FOOD FIGHT

08.03.15 5:00 AM ET

Nothing’s Secular in Modi’s India

A regional ban on selling or consuming cows by forces close to Modi’s Hindu government has traditional Muslim butchers starving—and others worried about the country’s secular future.

MUMBAI — The stench of slowly rotting bovine entrails lingers in the air on a sultry June afternoon at the Deonar abattoir. A few men desultorily tend to a handful of water buffaloes in a muddy pen, but otherwise the grounds of the slaughterhouse—the largest in India—seem deserted.

A few steps away, six butchers seated on blood-splattered concrete idly chew paan—a mixture of betel nut and tobacco—and chat under the shade of a pale yellow building. Sheikh Qureshi has had almost no work for three months. After a new law banned the possession, sale, and consumption of beef in the western Indian state of Maharashtra, the 22-year-old butcher has been struggling to support his family.

“What are we to do?” he says. “All of us have become useless.”

Around 2,000 men at the slaughterhouse—butchers, skinners, caretakers—watched their jobs collapse overnight when the law came into force March 4.

Expanding a 1976 prohibition of the slaughter of cows, the ban makes killing bulls and bullocks illegal and punishable with a maximum of five years in prison and fines as much as 10,000 rupees (around $160). The amendment also forbids the possession of cow, bull, and bullock meat in Maharashtra, even if the animal was legally slaughtered outside the state.

Beef in India is typically the meat of less-revered male cattle and water buffalo because cow slaughter is banned or stringently restricted in almost all Indian states. Hindus, who make up some 80 percent of India’s 1.2 billion-strong population, believe the cow is sacred. But for Muslims, Christians, and many lower-caste Hindus, beef is a vital part of their diet.

Many say the new law is specifically targeted at Muslims, who control the butchers’ trade across India. The election manifesto of the Hindu right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, which won federal elections by a landslide last year, promised to increase “protection and promotion of cow and its progeny.” (PDF)

The Maharashtra ban, the first legislative measure to fulfill this pledge, forebodes a climate of increasing intolerance and censorship in a country that prides itself on being the world’s largest democracy.

From a push to rewrite school textbooks retelling history and science as a glorified Hindu past to the persecution of non-governmental organizations that receive foreign funds, life in India looks increasingly bleak for those who do not toe the Hindu right’s line.

Experts say this state-endorsed shift toward bigotry threatens centuries-old customs of religious minorities and marginalized social groups. “Cultural bias can’t become policy,” says Shiv Visvananthan, a sociologist and professor at the O.P. Jindal Global University in the northern state of Haryana.

Two weeks after Maharashtra imposed its beef ban, the state assembly of Haryana unanimously passed a bill with harsher punishments for the possession and sale of beef. “Banning books or banning meat—both are an attempt to author cultural codes,” explains Visvanathan, adding that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government is capitalizing on the “majoritarian impulse” of large swaths of the Hindu population to drive its cultural purification programs.

Last December, mobs of Hindu nationalists in northern India forced hundreds of Muslims to “reconvert” to Hinduism. These Muslims, the hard-line Hindu groups argue, have strayed from their path and are returning home to the Hindu fold.

“The PM promised ‘achhe din aaney wale hain’ [good days will come],” says Halin Qureshi, a leader of the Bombay Suburban Beef Dealers’ Welfare Association. “What ‘achhe din?’ He’s taken away our jobs and our food.” Qureshi—a surname common among Muslims in the beef trade—says he voted for the BJP for the first time last year after supporting the dynastic Congress Party for decades.

The government of Maharashtra, one of India’s richest and most populous states, denies that the law targets Muslims. It was brought into force “for the benefit of the farmers and to arrest the decline of the animal population,” says Mahesh Pathak, the Maharashtra secretary of animal husbandry.

According to Pathak, the long-term benefits of the beef ban include an increase in milk production and protein consumption in the state, and a decline in the use of chemical fertilizers. The butchers should adjust and “cut buff”—buffalo—“instead of beef,” he says, adding, “One choice of meat is not available, but buff will replace it.”

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The Muslim butchers at Deonar, however, say they don’t like buffalo meat. “We are eaters of bull meat,” says Qureshi, the beef association leader. Preference aside, the number of animals slaughtered—and consequently the supply of beef—has dramatically declined, to 170 per day from 400 at its abattoir, according to its deputy general manager.

For many, this sudden shortage has led to near abstinence from meat altogether. Mutton, chicken, and fish are too expensive for the poor, for whom beef is a fundamental source of nutrients.

“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.

While the butchers of Mumbai find it hard to make ends meet, India’s beef exports, predominantly buffalo meat, have soared in the past five years. The country now rivals Brazil (PDF) as the world’s largest exporter of beef, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.

“Look at the hypocrisy. 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, says Visvanathan. “They’re invisible, so their livelihood gets eliminated,” he says.

Even Hindu farmers in rural Maharashtra—who most likely are vegetarians—are facing the brunt of the ban. They are unable to care for the aging cattle they intended to sell for slaughter, according to reports in The Times of India.

The ban hasn’t gone unchallenged. Petitions filed in the Bombay High Court asked the judiciary to stay certain provisions of the new law, arguing that they violate the constitutional rights of privacy and freedom of choice.

The court, the highest in Maharashtra, did not grant a stay. But in a feebly worded order, the judges recognized that an overnight ban did not grant enough time for people to get rid of the beef they once legally possessed.

The high court did, however, direct the government not to initiate prosecution against 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.

That’s of little consolation to the butchers, who used to earn around 600 rupees ($10) each day for 14 hours of work. “We don’t know how to do anything else,” says Mohammed Qureshi. “This [slaughterhouse] is like a jail for us.”