An explosive cultural stand-off between the Government and Britain’s Hindu community is looming in the formidable shape of a six-year-old black Friesian bull named Shambo.
Hindus from around the country are threatening to form a human chain to prevent the slaughter of the animal, which they regard as sacred, after it tested positive for tuberculosis.
Furthermore, they say that if serious attempts are made to kill Shambo, who forms part of a herd kept by the Skandavale Temple in Llanpumsaint, Carmarthen, south west Wales, Hindus from all around the world will converge on the temple to stop what they see as a religious desecration.
Yet the Welsh Assembly says that no exemptions can be made to the national policy of slaughtering animals testing positive for bovine TB, and does not accept that slaughtering Shambo would be an infringement of the religious rights of the community that owns him.
The looming conflict looks impossible to resolve to the satisfaction of all concerned. On the one hand, bovine TB, which is becoming increasingly common in the national cattle herd, is currently regarded as the most alarming animal health problem facing Britain, and slaughter of infected animals is regarded as essential. (Arguments continue to rage about how much of the spread of the disease is due to the wild badger population.)
On the other hand, cows and cattle are considered sacred to Hindus, who respect them as generous, almost maternal animals. Most of the world’s billion or so Hindus do not eat beef, and the slaughter of cattle is legally banned in most of the states of India.
Yesterday, Ramesh Kallidai, secretary-general of the Hindu Forum of Britain (HFB), which represents the 700,000 Hindus in the UK, said that killing a sacred temple cow or bull was considered to be “highly sacrilegious” and unacceptable. If necessary the Hindu community would form a human chain to prevent it.
“To have a sacred bull from the temple slaughtered is completely unthinkable for us and is a matter of grave concern,” he said. “It strikes at the very core of our beliefs. Killing Shambo will violate our faith tradition and desecrate our temple. It goes against all accepted norms of our faith.”
Mr Kallidai called on the Environment Secretary in London, David Miliband, to intervene, although that is unlikely to happen as the issue is officially a matter for the devolved Government in the principality. The Welsh administration is currently in semi-limbo after last week’s local elections, with the First Minister, Rhodri Morgan, seeking to form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats to stay in power. The Welsh Assembly Environment Minister, who might have the power to intervene, is currently Carwyn Jones.
“It is very important that sometimes governments understand that if there is a way out of this situation, they should look at that seriously,” Mr Kallidai said.
Shambo is one of a herd of 50 animals—35 cattle and 15 water buffalo—kept on the 115-acre estate belonging to the temple, known as the Community of the Many Names of God, which is a multi-faith monastic centre with three Hindu shrines, founded in 1973 and now attracting more than 90,000 pilgrims every year.
The animal tested positive on a routine TB test of the herd last month—the only one to do so—and the temple has now been served with a slaughter notice informing them that he will have to be put down.
But the temple’s leaders say the bull has not developed the disease and is in a “very healthy” condition; he is currently in isolation in a specially-constructed shrine. If he does fall ill, they say, he would be able to recover without risk to other animals. The temple’s Swami Suryananda said: “We believe that under the law, ministers have discretion to exempt Shambo from slaughter.”
The Welsh Assembly’s veterinary department, however, has refused an exemption and has said Shambo must be slaughtered before 21 May.
Hindu leaders are now exploring the possibility of an injunction to stop the slaughter but if that fails they vow they will stop it physically. “We will do whatever it takes to preserve Shambo,” Swami Suryananda said. “People will come from all over Britain, and not just from Britain but from all over the world—if the Government refuses to respect the core values of the Hindu religion.”
A spokeswoman for the Welsh Assembly said: “TB in cattle is an infectious disease that has a significant impact on the health and welfare of the national cattle herd in Wales.
“It is a disease that is transmissible to humans and other mammals, which means it has serious implications beyond the health of cattle. Wales, in common with many other countries, implements a control policy, based on testing and the slaughter of animals believed to be infected, in order to protect both human and animal health.
“We fully understand that this can be distressing for the owners, but these measures are in place to protect public health and animal health and prevent the further spread of the disease.”
Hindus yesterday escalated their campaign to save a sacred bull from slaughter after it tested positive for tuberculosis, but faced an angry backlash from farmers.
Shambo looks unconcerned about the controversy
Hindu leaders have threatened to form a human shield to prevent Shambo, a six-year-old Friesian, from being killed by Government vets later this month.
Senior monks at the Skanda Vale Temple, near Carmarthen, west Wales, where Shambo lives, said the killing of cows and bulls was against their religious principles.
They are now preparing to serve a legal injunction to prevent the cull, and an online petition has already garnered more than 3,500 signatures.
Support has also come from the Hindu Council, which represents 600 Temples and organisations, and Andrew Dismore, the Labour MP for Hendon.
Mr Dismore tabled an early day motion in Parliament yesterday, calling for David Miliband, the Environment Secretary, to stop the cull.
“This is an act of desecration to Hindus, some 90,000 of whom travel as pilgrims to worship at the Temple, every year,” he said. “It is a real test of our multi-faith society, that Department for the Environment, Food and Agricultural Affairs should recognise the deep concern amongst the Hindu community, and act appropriately to allow Shambo to live”.
Mr Dismore said that he decided to intervene after Hindus in his constituency raised the issue with him.
The Hindu Council called on their supporters to lobby the Welsh Assembly, which has the authority to order the destruction, saying that the “murder” of Shambo would breach their religious rights.
Shambo, part of a herd of 35 cows and bullocks, is one of the names of Lord Shiva, one of the three primary Hindu deities.
The bull has been placed in a shrine within the main temple since agriculture officials said they would like to value the bull on May 14 with a view to slaughtering him a week later.
Local farmers urged officials not to be swayed by pressure from the Hindu community. Eifion Huws, a dairy farmer, said: “The Welsh farming community should not be held to ransom by minority interests.
“No-one, especially farmers, wants to see the slaughter of their animals—but if there is one rule for us, there should be one rule for all.”
Mr Huws, vice-president of the Farmers Union of Wales, added: “What would people say if farmers resisted attempts to control this disease? There would be a terrible hue and cry.”
Brian Walters, who has 350 dairy cattle at his farm just four miles from the Hindu temple, said: “They must abide by the law of the land and comply with regulations.
“TB is a highly contagious and dangerous disease and even if the animal in question is in isolation it still poses a risk. It must be slaughtered.”
Mr Walters, 56, has lost cattle himself to the disease and knows of farmers who have had as many as 100 animals slaughtered.
Last year around 6,000 cattle were culled in Wales as a result of TB testing and already in the first two months of this year the figure was 1,329.
The disease was almost wiped out when farmers were allowed to cull badgers, who are the main disease carriers in the animal population. But since the introduction of the 1973 Badger Protection Act incidences of bovine TB have risen dramatically.
Mr Walters said: “Even if the bull in question is in isolation there is no guarantee that there is no danger.
“Badgers have been known to enter farm buildings and drink from cattle troughs.”
Gareth Vaughan, FUW president, said: “The loss of valued and loved animals due to TB is a situation that scores of Welsh farmers face on a daily basis.
“But the regulations are there to protect human and animal health and ensure that animal suffering is minimised.
“We trust that the Welsh Assembly Government will treat this case with that in mind.
“It is quite a change to hear suggestions that cattle should be treated differently because they are sacred.
“We are more used to the frustrating situation where badgers are effectively treated as sacred, despite the fact that in many areas one in four have been shown to have the disease.”