Amid a shocking rise in incidents of cow vigilantism, which provoked Prime Minister Narendra Modi to make a public statement condemning such incidents recently, the Supreme Court has agreed to hear a plea to criminalise the possession of beef. The decision comes in the wake of an NGO, Akhil Bharat Krishi Goseva Sangh, challenging an earlier verdict by Bombay High Court, which had ruled to the contrary.
In March 2015, the Bharatiya Janata Party-Shiv Sena government in Maharashtra had banned slaughter of cows, bulls and bullocks in the state. It had also criminalised possession of beef, no matter where it had come from. Slaughter of bovines may be punished with a five-year jail term and a fine of Rs 10,000, while possession of bovine meat is punishable by up to one year in prison and a penalty of Rs 2,000.
In April 2015, the high court directed the state government not to take coercive action against those found in possession of beef for three months but had refused to remove the relevant sections of the law that criminalised possession of beef.
On 6 May 2016, Bombay High Court had quashed the Maharashtra government's decision to criminalise possession of beef brought into the state from outside, while upholding the ban on the slaughter of cows, bulls and bullocks in the state.
Akhil Bharat Krishi Goseva Sangh has now moved the apex court challenging the high court's ruling. A bench, headed by Justice A.K. Sikri, has asked the state to respond to the petition.
Earlier, the high court had struck down Sections 5(d) and 9(b) of the Maharashtra Animal Preservation (Amendment) Act, which criminalised possession of beef, arguing that the government could not control what a citizen does in the privacy of their home, so long as they were not acting contrary to the law.
"Section 5(d) which provides that no person shall have in his possession flesh of cow, bull or bullock slaughtered outside Maharashtra is unconstitutional and infringes upon a citizen's right to privacy," the high court had said.
The NGO countered the right to privacy and right to eat as invoked by the high court. According to a report in Hindustan Times, it said "right to privacy is subject to reasonable restriction" and that a citizen has also has "a duty under Article 51-D (directive principles), which mandates cow protection".
"Even if it is assumed there is right to privacy, there is no fundamental 'right to eat' enumerated in the Constitution," the petition said. "Thus a person has a right to eat, but it cannot be stated that a person has a fundamental right to eat a particular food, which is otherwise prohibited in law."
The question whether the right to privacy is part of fundamental rights is yet to be decided by a larger bench of the Supreme Court, the petitioner pointed out.
"The right to eat even non-vegan food is not prohibited, only possession of meat of cow and its progeny is inhibited. Thus the choice is limited to a particular species and it cannot be termed as unreasonable restriction", the NGO said.
Last year, a man in Uttar Pradesh's Dadri village was lynched by a mob on suspicion of keeping beef in his fridge, which had since led to a spike in incidents of cow vigilantism and subsequent backlash by communities that are affected by such policing.
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