Jairam Ramesh: Indira Gandhi put RSS’s Guru Golwalkar on cow slaughter committee … wound up after 12 years without a report

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While Union minister for environment and forests Harsh Vardhan has clarified that rules notified by his ministry for restricting sale of cattle for slaughter were misunderstood, the political debate around cow slaughter remains vociferous. Jairam Ramesh, former minister of environment and author of ‘Indira Gandhi: A Life in Nature’, spoke to Nalin Mehta about the first political committee to explore a national ban on cow slaughter set up in 1967, the politics of beef and Indira’s role in India’s ecological history:

You have written about the committee set up by Indira Gandhi on cow slaughter. What did it find?

On 7 November 1966 thousands of sadhus and others attacked Parliament demanding a national ban on cow slaughter. There was police firing and people died. The home minister resigned. On 29 June 1967 Indira set up a high powered committee to examine the issue of a national ban under AK Sarkar, retired chief justice of the Supreme Court. That committee was given six months to submit its report. It met for 12 years but there was no report. I tried to get the primary papers related to it but did not succeed. The only accounts of that committee are in two memoirs. Ashok Mitra, the economist, and Dr V Kurien, the dairy and Amul man – who were both members – have written about it, and quite delightfully.

One of the members of that committee was RSS sarsanghchalak guru MS Golwalkar himself. Indira made him a member of that committee. It was wound up in 1979 by PM Morarji Desai. According to Mitra and Kurien, no report was submitted. There may be something in the home ministry’s deep archives but I didn’t find anything in the National Archives.

Did Indira have a view on cow slaughter?

She did. There is a 1967 letter I quote from then American ambassador Chester Bowles to Dillon Ripley who was then at the Smithsonian Institution which wanted to do a study on the ecological consequences of India’s large cattle population. Bowles replied that the PM doesn’t like this because this is a sensitive issue and must be dealt with only by Indians.

What is your view on the environment ministry’s recent regulations on sale of cattle?

It could have been done in a much better fashion. I don’t think anybody would justify slaughter for the sake of slaughter but there are also issues of faith and livelihoods which must be addressed. There is much that is wrong in what has been done. While some motivations cannot be questioned the manner in which those motivations have got reflected in legislation leaves much to be desired.

Mamata Banerjee and many other chief ministers have a problem with the way this has been done. Tamil Nadu’s leather industry which is a major export earning industry and a major employer will be badly affected. I am not surprised Tamil Nadu has been vociferous. There is an economic angle which also needs to be looked at.

What is your take on beef festivals being organised as a form of protest against the ministry’s move?

I am vegetarian and as minister of environment in 2009 publicly said that the best thing the world can do to reduce methane emissions is to stop eating beef.

Yet, I don’t believe in coercion. It is a lifestyle choice. If people want to eat beef let them eat. The state should not dictate what people should be doing in their personal domain. Surely, we have better things to discuss than cow slaughter at a time when we have a jobs famine. To be discussing beef when the economy is decelerating is bizarre. It is all part of an orchestrated campaign to keep society polarised. It suits the ruling establishment

Why do you call Indira an ecological pioneer?

For the new generation Indira is remembered either for her characterisation as Durga or for the Emergency. What is not being realised enough is that she was an ecological pioneer in India and abroad. The four major legal pillars of environmental regulation in this country – the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972, the Water Pollution Control Act of 1974, Air Pollution Control Act of 1981 and Forest Conservation Act of 1980 – were the result of her single-handed efforts. The institutions we have today like the Central Pollution Control Board, state pollution control boards and the ministry of environment itself were created by her. She is most associated with Project Tiger but she started Project Lion in 1972 a year before Project Tiger.

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