A ban on beef slaughter in India's southern state of Maharashtra has stirred up a hornet's nest across the country and has the potential to play havoc with the agricultural export industry.
The new law amends the Maharashtra Animal Preservation Act. It is the country's most stringent dealing with beef, banning slaughter, sale and consumption and prescribing a jail term of up to five years plus a fine equivalent to US$160 for those found selling beef or possessing it.
Astonishingly for a country with a population that is 80 percent Hindu and reveres cattle, India is the world’s largest bovine meat exporter, sending out 1.3 million tonnes of beef worth US$4.5 billion to Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand, Australia, the United Arab Republic, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Beef is now India’s single biggest agricultural export, overtaking basmati rice exports.
India’s meat exports commenced in 1969. In more than four decades, the country has built a reputation as a reliable exporter of risk-free, lean, nutritious and competitively priced meat.
According to the 19th Livestock Census released by the ministry of agriculture, the sector contributes nearly 25.6 percent of the value of output in the country's agriculture, fishing and forestry sector. A blanket ban on cattle slaughter would significantly mar the economics of the livestock and dairy sectors, traders say.
However, Hindus consider the sale and consumption of beef to be a sacrilege. The animal is regarded as the earthly embodiment of the goddess Kamadhenu and refer to her as gow maata or “cow mother.” Nonetheless, while vegetarianism is held up as an ideal, the country ranks sixth in the world among beef consumers, with demand growing by 4.2 percent over the past five years. It is regarded as the poor man's protein in a nutritionally-deficient nation that hosts more than 300 million people who get by on US$2 a day or less. For them, mutton and chicken are unaffordable.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi's right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, which took power nationally last year and holds power in Maharashtra, has pushed for legal steps to “protect and promote the cow” in the state, India's third largest and richest witha per capita income of $1,660, far ahead of a national average of $1,219. The move favors tighter restrictions on beef slaughter, which is currently legal in five of India’s 29 states.
According to Surendra Kumar Jain, joint general secretary of Vishva Hindu Parishad, a religious group affiliated with the BJP, the slaughter violates the tenets of Hinduism. "The campaign to halt all cow slaughter and limit buffalo-meat exports is for the good of the country,” he said. “We're pushing for legal steps to protect and promote the cow."
The current tension is threatening to fan communal tensions between Hindus and minority Christians and Muslims. More so as other states too are contemplating a ban on cow slaughter. The BJP government in Haryana is in the process of implementing a similar law albeit with even stricter punishment. If the government has its way, sale and storage of beef in the state will be prohibited with provision for stringent action under Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code which deals with punishment for murder.
Critics say the curb is the outcome of Modi's loyalists pushing a Hindu agenda. It has evoked strong reactions across the political spectrum and social organizations. Many are accusing the state government of playing the communal card by raking up issues which hurt minority sentiment.
“A propaganda is being created that it is a sin to be a non-vegetarian in this country,” said Vibha Patil, a social activist.
Raising the issue this week in the upper house, Trinamool Congress leader Derek O’Brien said the Maharashtra Government curb augurs ill for all. “It is an economic issue," said O'Brien. "The prices of fish, mutton and chicken will go up. Sick and old cattle will not be slaughtered and farmers will be affected as also the social fabric of the country as it takes away personal freedom."
Following the politician's protest, Parliamentary discussions on the topic have been banned.
“This is a very sensitive issue," Parliamentary Affairs Minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi said, aborting an attempt by another politician to speak on the issue. "Please do not allow a discussion on this issue. This is an issue associated with the emotions of people. You want a discussion on killing an animal that the nation considers as sacred? We are against this!”
Those against the ban say it not only impinges on people's right to choice but also has grave economic implications. Apart from the imposition of a majoritarian choice on the food habits of the minority, banning cattle slaughter without providing a solution to the farmer for non-yielding or non-productive assets is plain foolishness and poor economics, say critics.
Furious beef traders in Maharashtra, many of whom have complained of harassment by Hindu fundamentalists, are also looking to challenge the ban, which would render tens of thousands jobless.
"Our truck drivers are being roughed up by goons and making it increasingly difficult for us to conduct our business. It's affecting our lives quite drastically," says a member the All Maharashtra Cattle Merchants Association.
The ban in Maharashtra is already affecting the leather sector in Tamil Nadu, which sources 40 percent of bull hides produced in the state. According to experts, the ban will increase the price of leather products and whittle down production, as the domestic market won’t be able to meet the demand and importing won’t be allowed.
Meanwhile, residents of India’s financial capital Mumbai, the capital city of Maharashtra, are left wondering how to negotiate the prospects of suddenly facing five years in prison for eating beef.
"I think I'll migrate to a different city," said Prashant Malgaonkar, a technologist working for an multinational corporation. "It'll be impossible to live in a city of the world's largest democracy, which doesn't even allow one to exercise one's right to choice of food. What next, a ban on trousers?"
While Modi has focused so far on overhauling the economy and vowed strong action against groups that incite religious hatred, his links with Hindu nationalists who buttressed his rise to power have provoked uneasiness. Changes in school curriculum, what people eat, what books they read and movies they watch are increasingly being dictated by fringe groups. With Modi, a professed vegetarian, having a majority in the lower house of the national parliament and gaining control of more and more states, people are wondering what more initiatives may be coming next.
New Delhi-based journalist Neeta Lal was a nominee for the SOPA Awards and World Media Summit Awards in 2014