The incendiary politics of beef
There is more to the proposal to ban cow slaughter than safeguarding the cow
By P.K.Balachandran/Weekend Express
via NewsIn Asia (Sri Lanka) - September 11, 2020
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.
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