There is an iconic scene in the 2017 Malayalam film Godha that encapsulates the Malayali love for beef.
In it, two characters — Anjaneya Das (portrayed by Tovino Thomas) and Pandi (Bala Saravanan) — are at a restaurant table and Das has just waxed eloquent about beef roast.
Pandi: Why is it that people from your region (Kerala) are always wandering around looking for parotta and beef curry?
Das: We will… (wander). You know… for us Malayalis, this parotta and beef roast… it is not just some food… it is… an emotion.
The very thought of a platter of hot and fluffy-yet-crispy parotta along with a bowl of steaming, spicy beef roast is enough to leave the average Malayali salivating.
Irrespective of religion, caste, community and gender, beef roast and parotta is the comfort food for many Malayalis.
It should not, therefore, be a surprise that Kerala is among the few states and Union Territories in the country that don’t have any legislation on cow slaughter.
But what is surprising is that despite the state’s obsession with beef, there have been several legislative attempts to prohibit cow slaughter — and one of them came perilously close to succeeding.
Protecting the cow
It was almost 111 years ago, on 5 March, 1912, that Ganapathy Pillai, a member, of Trivandrum Trading Classes, raised the demand for an end to cow slaughter before the Sri Mulam Popular Assembly of Travancore (TSMPA).
His argument was based on two pillars – religious and agricultural.
“From a religious point of view, the slaughter of the cow, the sacred animal of the Hindus, is opposed to the principles of Hinduism which forbids the infliction of injury upon others,” Ganapathy said, according to records.
He then told the Assembly that an association has been formed in Trivandrum to prevent cows from being killed, and that it had already enlisted the sympathy of more than 6,000 people.
“From the point of view of the agriculturist, the preservation of cows was necessary, as cattle were useful for ploughing and the purposes of manure,” he added.
Public health perspective
The issue was raised again a year later, on 22 February, 1913. But this time, KG Sesha Iyer, a nominated member of the TSMPA, based his argument on public health concerns.
“There was, of late, a large volume of expert opinion against meat-eating. Those who had studied it had come to the distinct conclusion that meat was deleterious,” Iyer said.
The member referred to various studies abroad on the effects of meat-eating, as well as in an Indian jail, and called upon the government to initiate steps to stop the practice in the state.
“It would not only more effectively prevent the animals from being killed, but would also save the people from unknowingly contracting the long array of diseases which meat-eating was subject to,” he said.
To bring his demand home, Iyer argued that in northern India, cow slaughter was made an offence in most Hindu states.
Plus, he said, this had been the rule all along in the neighbouring state of Cochin as well.
A one-vote defeat
A decade after Iyer’s submission, a resolution was moved in the Travancore Legislative Council (TLC), calling for an early legislation prohibiting the killing of cows in Travancore state.
Presented on 1 November, 1923, the resolution — moved on grounds of economic, humanitarian, and religious aspects — elicited a lengthy discussion.
When pressed, the petitioner said he had no objection to bulls being slaughtered.
The arguments of the government representative, V Subba Aiyar, stood out in the debate.
According to Subba Aiyar, although Hindus regard the cow as a sacred animal, people of other religions do not. So, he said, to ask non-Hindus to forsake beef because of Hindus would be unfair.
“It is a matter of mutual arrangement to see that one religionist sympathises and respects the sentiments and feelings of the others, rather than for statutory prohibition and legislative interference on the part of the state,” Subba Aiyar argued.
When the resolution was put to vote, 20 voted for and 21 voted against.
Year later, another resolution
A year later, in 1924, the demand was tabled again, this time in the Travancore Assembly, by two members.
One of the members wanted a committee to be formed to look into the feasibility of enacting a law (to prohibit cow slaughter) in the interests of public health and agriculture.
While the other member said that as the state was being ruled by a Hindu king, the prohibition should be initiated.
He also presented a memorandum signed by 23 members of the Assembly.
The members were then given an assurance by the Assembky President (equivalent of a Speaker, one who controls the House) that their demands, including formation of a committee, would be considered.
But in 1927, while answering to a question by a member regarding legislation to prohibit cow slaughter, the government informed the House that it had no such intention at that moment.
A fourth resolution
In 1932, a new resolution recommending the prohibition of cow slaughter was tabled in the legislative council.
This resolution suffered the same fate as the earlier one, but by a wider margin: It was defeated 14-23, with four members remaining neutral.
This time, too, the bull was exempted from purview of the resolution.
The government took the stance that a cow is a person’s property, and the owner had the right to do anything with it as long as no one was injured.
Cochin Cow Protection Bill
Compared to Travancore, the princely state of Cochin saw the presentation of a Bill — Cochin Cow Protection Bill, as opposed to a mere resolution — in 1927.
The Bill was sent to a select committee for its consideration.
The member who introduced the Bill — TA Ramachandra Ayyar — said there was a consciousness prevalent throughout the country that the slaughter of cows was heinous and undesirable.
Those opposing the bill asked why the same sentiment was not evident in the case of other animals.
The fate of the bill is not known.
Beef has a secular appeal in Kerala, and even the slightest attempt to ban it evokes sharp reactions.
There was an uproar in the state when the Delhi Police raided Kerala House in the national capital in 2015 on suspicion that beef was being served, while it was buffalo meat that was being sold as beef fry.
Similarly, beef festivals were organised in 2017 on the streets in Kerala to protest the Centre’s attempt to prohibit cow slaughter, and also when a Kerala Police training institute dropped beef from its menu in 2020.
While right-wing Hindu outfits successfully played the cow protection card in various states, they have made no headway in Kerala.
In fact, they seem to have come to terms with the fact that no one can mess with Malayalis’ love for beef.
Perhaps that is why a BJP leader — N Sreeprakash, fielded by the party in the Malappuram Lok Sabha by-poll in 2017 — saw nothing wrong in seeking votes by promising “good beef” in the constituency.
And in 2015, a national executive member of the party from Kerala — Shobha Surendran — said there was nothing wrong in eating beef.
Some years ago, BJP state chief K Surendran was photographed eating what appeared to be parotta and beef and was trolled mercilessly on social media.
Surendran denied it was beef, claiming it was a dish of onion roast. He is still sometimes referred to as Ulli (onion) Surendran by denizens of social media.