontent with cow slaughter. In 2012 local government offices refused to issue animal slaughter permits for the performing of udhuiya or qurbani[i] during Hajj. In September of the same year, the Kandy Municipal Council banned the slaughter of cattle and goats within the Kandy municipal limits.
Proponents of such proposals argue that the slaughter of animals for human consumption and rituals are against Buddhist values, and are therefore an insult to the Buddhist majority nation.
Lessons from India
One needs only to look to neighbouring India to see how state narratives of intolerance and hatred towards religious minorities quickly nurtures vigilantism and even mob violence, often perpetrated within a culture of impunity.
India is already home to various laws that regulate the slaughter of cattle, as well as the transportation and sale of cattle and beef. In many of these laws the burden of proof lies with the accused. Punishment for the transport of cattle for slaughter in states such as Haryana and Jammu can range from large fines or up to ten years in prison. In Gujarat state, cow slaughter is punishable with life imprisonment. In 2017 India’s Supreme Court suspended a nationwide ban on the sale of cattle for slaughter due to the effect this would have on the livelihoods of many communities.
In recent years these laws have been repeatedly upheld by vigilante groups and community members known as Gau Raksha (cow protection) groups. Victims of these groups are often severely beaten or even killed, mostly in response to false rumours or allegations.
According to Human Rights Watch, cow protectors have “assaulted Muslim men and women in trains and railway stations in Madhya Pradesh state, stripped and beat Dalit men in Gujarat, force-fed cow dung and urine to two men in Haryana, raided a Muslim hotel in Jaipur, and raped two women and killed two men in Haryana for allegedly eating beef at home.”
Muslims, who are the traditional owners of slaughterhouses much like in Sri Lanka, are disproportionality affected. Out of 123 reported incidents of cow related hate violence between 2010-2018, Muslims accounted for 56% of those attacked and 78% of those killed. In August 2020 two Muslim men were beaten with sticks after reportedly shooing away cattle which were grazing on their land a few days prior, allegedly injuring one in the process.
Christians are also victims of cow vigilantism. In April 2019, a Christian man from an Adivasi tribe was killed after he and three other Christians were severely beaten after helping to skin an ox that had died of natural causes. In September 2020, seven Christians in Jharkhand state, were beaten and humiliated by a mob of 60-70 people from a neighbouring village responding to allegations the Christians were involved in the trade of beef. A subsequent police investigation found these allegations to be false.
A bleak picture for religious minorities
Policies such as the proposed ban on cattle slaughter can give rise to tensions between religious groups, particularly when they appear to discriminate against minority groups. It is not implausible that, in defence of the Buddhist Sasana,[ii] policies put in place by the new regime will continue to politicise Buddhist identity at the expense of minority rights, raising serious concerns about the future of freedom of religion or belief as enshrined within the constitutional framework of Sri Lanka.
By CSW’s Asia Team Leader and CSW’s Advocacy and Projects Officer
[i]Udhiya (Arabic) and Qurbani (Urdu and Persian) is the practice of sacrificing an animal during Hajj to reflect the Prophet Ibrahim’s willingness to sacrifice his son Ismail, for the sake of God
[ii] The Buddhist Sasana usually refers to Buddha’s teachings but in the Sri Lankan context is often understood as ‘the physical bounds of the land consecrated by the Buddha.’