India takes beef very seriously.
The cow's sacred place in Hindu culture makes it illegal to slaughter cattle in many parts of India, sometimes even in predominantly Muslim areas not bound by bovine dietary restrictions.
With annual "beef" production in the ballpark of 3.6 million tons, this may seem contradictory, but the truth is that most of that huge number is actually water buffalo which is not technically prohibited in Hinduism, but still frequently referred to as "beef."
Language aside, the textural similarity between water buffalo and cow meat is enough to generate conflict in a country as ethnically diverse as India. With cows free to roam the streets in many parts of the country, gangs have even taken to stealing cattle and reselling their meat as buffalo.
It's in this context that police showed up at a government-owned canteen in the Indian state of Kerala on Monday to investigate a tip that the restaurant was serving cow meat.
According to local reports, the tip came from members of a "fringe" right-wing Hindu group called Sena, which had visited the state guesthouse and noticed "beef fry" written on the menu. Local authorities arrived on the scene to diffuse a potentially violent sectarian flare-up.
"We know no irregularities will take place at Kerala House, but it was our duty to investigate the matter since the complaint was on a serious issue. We had no option but to react very fast, as it could have been a situation which would lead to a communal flare-up," Delhi Police chief Bassi told news outlet NDTV.
Police soon realized that the Hindu group has misinterpreted, perhaps intentionally, the word "beef," and that restaurant in fact only served buffalo meat. Whatever the intentions of the Sena group were, they backfired because it led instead to a further police investigation against them. "We will conduct an inquiry against the Hindu Sena men," Bassi told NDTV.
The following day, the very same restaurant sold out of buffalo offerings in less than 45 minutes after hundreds of diners arrived to show their support for the Kerala canteen, which they felt had been singled out for political reasons. The incident even sparked protests and forced a local minister to address the matter in a strongly-worded letter to the Prime Minister.
"I would like to inform you that the Kerala House staff canteen serves authentic vegetarian and non-vegetarian Kerala cuisine and the items in the menu are entirely within law," Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy wrote to PM Narendra Modi, while also accusing the Delhi police of being overzealous.
The incident is a salient reminder that beef remains a contentious issue in many parts of India—one that can even lead to violence. Luckily, police showed up in time to squash the so-called beef.