The Cost of Faith
The new dimensions of cow slaughtering in India.
Thousands of butchers, skinners and caretakers – also known as qassab who belong to the Muslim community involved in the meat business – saw their livelihoods go up in smoke when a law seeking a ban on the consumption and sale of cows came into force on March 4 early this year.
Building on the foundation of the 1976 prohibition of slaughter of cows, the law makes the killing of bulls and bullocks illegal with a maximum penalty of five years in prison along with fines of up to Rs. 10,000. It even
forbids the possession of cow, bull and bullock meat in Maharashtra, even if the animal was legally slaughtered outside the state.
The ban is a result of a renewed thrust by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to protect cows that are considered sacred and are worshipped by a majority of Hindus. This is reiterated throughout the right-wing party’s election manifesto. Following in Maharashtra’s footsteps, other BJP-led states including Jharkand and Haryana have also tightened the noose around local butchers. Many members of the BJP have voiced their promise to ‘protect and promote the cows and its progeny.’
“How can we accept the fact that cow slaughter is allowed in this country?" said Home Minister Rajnath Singh while speaking to a group of spiritual leaders back in March. "We will use all our might to ban it. We will try to build a consensus."
Many critics though see it as a law specifically targeted at Muslims who control the butchers’ trade across India. In their view, the ban serves as just another reminder of the sheer intolerant atmosphere that exists in a country that prides itself on being the world’s largest democracy; from a push to rewrite school textbooks in order to tell stories of a glorified Hindu past to the severe persecution of nongovernmental organizations that received funds from foreign sources. “Banning books or banning meat — both are an attempt to author cultural codes,” says Shiv Visvananthan, a sociologist and professor at the O.P. Jindal Global University in the northern state of Haryana. “Cultural bias cannot become policy,” he says, further adding that the government is banking on the motivation of the larger majority of Hindus to spur the implementation of what they call their ‘cultural purification’ programs.
Ironically, in spite of the intensely driven ban, India has retained its position of being the world’s largest exporter of beef, even extending its lead over Brazil, according to data cited in a report released by the US Department of Agriculture. According to the report, India exported 2.4 million tonnes of beef and veal in the financial year 2015. The country alone accounts for 23.5% of world meat exports.
In addition, there are still several regions of India that permit the slaughter of cows on the condition that butchers produce the required ‘slaughter certificates.’ These regions include Assam, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Arunachal Pradesh, Kerala, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim and Tripura.
Nevertheless, there are still big segments of the population that feel the pinch of the ban. They notably belong to the Muslim, Christian and lowercaste Hindu communities. Butchers in charge of abattoirs, once centres of immense hustle and bustle, now stand abandoned and deserted. “What are we to do?” asks Sheikh Qureshi. “All of us have become useless.” The 22-yearold butcher, having been out of work for the past 3 months, is now finding it extremely difficult to provide for his family.
Many of the affected had voted for the BJP for the first time last year after supporting the dynastic Congress Party for decades. The law has left many such people to feel disillusioned and betrayed. “The PM promised ‘ achhe din aaney wale hain’ [good days will come],” says Halim Qureshi, a leader of the Bombay Suburban Beef Dealers Welfare Association. “What ‘achhe din?’ He’s taken away our jobs and our food.” The president of the association, Mohammed Ali Qureshi, stresses that a nationwide ban on beef will fail as people in several states enjoy the meat that is a cheap source of protein. "A nationwide ban on cow slaughter is impossible," Qureshi said. "If the government takes any such decision we won't sit quiet and there will be nationwide protest. They will have to regret their decision."
Even Hindu farmers in rural Maharashtra face the brunt of the ban as they find it impossible to take care of ageing cattle they had originally intended to sell for slaughter. “The hypocrisy is evident. There’s a huge vested interest [in the ban]—the buffalo industry,” says sociologist Visvanathan, adding, “The classification of animals is done by sleight of hand. The impact of the ban becomes even more acute for many who are employed in industries related to beef, because they belong to the informal sector. They’re invisible, so their livelihood gets eliminated.”
The government denies that the law particularly targets Muslims and instead claims that it was brought into force for the benefit of the farmers and to arrest the decline of the animal population. Mahesh Pathak, the Maharashtra secretary of animal husbandry has highlighted the long-term benefits of the ban that include an increase in milk production and protein consumption in the state along with a decline in the use of chemical fertilizers. He says that butchers should adjust and “cut buff (buffalo) instead of beef. One choice of meat is not available, but buff will replace it,” he says.
However, the availability of buffalo meat does little to pacify disgruntled Muslim butchers who claim that they prefer bull meat instead. This has therefore led to a complete abstinence from meat altogether as mutton, chicken and fish are too expensive for the poor. “None of us eat buffalo. Sometimes, we eat a quarter kilo of chicken. Sometimes, we eat bread. And sometimes, we go hungry,” says butcher Sheikh Nabi Lal, who is the sole breadwinner for his family of five.
Many have risen to challenge the ban, fearing a total sabotage of their centuries-old customs and traditions, not to mention their livelihoods. Petitions have been filed in the Bombay High Court asking the judiciary to stay certain provisions of the law as, in their view, it violates the constitutional rights of privacy and freedom of choice. Although the government did not grant a stay, it did acknowledge that an overnight ban did not give enough time for people to get rid of the beef they legally possessed. The court eventually directed the government not to prosecute people in possession of beef for three months after the date of the April 29 order or until the petitions are finally heard, whichever is later.
Whatever is it that needs to be done, must be done. For many Muslim butchers along with members of the Christian and lower-caste Hindu communities, life as they know it will become increasingly difficult.
Ironically, in spite of the intensely driven ban, India has retained its position of being the world’s largest exporter of beef, even extending its lead over Brazil.