A year after the state government enacted a total ban on beef in the state, the Bombay high court on Friday relaxed the restrictions and struck down draconian provisions that could be misused by law-enforcement agencies and vigilantes. A division bench of Justice Abhay Oka and Justice Suresh Gupte upheld the ban on slaughter of bulls and bullocks, along with cows, in Maharashtra, but struck down as “unconstitutional” provisions that made it an offence to consume and possess beef that was brought from outside the state. The judges said the state could not dictate a citizen’s “choice of food”.
Mere possession of beef would also no longer be a crime, with the HC reading the provision down to “conscious possession”–the state will have to prove that the person had knowledge that the meat in his possession was the result of illegal slaughter.
The HC struck down a third provision of the year-old law that fastened “presumption of guilt” on the accused. The law said if a person sells or transports cows, bulls or bullocks, it would be presumed that it was meant for the purpose of slaughter and he could be prosecuted. This is now no longer available to the state. All three provisions, the state had insisted at the time of arguments, were required for proper enforcement of the law. A plea by the state lawyers for a stay on that portion of the judgment was rejected by the high court. The Bombay high court on Friday decriminali sed beef possession. Ho wever, it upheld the ban on slaughter. CM Devendra Fadnavis said the court had upheld the law but added the state will look into the order and decide if it wants to move the Supreme Court against the striking down of two provisions. While, according to the law, slaughter, transportation and sale attracts a prison term of up to 5 years, possession of beef brought in from outside the state could attract up to a year in jail.
A coalition of citizens of Mumbai from every community, that included filmmakers, journalists, women’s rights activists and even a sitting MLA, had challenged the Maharashtra Animal Preservation (Amendment) Act, especially Section 5D, that made possession of beef brought from outside Maharashtra a crime. The HC agreed the section violated the “right to privacy” that the court held was part of the fundamental right to life and liberty guaranteed under the Constitution.
The HC verdict could spur antibeef-ban activists to move similar petitions in other states which have similar beef ban laws.
“As far as the choice of eating food of the citizens is concerned, the citizens are required to be left alone especially when the food of their choice is not injurious to health,” said the judges. “In fact the State cannot control what a citizen does in his house which is his own castle, provided he is not doing something which is contrary to law. The State cannot make an intrusion into his home and prevent a citizen from possessing and eating food of his choice.”
The court said the state had not made out a case that there was some public interest in enacting Section 5D, whose focus was on targeting consumption of beef. “If the State tells the citizens not to eat a particular type of food or prevents the citizens from possessing and consuming a particular type of food, it will certainly be an infringement of a right to privacy as it violates the right to be left alone,” the HC added.
“This is a salutatory judgement,” senior advocate Aspi Chinoy, counsel for one of the petitioners, “Section 5D was an attempt by the state to intrude into the privacy of an individual, without there being any overriding public interest.” Advocate Firoz Bharucha, who at the time of the hearing had pointed to contradiction of state laws that allow import of leather of cows, bulls and bullocks but prohibited their flesh, said, “The judgment is a victory for all the people of Maharashtra, irrespective of whether they eat beef or are vegetarian. If the state transgresses its powers, then the court can and will strike the government’s actions down as being constitutionally invalid.”
The HC, however, threw out the challenge to the government’s ban on slaughter of bulls and bullocks. “The State has placed on record material to support the stand that it is necessary to preserve cows, bulls and bullocks and to prevent its slaughter in the State. Considering the legal and factual position and what we have discussed above, we find that the stand of the State Government that prohibiting the slaughter of cows, bulls and bullocks is in public interest will have to be accepted,” said the court. The HC said that the ban on slaughter did not violate the fundamental rights to equality , practise a profession or pro fess a religion. “The petitioners have failed to establish that the slaughter of cows, bulls or bullocks is a part of the essential culture of any religion or community ,” the HC observed.
Some of the petitioners had argued that sacrificing a bull for Eid was an essential part of the religion for Muslims. The HC however pointed to SC judgments which said the sacrifice of a cow or bull was optional and not an essential part of the r