Sacred cows and politics of beef in India

Opposition party, tipped to win national elections, has vowed to protect cattle, triggering fear among beef traders.

Cow is revered as sacred by India's Hindus who constitute 80 per cent of the country's population [EPA]

Bangalore, India – “Modi ko matdan, gai ko jeevadan [Vote for Modi, give life to the cow], BJP ka sandesh, bachegi gai, bachega desh [BJP’s message, the cow will be saved, the country will be saved].”

Mayankeshwar Singh, National Convener of the Cow Development Cell of India’s main opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), spells out a few slogans used in the current parliamentary elections.

“The first one was widely distributed via text messages,” he told Al Jazeera.

The Hindu god Lord Krishna’s favourite animal and the divine bovine, Kamadhenu or “Mother Cow” is revered as sacred by Hindus who constitute about 80 percent of the country’s population.

It is this sanctity that the Hindu nationalist party has vowed to uphold if it comes to power.

Singh said that the conservation, protection and promotion of the cow is a top priority for the party. It figures in the party’s manifesto released on April 7 alongside other controversial plans such as building of the contentious Ram Temple in Ayodhya and cleanup of the Ganges – considered holy by Hindus.

Cow protection is also one of the key conditions laid down by Hindu right-wing organisations such as Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) to back BJP’s Narendra Modi as their prime ministerial candidate.

Singh’s belief that “cow murder is a national crime” resounds within religious fundamentalist Hindus that vehemently oppose cow slaughter.

Mocking ‘pink revolution’

Earlier this month, Modi, the front-runner in the general elections, took a potshot at the ruling coalition (United Progressive Alliance) government for country’s soaring beef exports.

We will build 'cow hostels' in cities, ‘cow pension' will keep farmers from selling old animals to slaughterhouses, a 'cow protection force' will be mobilised to rescue cows

by Mayankeshwar Singh, National Convener, Cow Development Cell, BJP

The only revolution under the government had been the “pink revolution”, he remarked.

He blamed that subsidies were given to slaughterhouses, but not to those who tend cows, an allegation the Congress party rejected saying he (Modi) was “communalising animal husbandry”.

The BJP’s promises and plans for India’s cows are plenty.

“We will build ‘cow hostels’ in cities, ‘cow pension’ will keep farmers from selling old animals to slaughterhouses, a ‘cow protection force’ will be mobilised to rescue cows,” Singh told Al Jazeera.

“Our dream is to also build a ‘cow university’ to teach the usefulness of the indigenous cow,” he said.

Strict implementation of cow-related laws and a reverence for the animal is promoted in all the BJP-ruled states in the South Asian country of 1.2 billion people.

In the western Gujarat state, of which Modi is chief minister since 2001, consumption of both beef and alcohol are banned, and cow slaughter can result in a seven year jail term.

The neighbouring Rajasthan state has taken cow protection a step further with its reported plans for India’s first “Ministry for Cows”, while Madhya Pradesh state has set up a cow sanctuary.

The BJP-led government launched a programme to buy cow urine to be used for various medicinal purposes when it was in power in Himalayan state of Uttarakhand.

For many, the BJP’s emphasis on the cow, an explicit symbol of Hindu piety, stokes differences between Hindus and beef-eating minorities.

Poor man’s diet

Not only Muslims and Christians, but also India’s Scheduled tribes and Scheduled castes – who account for 25 percent of the country’s population, are beef eaters.

In the states of Kerala, West Bengal and most of the Northeastern region – where cattle slaughter is legal, beef is widely consumed.

“Beef is one of the most affordable sources of protein for the Dalit community,” said Mohan Dharavath, President, Dalit Adivasi Bahujan and Minority Students’ Association based in southern city of Hyderabad.

The Association organised two controversial “beef festivals” in the city’s universities, serving beef curry and beef biriyani – a popular rice and meat dish.

The motive was to assert one’s right to choose own food. The events drew huge crowds, including professors and students across faiths and castes, said Dharavath.

The student-wing of the BJP came out openly against the use of beef in university canteens.

While universities are meant to be secular, “food politics” has seeped into canteens, Dharvath told Al Jazeera.

“Universities used to have separate mess halls serving pork and beef in the 1970s, but they refuse to do so now. Brahamincal ideas of what food is acceptable is imposed on everyone,” he said.

A book on the dietary traditions in ancient India was banned for a while because it claimed that Brahmins, who occupy the top rung of Hindu caste ladder, were once beef eaters.

“It got me all kinds of threats,” Professor Dwijendra Narayan Jha, a historian and author of the book, the Myth of the Holy Cow, told Al Jazeera.

While Hindu religious fundamentalists have always associated cow slaughter with Muslims, Jha in his book pointed out that eating beef was common in Vedic and subsequent times among Brahmins long before the advent of Islam to India.

“There is no doubt that beef remained an important part of the Indian haute cuisine and cow was often killed in honour of guests. It is totally baseless to argue that Hindus never ate the flesh of the cow,” he said.

Governments have also been instrumental in reinforcing these beliefs. For example, references to ancient Hindus eating beef were deleted from school text books in 2006. The process was set in motion under the previous BJP-led government.

An Indian labourer works on buffalo and cow leather in a tannery workshop in the Indian city of Kolkata [File: EPA]

Beef export

Despite the sentimentality around beef, India today is among the world’s top beef exporters, second only to Brazil. Beef worth $29m was exported in the year 2012-13.

In the western Gujarat state, meat export has doubled in the last decade, according to a recent report, and it ranks among the country’s top 10 states with slaughterhouses.

Much of the “beef” that political parties are bickering over and all the legal beef exported is, in fact, “carabeef”, meat of the water buffalo and not the cow.

Though significant in India’s agriculture, the black-skinned water buffalo, the vehicle of Yama – the Hindu god of death – is not seen as holy.

Azhar Quershi, General Manager, Mirha Exports, among India’s top beef exporters, said there are many factors that had made the industry successful.

“Indian buffalo meat is a good quality yet affordable alternative in the international market. It is priced at almost half the price of beef from other markets,” he said. “India also has the world’s largest population of buffaloes.”

The industry provides livelihood for a large number of people engaged in the supply chain of procuring cattle, processing, deboning, packing, and allied industries such as leather, pharma and pet food.

In India, the most important cog in the wheel of the beef industry is the farmer, who supplies cattle to slaughterhouses.

Uneconomical animals such as aged milch cattle, bulls or male calves are sold fetching at least a minimum of $332 (Rs 20,000). This is a vital source of income for farmers and a significant security in dire times such as crop failure or drought.

This is not about protecting cows, it is about playing politics

by Rustum Shafiullah, Secretary of Beef Merchants Association of Karnataka

India’s 177 million Muslims in particular, who form a majority in the beef business, are targeted in the guise of cow protection and welfare, Rustum Shafiullah, the secretary of Beef Merchants Association of Karnataka, said.

His community, the Qureshis, have been butchers for generations and that “any ban could economically destroy” them, he said.

The ban on cow slaughter has also fuelled an underground business.

“Cows are often either illegally transported long distances to where slaughter is legal, such as southern Kerala state and neighbouring country of Bangladesh. Or killed in illegal slaughterhouses. There are an estimated 30,000 illegal, unlicensed slaughterhouses in India,” said Poorva Joshipura, CEO of the animal welfare group PETA’s headquarters in India.

Joshipura said that the leather usage is directly related to cattle slaughter, while cows involved in dairy production also undergo various cruelties.

Shafiullah who buys cattle from farmers’ markets said: “Farmers can barely sustain themselves, we cannot expect them to care for unproductive animals.”

“Why do not political parties buy the cows instead of us and ensure them a decent life? This is not about protecting cows, it is about playing politics,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera