There's a battle brewing in India, and unsurprisingly it centers on a highly controversial practice there: cow slaughter. This month, beef traders say, raids on their facilities in Mumbai have stepped up, with company vehicles being stopped, their cattle seized, and their drivers assaulted. And the conflict all comes down to religion.
In Hindu-majority India, cow slaughter is illegal in all but two of the country's 29 states. It's fully legal in Maharashtra, the western state that's home to Deonar, one of Asia's largest abattoirs. There, all of India's cows are culled and processed by Muslims, who comprise 13 percent of India's population and who place no restrictions on the consumption of beef. Despite that, slaughterhouse employees say that members of Hindu nationalist groups regularly attack the plant, causing major disruptions to its operation.
In spite of the country's fraught relationship with cows, India is the world's second-largest exporter of beef.
"We are doing everything legally, but these people harass us and disrupt our work for no reason," Mohammad Shahid Sheikh, president of the beef transporters' group in Deonar, told Reuters on Wednesday. And those in the beef industry claim that while such attacks have happened in the past, their frequency has increased since last May, when India's right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won a majority in the country's Parliament and its parliamentary leader, Narendra Modi, was sworn in as Prime Minister. Beef processors fear that the Hindu-majority government, including its leader, Modi, condone the attacks on their industry. Comments made by Modi could indicate that; last year, prior to his election, Modi criticized the government, then dominated by the center-left United Progressive Alliance (UPA) for promoting a "pink revolution to butcher cattle and export meat."
According to Kavitha Rajagopalan, author of the 2008 book Muslims of Metropolis, the ascendance of the BJP demonstrates that "many Hindus still consider Muslims as outsiders, as the enemy within. Increasingly, membership in the Hindu ranks means tacit adherence to this narrow and destructive view."
"In the past, the problem was limited to the run-up to Eid-ul-Adha," Mumbai Suburban Beef Dealer Association president Mohammed Qureshi told The Indian Express, referring to the annual Muslim holiday that is celebrated in part by sacrificing an animal. In the past, Qureshi claims, the confiscation of cows and the violence perpetrated against cattle industry workers was typically confined to this time of year.
"However," he said, "since the new government has come to power, we have been facing tremendous hardship in running this business. We are being hounded, our animals confiscated and men attacked. We have now decided to go on an indefinite strike to make people and the government understand our problem."
Quereshi announced the strike earlier in the month, and beef has already been removed from nearly 75 of Maharashtra's stores and markets. That will be problematic for eaters in Mumbai, the state's capital, who consume about 90,000 kilograms of beef per day. But if the strike continues—as it appears that it will—it could have much wider implications on India's beef industry. In spite of the country's fraught relationship with cows, India is the world's second-largest exporter of beef; in 2012, it shipped 1.65 million tons of meat, primarily to southeast Asia and the Middle East. With slaughters at Deonar grinding to a halt—during normal production, the plant processes about 450 cows per day—international exports could be thrown off course.
"If supplies are disrupted for a longer period then definitely it would hit our productivity," a senior official at a leading Indian beef exporter told Reuters.
In the wake of the beef industry's allegations of Islamophobia, the BJP's national general secretary, Ram Madhav, declined Reuters' requests for comment, as did Prime Minister Modi's press officer. But the head of the Maharashtra unit of Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a right-wing Hindu nationalist group that has been linked to the forced conversions of Indian Christians, stated the group's opposition to cow slaughter in no uncertain terms.
"We don't care if the butchers shut shop or announce a strike," Laxmi Narayan Chandak told Reuters. "The previous government supported the butchers to secure votes of the minority community but they have no support in the new government."