India’s politics of meat

Today in India, what you eat is who you have voted for.

Digvijay Nath Tiwari (L), the commander, and
Members of a Hindu nationalist vigilante group established to protect cows are pictured with animals they claimed to have saved from slaughter in Agra, India [Cathal McNaughton/Reuters]

The food police have struck in Lucknow, the capital of India’s Uttar Pradesh, cracking down not only on the illegal sale of beef but also the perfectly legal sale of buffalo meat.

In sympathy, the chicken and goat-sellers in the city have mutinously downed their shutters. As a result, vegetable prices have sky-rocketed, but the state’s newly elected chief minister Yogi Adityanath, an avowed bachelor who has devoted his life to the worship of god but has no qualms about dabbling in politics, remains unmoved.

These days in BJP-ruled India, what you eat is who you have voted for.

The food on your plate is directly linked to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) decision to not only strictly implement the ban on slaughtering cows, considered sacred animals across the country, but also shut down the business of transporting buffalo. In the BJP’s lexicon, it seems, all bovines are equal.

Of course there’s more to the kebab than meets the eye.

The meat trade in India is run mostly by Muslims who are largely antipathetic to the BJP and what it stands for.  It’s not difficult to see why, as Muslims have often faced the brunt end of communal mob fury and paid with their lives: In Gujarat in 2002 about 800 Muslims were killed; in 1992, in the wake of the demolition of the Babri Masjid mosque, several hundred Muslims lost their lives; and before that in 1987 in Meerut, 42 Muslim men were forcibly picked up and shot in cold blood.

Revenge and reconciliation

In a country as diverse as India, which was birthed in 1947 in the horrors of violence that accompanied a division along religious lines, neither revenge nor reconciliation is a new motif.

In the ebb and flow of centuries, good and bad kings have presided over both communal conflagration and the brotherhood of men.

Previous governments of the Congress Party have often paid lip service to minority Indians, including Muslims, and sometimes aided and abetted communal riots. A former BJP government run by Atal Bihari Vajpayee – between 1998 and 2004 – acknowledged that Muslims feel especially disenfranchised and said that they must be integrated into the mainstream.

But Narendra Modi’s government has been different. It has maintained a stony silence in the face of climbing social tension in the past three years.

Under Modi it seems the BJP is determined to avenge 800 years of Muslim rule in India that started when the Afghan king Mahmud of Ghazni invaded the country in the 11th century and destroyed a temple in Somnath, especially holy to Hindus. A dominant strain in the party today believes that Muslims must fall in line and repent for the sins they committed against Hindus in the long-gone past.

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So when a Muslim man was killed barely 50km from the capital, Delhi, in 2015, on the rumour that he stored beef in his refrigerator, Modi didn’t say a word.

As Lucknow becomes vegetarian and the rest of Uttar Pradesh follows suit, the question is whether the BJP will use its incredible political majority in the state to monitor personal choice.


In early April, a dairy farmer named Pehlu Khan was murdered by vigilantes protesting their allegiance to the sacred cow. They accused Khan of taking the cow that he had just bought from a cattle fair in Rajasthan to the slaughterhouse. Modi, once again, did not condemn the act or issue a statement or a tweet that promised that justice would be done.

The BJP’s parent body, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), whose foot soldiers play a big part in turning the tide in favour of the BJP when elections need to be won, wants to ban not only beef but also buffalo meat. “The cow gives milk, like your mother does. Should you kill your mother or should you treat her in a sacred manner?” an RSS follower asked me.

So last week, the nation’s solicitor-general told the Supreme Court that all cattle would soon get tamper-proof tags with a unique identification number – akin to the social security numbers that Indians are getting these days – which will prevent cow smuggling and protect the animal by exhibiting a range of data including the type of horn and tail.

Is the penny finally starting to drop?

Some people say the Modi government is getting perturbed about the terrible press his foreign investor-friendly government has been getting from all these cow troubles. It’s one thing, after all, to implement a nonsensical “fatwa” on the kind of food you can eat, but quite another to allow those accused of a lynching to go scot-free.

BJP leaders are also slowly realising that India’s unique diversity makes it incredibly difficult to implement a meat – or even a beef – ban. For example, India’s predominantly Christian population in the northeast eats beef, and a beef ban in these parts will make the BJP so unpopular that it will never be able to come to power.

Moreover, India earns as much as $4bn annually from exporting buffalo meat – largely to the Middle East, but also to South-East Asia. Certainly, that’s not petty change.

So, perhaps the penny is finally beginning to drop.

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BJP-run Rajasthan’s chief minister Vasundhara Raje spoke up about Pehlu Khan’s murder more than three weeks after the incident, to say that the guilty would not be spared.

But there was not one word of commiseration to the family. Nor has anyone bothered to deny the remarks of Rajasthan home minister Gulab Chand Kataria, who said Pehlu Khan was lynched because he had at least three cases of cow-smuggling registered against him.

BJP leaders say, off the record, that these cow vigilantes don’t belong to the party and bring it shame. But Yogi Adityanath, the chief minister, is regularly confronted by statements that his own former organisation, the Hindu Yuva Vahini, and other extreme right-wing bodies make about or against Muslims and neither he nor his government has said nary a word on the issue yet.

From a public health point of view, the overenthusiasm in shutting down Uttar Pradesh’s so-called illegal abattoirs is a welcome step – after all, several of them are run in terrible conditions. 

It seems that 27 tests need to be cleared to run an abattoir – they must have working air-conditioning, running water, etc, which is all very well in theory, but in practice terribly difficult to fulfill. In fact, several government-run abattoirs were also shut down because they violated one or another of these requirements. Which means that small meat retailers have nowhere to go, except undertake small-scale operations in the bylanes of inner cities.

So as Lucknow becomes vegetarian and the rest of Uttar Pradesh follows suit, the question is whether the BJP will use its incredible political majority in the state to monitor personal choice. And why it feels so insecure that it must even consider the need to do so.

Editor’s note: An eariler version of this article incorrectly claimed that India earns as much as $1bn a year from buffalo meat exports. The actual figure is $4bn.

Jyoti Malhotra has been a journalist for more than 30 years, is based in New Delhi, India, and has worked in a variety of news media, such as print, TV, radio and the web, in both English and Hindi. Her areas of interest include domestic Indian politics as well as India’s foreign policy, especially across South Asia.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.