It is no secret that in the Hindu faith, followed by over 80% of the Indian population, cows are venerated creatures that are to be respected. The politics surrounding cows in India are so deeply entrenched in Indian society that, since 2014, India has seen a spike in ethno-religious tensions throughout the nation. This has been partly due to the nationalist Hindu policies of the ruling government.
Meanwhile, the Indian beef industry currently supplies 23% of global beef exports, worth an estimated $4.3 billion for the Indian economy. As such, any turmoil in this relatively large sector of the Indian economy will undoubtedly leave a mark on the nation of 1.3 billion. Since the 2014 election of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Indian beef industry has been shaken by a series of controversial government policies, outbreaks of violence, and public outrage.
The issue at hand comes on the heels of the ruling nationalist BJP mixing religious belief and politics, much to the extent of minorities and tolerance. The Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi makes no secret of his embrace of the hindutava ideology, is a loaded term that refers to Hindu chauvinism, which encourages Hindu values. This should come as no surprise given that the BJP’s campaign slogans in 2014 included such promising examples as “Vote for Modi, give life to the cow” and “The cow will be saved, the country will be saved.”
On their end, the BJP has kept their word and banned the slaughter of cows in 18 states across India, with more planned bans coming down the line. Furthermore, since his election, Prime Minister Modi has passed legislation to establish ambulances for cows, cow hostels, and ID cards for tracking cows.
However, many in India have not been so receptive of these policies, nor have they particularly been a fan of those acts of legislation that impact the sale and slaughter of cattle, and industries based on cattle products, such as leather. This is because these legislative measures have had the largest impact on the economic livelihoods of the poor and working class who live off of these industries.
Furthermore, in the village of Kozihokde in the Southern state of Kerala, eating beef has become an act of political defiance. Slogans reading “Our food, our choice” have been plastered and decorated a village feast dedicated to the cooking of beef as a political message. What is interesting is that the attendants were not restricted to non-Hindu minorities, on the contrary, many Hindus took part in the feast in solidarity of opposition to these new Draconian laws.
Amidst all this, acts of violence carried out by bands of vigilantes who aim to enforce the ban on the slaughter of cattle have pushed ethno-religious tensions to the boiling point between Muslims and Hindus in many states.
For instance, in 2015, Mohammad Akhlaq was dragged out of his bed by one such vigilante mob and beaten to death for the alleged crime of consuming beef. In another such case, a driver was killed by a mob who had assumed he was transporting a cow for slaughter, when in reality he was a dairy farmer. These incidents come at a time where the ruling BJP and its supporters are becoming increasingly nationalist.
Moreover, in the state of Uttar Pradesh, a hard-line cleric named Yogi Adityanath has initiated “anti-Romeo” squads to crack down on Western-style public displays of affection. The real danger here is this vigilante approach to justice by nationalists and the subsequent lack of a response from the government. With that said, to an extent, this lack of response is understandable as Prime Minister Modi campaigned on a forum of minimum government, and maximum governance, in an attempt to avoid the corruption scandals of the previous government under then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
Nonetheless, there is a deeper historical context to this issue extending from the Mughal invasions to the Partition in 1947, and this period that some are calling the “beef terror” has seen many people, mostly of the lower Dalit caste and Muslim minority, suffer from violence at the hands of Hindu nationalists. However, while it would be inaccurate to pin the blame solely on the Indian government, there is a definite role for them in stoking the fires of this crisis. As such, the government of Prime Minister Modi should be weary of having its policies be the spark for renewed ethno-religious violence in India.
Furthermore, there needs to be a serious effort on the part of the Indian government to reign in and crack down on vigilante mobs whose street justice has already taken the lives of many of India’s most vulnerable. This is the only way to regain the legitimate trust of those who may see the current Indian government as catering specifically to hard-line Hindu nationalist supporters, whilst ignoring the concerns of others, including mainstream Hindus.