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'How Can the Government Say What We Cannot Eat?': Mumbai Muslims Are Stung by Beef Ban

Members of Maharashtra's Muslim minority control its beef trade, and complain that they have increasingly been targeted with threats since the BJP's electoral victory last May.

by Suranjana Tewari
Mar 5 2015, 6:45pm

Photo by Suranjana Tewari

The Deonar slaughterhouse on the outskirts of Mumbai is usually a hive of activity. But since the state of Maharashtra banned the possession and sale of beef earlier this week, bulls and bullocks aren't being killed and around a thousand workers have found themselves out of a job.

"We have stopped," Halim Qureshi, secretary of the Bombay Suburban Beef Dealers Association, told VICE News. "Our livelihoods are finished."

Cows are considered sacred to Hindus, who make up the majority of India's 1.2 billion people. The recent ban extends a 1976 law prohibiting the slaughtering of cows to apply as well to bulls, bullocks, and calves. The slaughter of water buffaloes will still be allowed under certain conditions, but industry traders complain that they provide an inferior quality of meat.

The state government originally sent the Maharashtra Animal Preservation (Amendment) Bill to the president's office for approval in 1996 after passing it the previous year. The bill remained untouched in the years since, but was taken up again after the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) retook power in Maharashtra and in parliament.

"In view of the contribution of cow and its progeny to agriculture, socio-economic and cultural life of our country, the Department of Animal Husbandry will be suitably strengthened and empowered for the protection and promotion of cow and its progeny," the party said in its election-year manifesto.

The BJP, which has an outright majority in the national parliament, is in favor of a nationwide ban. Several other Indian states already ban the slaughter of cows, bulls, and bullocks, or impose restrictions on doing so.

Related: Three Muslims Burned to Death in Clashes in Northern India

Cattle at the Deonar slaughterhouse. (Photo by Suranjana Tewari)

The prohibition in Maharashtra has unsettled many restaurants in Mumbai, India's financial capital and one of the world's most populous cities. Under the law, anyone found to be selling or in possession of beef could face up to five years in prison and a Rs10,000 fine, equivalent to about $162.

Members of Maharashtra's Muslim minority control its beef trade. They say they have increasingly been targeted with threats since the BJP's electoral victory last May.

"With the previous government there were problems, but not these kinds of problems," Sharafat Qureshi, a beef trader, told VICE News. "Hindu groups have been coming to the abattoir and hitting workers. They even stop trucks carrying cows."

Hardline Hindu groups like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) have come out in support of the ban.

"Why does anyone want to ruin their taste with beef meat? There are many vegetarian alternatives, and they are cheap," Venkatesh Abdeo, joint secretary of the VHP, told VICE News.

Mumbai is known for its diverse food culture, and beef distributors say that the city's top restaurants are some of its biggest customers.

Beef distributors in the area were selling more than 350,000 pounds of beef per day, and are uncertain about what to do now. They expect that the new prohibition will cause prices for other popular meats such as chicken and mutton to skyrocket and become too expensive for most customers.

They also have to feed around 300 cattle — meat worth 10 million rupees, or $16,000 — that were delivered for slaughter the day before the ban came into effect.

Related: Narendra Modi's Shame: Muslim Survivors of the Gujarat Riots Are Still Suffering

Abattoir workers face a particularly uncertain future. Most hail from generations of professional slaughterhouse laborers, learning the trade from their forefathers, and are unsure of how they will support themselves or feed their families.

"Beef is the poor man's food," Halim Qureshi said.

The state government is in the process of drawing up plans for those who have lost their jobs, but it is as yet unclear what form such an initiative will take.

"Everyone is spreading a rumor that these people are losing their jobs," Kirit Somaiya, a BJP member of Maharashtra's legislature, told VICE News. "But there are plenty of other animals than can be traded."

The ban has divided Indians on social media, as the hashtag #BeefBan became a top trending topic. Some have voiced their support for the ban but most people seem angered by it, particularly those living in Mumbai, a cosmopolitan city with a large Muslim and Catholic population accustomed to eating beef.

Related: Women Feel Unsafe as Threat of Sexual Violence Pervades Everyday Life in India

One of the most popular jabs was a post outlining prison terms for various offenses. Marital rape carries no prison time in India and manslaughter carries a 2 year prison term, but eating beef in the state of Maharashtra can bring up to 5 years in jail.

Mumbai is known for its diverse food culture, and beef distributors say that the city's top restaurants are some of its biggest customers.

"This is extremely sad to hear. I will have to go to another country," a chef at Mumbai's Smoke House Deli, remarked to the Indian Express. "Most of the dishes at the restaurant are based on European cuisine. A lot of our foreign clientele, such as Japanese and Europeans, will miss beef on the menu."

Other food outlets have already adapted.

"Our restaurants have been only serving buffalo meat for a long time now," Riyaaz Amlani, president of the National Restaurant Association of India, informed VICE News.

The impact of the ban is likely to be keenly felt in India's agricultural belt. Bullocks are widely used to plow land, but a young animal is only productive for around 10 years. When the animals start to age or become infirm, farmers usually sell them off for slaughter and use the money to buy younger steer.

"What happens when a bullock becomes unproductive?" asked Ravikant Tupkar, the secretary of Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghtana, a farmers union. "Is the government going to take care of them? Who will feed them?"

Mumbai is home to a burgeoning leather industry, which is also likely to be affected by the ban.

Beef suppliers are now challenging the law in the Bombay High Court.

"How can the government tell us what we can and cannot eat?" wondered Sharafat Qureshi, a beef trader. "This is supposed to be a free country."

Additional reporting contributed by Priti Khan

Follow Suranjana Tewari on Twitter: @suranjanasays