Milking Cows to Promote a Conservative Agenda in India

By Angel Sharma

On May 25, India’s Environment Ministry called for a nationwide ban on the sale and purchase of cattle intended for slaughter. Initially intended to better regulate the meat import and export, and to eradicate illegal slaughterhouses that violate regulations, the “pink revolution” championed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi has morphed into a restriction on individual freedoms in India that will have larger implications nationwide and globally. Moreover, India's growing restrictions on the consumption and slaughtering of cows is the newest wave of Hindutva-fueled nationalism. Consequently, the ban is increasing religious and caste divides within the diverse country, damaging the unity of the Bharatya Janatha Party (BJP), and potentially disrupting the global market.

Many BJP members have stated that eating beef is “against the idea of India,” even though the Indian constitution specifically protects its citizens from a nationwide ban on cow slaughter and consumption. Prevention of beef slaughter is left as a state issue within the Indian constitution, and little powers are given to the central government to enforce such a ban. In actuality, the BJP has capitalized on the consumption of beef as a method to suppress disadvantaged populations in India, including lower caste and Dalit citizens who rely on beef as a part of their diet due to its accessibility and low cost. The BJP has also increased the marginalization of Christian and Muslim communities that have no restrictions on red meat consumptions. The Indian constitution declares that the country is “secular,” however, the ruling BJP party and Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) proponents ignore this fundamental commandment in order to claim political dominance. In recent developments, the Supreme Court of India sent an inquiry to the Environment Ministry to discuss the legality of the law, making many hopeful that the law will be overturned before coming into effect.

While promoting the ban, BJP leaders have also caused significant political divides within their own party. The BJP is hurting itself and isolating state party members and leaders by promoting a ban that infringes on the personal freedoms of many constituents in their representative states. Several BJP members and leaders in states where beef consumption is a dietary norm have protested against their own political party’s ban by cooking and eating beef publicly. In the state of Meghalaya, for example, nearly 5,000 members of the BJP party quit their political affiliation after the ban was passed. According to the National Sample Survey Organization, in 2014, seven of India’s eight North East states were among the top ten beef consuming states in the country, with 81 percent of the population in Meghalaya, 57 percent in Nagaland, and 23 percent in Mizoram consuming beef. These three states also happen to have local elections scheduled for 2018, where the beef controversy will significantly affect the outcome for the BJP’s stronghold in the area.

Meanwhile, the beef ban has economic implications both domestically and in the global market. India exports $4 billion worth of beef annually, and a ban on slaughtering cows will have negative impacts on India’s overall economic production. There is a high likelihood the ban will drive up the price of beef on a global scale. The beef industry in India will also suffer significant losses resulting in a loss of millions of jobs that cater to lower caste and non-Hindu citizens. India’s competition with China to be the fastest growing economy may be hindered by this restriction, which will cripple a thriving industry without providing viable alternatives. If India considers itself a contender against China in the development race, it cannot impose domestic economic restrictions on its leading export based on religious and cultural values.

While the BJP promotes the beef ban as a pro-Hindu mechanism, in reality no Hindu scriptures specifically state that eating beef is sacrilegious. Dietary restrictions on beef are a cultural norm rather than a religious one, and many Hindu priests in states like Jammu and Kashmir, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu eat beef regularly. To call the beef ban inherently Hindu is more than a logical fallacy; it is a dangerous platform that many radical Hindu groups are using to promote extremist actions against fellow Indians of different castes, faiths, and traditions.

The beef ban will increase the divide among North Indians and other regions within India. This regional divide has taken several manifestations—including the forceful push for South Indians to speak Hindi as opposed to regional Dravidian languages, superiority complexes based on skin color, and sexual harassment and violence against North East Indians. Instead of focusing efforts on important issues facing India, such as preventing sexual abuse, promoting education initiatives, improving sanitation, and other important development initiatives, the BJP has unfortunately taken up a cause that will do little to nothing to improve Indian society. The ban divides Indians based on religious and caste differences instead of promoting needed national unity.

Angel Sharma is the South Asia Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP). She works in the international development sector focusing on the rule of law and human rights at an international NGO. Angel received her MA in International Security from American University. The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of any of the organizations with which the author is affiliated.

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