Mumbai’s beef ban: A swipe at cultural diversity

Some Hindus celebrate beef ban in Maharashtra state, but minorities, the poor, and the animals themselves could suffer.

India cows
Cows are revered in the Hindu religion and roam freely in cities and villages across India [Getty Images]

Mumbai, India – Akachi Vergis’ family has always looked forward to celebrating Easter with her homemade scotch eggs: hard-boiled eggs wrapped in meat. 

But this year, she is worried the beef she uses to make the dish will not be available. “I don’t think it will work with any other meat,” she said, “so we will have to do without the dish on our table.”

Vergis, a Christian, is one of many Mumbai residents who are feeling the effect of the beef ban that came into effect this month in the western Indian state of Maharashtra.

The law has drawn strong criticism in Mumbai from consumers as well as suppliers of meat, who argue it will hurt their business.

Cows are revered in Hinduism, and protection of the animal can be an emotional issue: last month, for instance, Maharashtra beef traders reported that right-wing Hindus were attacking vehicles carrying cattle to slaughterhouses, and beating the drivers.

On March 2, the president of India cleared the way for the Maharashtra Animal Preservation (Amendment) Bill to become law, almost 20 years after it was first passed by the state legislature. The law imposes a comprehensive ban on the slaughter of bulls, bullocks and calves – in addition to cows, which have been protected from slaughter since 1976.

The only kind of cattle still permitted on plates in the state is the water buffalo, generally seen as an inferior meat that makes up about 25-30 percent of the market, say suppliers.

Possession of beef is punishable by fines and even jail time [Getty Images]
Possession of beef is punishable by fines and even jail time [Getty Images]

Many of India’s states have already passed legislation protecting cows, but the recent amendment in Maharashtra not only widens the prohibitions, it also adds rigorous penalties for those who violate the law.

Now, the mere possession of beef is punishable by a fine of 10,000 rupees ($158) or up to five years in prison. 

‘Our dream … becomes a reality’

Some were elated by the law’s passage – such as Devendra Fadnavis, the chief minister of the right-wing Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) government in the state, who said on Twitter “our dream of ban on cow slaughter becomes a reality now”.

But for others, the ban is a swipe at the city’s cultural and religious diversity.

“Beef was a part of the street-food scene of Mumbai,” said Kalyan Karmakar, a marketing consultant turned food writer who leads food-themed tours of Mumbai.

“Each area had different dishes connected to it, around all the regional and religious communities who have made Mumbai home, like Bohri Muslim dishes, Kerala-style beef fry, and slow cooked ‘barah handi’ cuisine. All that tradition and skill is going out now.”

On the other end of the spectrum, he added, high-end restaurants that imported beef will also be affected, but not as dramatically.

Minette Mazumdar, who lives in the upscale suburb of Bandra, is upset at the gaps the ban has left in the menu of her home-run catering business.

Since beef went missing from the market, she is unable to offer some of her Goan specialties, such as beef roast and meatloaf.

“Since it is mostly the minorities that consume beef, it is obviously targeted against them,” she said.

Documentary director Anand Patwardhan said although the ban would have little personal effect on him, the measure would “widen the gulf between Hindus and Muslims, and announce the unmistakable arrival of majoritarianism”.

Of Maharashtra’s 112 million people, almost 20 percent are non-Hindus.

‘Poor man’s protein’

Poor people, some say, are likely to be disproportionately affected by the beef ban.

“[Beef] is often called the ‘poor man’s protein’,” noted parliamentarian Derek O’Brien in an article criticising the ban.

Buniyad Khan, who owns a small meat shop at Crawford Market in south Mumbai, said rich Indians tend to eat mutton, which he sells for 420 rupees ($6.66) per kilogram, and chicken. Beef, by contrast, is sold for just 150-200 rupees ($2.38-$3.17) per kilogram, depending on its quality.

“Now that it is illegal, it will be impossible for lower income people to purchase meat,” he told Al Jazeera. While buffalo meat is still legal, Khan is wary that prices will soon rise because of the unavailability of alternatives.

“My own family has not eaten meat since the ban was announced,” he said.

We were not slaughtering the animal that is sacred and has emotional significance. But a ban on slaughter of bullocks or oxen has no religious or logical basis, and hurts our livelihood.

by Arshad Siddiqui, meat exporter

Small business owner Azam Qureishy, who lives in the densely populated Behrampada slum, said he had recently secured a loan to expand his business of trading in meat and animal tallow.

“I was making about 500 rupees ($7.92) per day, which was good. Now I have to start something different from scratch,” he said.

India’s ‘pink revolution’

During his prime ministerial campaign in 2014, Narendra Modi – a vegetarian – criticised what he referred to as the “pink revolution” in meat exports promoted by the previous government. Ironically, such exports have risen during his tenure, and India’s shipments of meat abroad are second only to those of Brazil.

“The ban will not directly affect the export market, as we deal in water buffalo,” said Arshad Siddiqui of Al Kabeer, a company that exports processed meat products.

“But the domestic market will see rising prices. Since Mumbai was the business hub, the ban will affect other regions as well.”

“We were not slaughtering the animal that is sacred and has emotional significance,” said Siddiqui.  “But a ban on slaughter of bullocks or oxen has no religious or logical basis, and hurts our livelihood.”

Since the ban was announced, beef dealers in Mumbai have stopped buying and slaughtering water buffaloes, and held a protest march.

But last week, an association of beef traders was denied relief by the Bombay High Court, which urged them not to make the ban “a religious or a prestige issue”.

With time, Indian consumers may adjust to the taste of buffalo meat on their plates. But, said Vikram Doctor, a journalist who writes regularly on food, the ban may end up harming the animals it was designed to protect, since farmers will be forced to look after old and infirm cattle.

“Such animals will be abandoned on the roads and die cruel deaths, or be smuggled in bad conditions all the way to Bangladesh to be slaughtered,” he argued.

For animal lovers to support the ban is hypocritical, he said, because it overlooks this reality.

“If you ask me who will suffer the most, it will be the animals.”

Source: Al Jazeera