Jayanta Shaw / Reuters An Indian woman watches her cows in the drought-hit village of Purulia, 180 miles west of Calcutta, August 9, 2002.

India's Beef With Beef

When a Cow Is Too Holy to Eat

In the Gaddigodam market in Nagpur, an Indian city in the western state of Maharashtra, which is also home to Mumbai, Abdul Saleem sells tobacco as stray cows, dogs, and malnourished children roam the streets. Nearby, his shop, where he once sold beef, is boarded up; he had to shut down his business after a law passed in Maharashtra in May banned the slaughter of cows, including oxen and bulls.

Although India is a secular nation, about 80 percent of India’s population is Hindu. In Hinduism, cattle are considered sacred and the cow is revered as gau mata or “mother cow.” It is taboo to endanger this holy animal, let alone slaughter it. And so, each one of India’s states has created laws regulating the beef trade. Although the northeastern states have no restrictions on slaughtering cattle, Assam, Tamil Nadu, and West Bengal allow the practice after obtaining a license. Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Bihar, Goa, and Odisha ban cow slaughter altogether, but allow the licensed slaughter of other cattle such as bulls. The remaining 13 states ban all slaughter.

A Hindu woman and a girl seek blessings from a six-legged holy cow in Kolkata, January 11, 2014.

Before the Maharashtra ban, in the neighborhood of Gaddigodam alone, the hub of the beef business in the city, close to 200 families subsisted on earnings from the beef trade. Although there are no official records of the number of people employed in the beef production industry, members of the Bombay Suburban Beef Dealers Welfare Association estimate that the number could be anywhere from 5,000 to 7,000, with almost all of them being Muslim. In Mumbai alone, there were 900 beef shops in 2014, which employed close to 3,600 people. Now, those found keeping or consuming beef could face five years in prison and a fine of 10,000 rupees ($158), if convicted. 

The country might have conflicted views on beef consumption, but historically, it has had no problem with beef export. In fact, India is the world’s second-largest exporter of beef, second only to Brazil. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, last year, Indian beef exports soared 31 percent to 1.5 million tons from the previous year, and were worth $4.3 billion. India is also the fifth-largest meat producer in the world, producing an estimated 6.3 million tons annually, of which 31 percent comes from cattle. Finally, there are 115 million buffaloes in India alone, which is more than half of all buffaloes in the world.

Now, for a country with an ambitious economic growth agenda, banning beef is a step in the wrong direction. According to a report issued by the Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority, the meat industry is now beginning to suffer. According to an article in the Indian newspaper DNA, leather traders in Maharashtra said that the industry will endure a huge setback. "The leather industry will suffer because bull hides have a huge demand and utility for production,” said a member of the Leather Goods Manufacturing Association. “Its non-availability will force imports of finished products from other states.” In fact, the beef ban has cost the state of Maharashtra $2 billion and 50,000 jobs.

Beef is one-third the price of mutton and is a popular red meat choice among Muslims. The alternative to beef—buffalo meat—is usually exported and only consumed by 25 percent of beefeaters. Speaking to the Indian Express, President of the Mumbai Suburban Beef Dealers Association Mohammad Ali Qureshi said that the ban will affect the supply of animal hide to tanneries across the country. “Just the Deonar slaughterhouse in Mumbai supplies 450 animal hides a day, mainly buffalo, to these tanneries,” he said. “This hide was earlier bought at 1,500 rupees a piece but post the ban, tanneries will now have to purchase them at least 2,000 rupees a piece.”) The leather business is one of the biggest contributors to the Mumbai slum’s informal economy, an estimated annual output of more than $500 million, according to Reuters.

Meanwhile, the beef ban has also led to the shuttering of some ancillary small-scale industries that use the by-products of the slaughter trade, such as leather and jewelry manufacturers, soap factories, and plants that process animal bones.

There are health and social costs as well. Beef is one-third the price of mutton and is a popular red meat choice among Muslims. The alternative to beef—buffalo meat—is usually exported and only consumed by 25 percent of beefeaters. The 2011 Global Hunger Index Report ranked India 15th among countries suffering from hunger, and the World Bank estimates that India has the highest number of children suffering from malnutrition. Compounding matters are religious tensions. “Hindus and Muslims have lived alongside each other in this country since the time of the Mughals and beef has never been banned before,” says Saleem, who is distraught over how to provide for his family of seven. “Why now? We have a Hindu colony next to us and they have no problem with us. Why do our leaders?”

Maintaining a healthy secular culture is critical for India, a country where people of different religions, communities, and cultures have lived peacefully side-by-side for centuries. It is this diversity that will help India grow.
DANISH SIDDIQUI / Reuters Empty meat hooks are seen at shed in an abattoir during a strike against a ban on the slaughter of bulls and bullocks in Mumbai, March 23, 2015.

Historically, veneration of the cow has been less rigid in India than it is today. In The Myth of the Holy Cow, historian Dwijendra Narayan explains that when Hinduism’s oldest scriptures, the Vedas, were written during 1000–5000 B.C., the cow was not considered sacred, and ancient Hindus ate beef. The first recorded national ban on cow slaughter appeared in 1527 during the reign of the Mughal Emperor Zahir ud din Muhammad Babur, who created it because he thought that banning cow slaughter would win him goodwill amongst the Hindus. Some Hindu kings did not enforce the ban. It wasn’t until 1857, that beef again became an issue. Indian soldiers revolted against the British for introducing rifle cartridges greased with pork and beef fat because they would have to bite into the cartridge to load the gun. Throughout his entire political career, Mahatma Gandhi, strongly advocated for “Gauraksha” (cow protection), and propagated the idea of banning cow slaughter.

That brings us up to the modern day. During his election campaign last year, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, criticized the sitting government for encouraging the beef trade. He promised to curb the industry if he came to office, a pledge that was very popular amongst Hindus who were ardent supporters of Hindutva (a form of Hindu nationalism) and that Modi has since fulfilled.

Among the Indian public, sentiments on beef are mixed as well. Many Indians, including Hindus, consider beef consumption a status symbol, in part due to Western influence. Despite Modi’s staunch support of the beef ban, the views within the governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are fractured. In a recent row, India’s Minority Affairs Minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, who is a Muslim, reportedly said, “Those who want to eat beef can go to Pakistan.” The Hindu Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju slammed Naqvi saying, “I eat beef. I'm from Arunachal Pradesh. Can somebody stop me? So, let us not be touchy about somebody’s practices. This is a democratic country.” Another Muslim BJP leader, Shahnawaz Hussain, was reported to have asked Muslims to demand a ban on beef sales in their states to “promote communal harmony.” These Muslim leaders support the beef ban primarily to gain the goodwill of the Hindu communities and tap their voter base.

Among the Indian public, sentiments on beef are mixed as well. Many Indians, including Hindus, consider beef consumption a status symbol, in part due to Western influence. Beef has become a popular offering in several high-end restaurants across India and is often the most expensive item on the menu even though it is cheaper than mutton. “So many of our clients come here only for the wagyu beef steak,” says Sumit Singh, a waiter at Morimoto’s Wasabi, which is housed in the iconic Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai. “The ban is a stab in the back for them and for us.”

And so, the beef black market has flourished. Every year, in an underground trade worth hundreds of millions of dollars, close to 1.5 million cattle are illegally smuggled from India into the neighboring country of Bangladesh for slaughter. The Indian Border Security Force personnel that I spoke with (they asked not to disclose their names), told me that the ban of beef has simply increased cow smuggling. Further, they said, counter to popular beliefs, many engaged in the trade are Hindu peasants rather than Muslim butchers. That is because the forces of capitalism trump religious sentiment. The popular assumption is that only Muslims slaughter cows, but the reality is that Hindus do too since it is profitable to do so. In addition to taking the cows to Bangladesh, some traders bypass the ban by transporting cattle into states where they can be legally slaughtered. According to some estimates, India has about 3,600 legal slaughterhouses and 30,000 illegal ones.

People walk past the beef dealers association office at an abattoir during a strike against a ban on the slaughter of bulls and bullocks in Mumbai, March 23, 2015.

Many blame Modi’s Hindu nationalist BJP of enacting laws that impose hardships on minorities. Although Modi has made a grand show of his Hindu values, and won many hearts of a deeply religious constituency, he is dividing the country.

The annual report of the independent, bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, noted: “Since the election, religious minority communities have been subject to derogatory comments by politicians linked to the ruling BJP.” Further, incidents of religiously motivated and communal violence appear to have increased in India over the past three years. India’s Ministry of External Affairs has rejected the findings of the report, however, declaring in a press statement, that it “appears to be based on limited understanding of India, its constitution, and its society. We take no cognizance of this report.”

During his recent visit to India, U.S. President Barack Obama warned, “India will succeed so long as it’s not splintered along the lines of religious faith.” Roughly 80 percent of India’s 1.2 billion population are Hindus, but nearly 15 percent are Muslims. Most of the remaining are either Christian, Sikhs, Jains Buddhist, Adivasi (indigenous tribes), or Zoroastrians. The Indian constitution upholds secularism, which means equal treatment of all religions by the state, as one of its most important tenets and cites in the preamble, “We the people of India, having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic republic…” Maintaining a healthy secular culture is critical for India, a country where people of different religions, communities, and cultures have lived peacefully side-by-side for centuries. It is this diversity that will help India grow.

Since the blow of losing his beef business, hunger and poverty have made Abdul Saleem, who voted to bring the BJP into power, wary of state and national politics. “I have always had good relations with my Hindu neighbors,” he said. “But the cries of my hungry children have started changing this equation. Why can’t the government leave us, and our cows alone?”

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