India's Beef With Beef

When a Cow Is Too Holy to Eat

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

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.

Rupak De Chowdhuri / Reuters
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

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