On Monday, Sept. 28, an announcement was made at a Hindu temple in India’s most populous state of Uttar Pradesh: a 50-year-old man named Mohammed Akhlaq had killed a cow — and planned to eat it.
Soon after, a Hindu mob of around 100 stormed his house and beat him to death with a brick.
When the police arrived, they took a sample from his refrigerator and sent it to a lab to check whether it was, in fact, beef. Eight suspects have since been arrested and one of the accused is the son of a leader from the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party that currently governs India. The forensic tests later revealed that he was eating lamb.
India’s relationship to beef is complex. For many Hindus, cows hold a revered place and are often found within the vicinity of Hindu temples. Yet for large numbers of low-caste Hindus, beef is an affordable source of protein, and for India’s growing urban upper class, burgers and steaks are sought-after items, even status symbols.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there are around 301 million cattle in India and each year the country exports 2.4 million tons of beef, making India the world’s largest exporter of beef, bringing in around $4.8 billion a year. By the Indian government’s own polling, the majority of its residents consume meat, despite the fact that around 80 percent of the country is Hindu, a faith often associated with vegetarianism.
Despite this widespread consumption, those who eat beef continue to face attacks. On Sunday night, a mob burned a van allegedly carrying beef in a village about 200 miles away from India’s financial hub of Mumbai. On Thursday, Hindu nationalist Members of Parliament kicked and punched a member of parliament who hosted a party where beef was served — an incident that was caught on video. Today of the country’s 29 states, 24 have declared the slaughter and consumption of beef to be illegal. Now the opposition party, the Indian National Congress, has vowed to join the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s call for a full nationwide ban.
Are these incidents, and the hysteria around them, really about beef? Some argue that Hindu nationalism and its virulent anti-Muslim prejudice are really what’s at play. Since Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi became India’s prime minister in a landslide victory in May 2014, there has been a sharp rise in anti-minority religious violence. According to the Times of India, the nation’s largest newspaper, communal violence is up 24 percent from last year, with deaths from these incidents up 65 percent. Many of the victims were Muslims and Christians.
After the killing of Mohammed Akhlaq, Modi was slow to make a comment and when he did so this week, he stopped short of making an explicit condemnation. “Hindus should decide whether to fight Muslims or poverty,” Modi said on Thursday. “Muslims have to decide whether to fight Hindus or poverty. Both need to fight poverty together. The country has to stay united.”
Modi has been criticized for his reluctance to condemn violence committed by Hindu nationalists. Since he came to power, he has filled his government with several Hindu hard-liners, some of whom have been accused of extrajudicial killings.
This has prompted columnists, Bollywood stars and even members of his own party to criticize him, a rare thing given that many have expressed concern about the shrinking space for dissent in Modi’s India.
Shekhar Gupta, one of India’s most respected journalists, considers the beef lynching to be a watershed moment. “The Dadri incident is a chilling turning point in our politics,” Gupta wrote in the Business Standard “It marks the rise of Hindu supremacist mob militancy that the BJP won’t unequivocally disown or condemn.”
But others argue that the issue tearing apart India today is not about beef but rather notions of purity.
In his article “On the Political Uses of Disgust” in the 2011 anthology “Gujarat Beyond Gandhi,” Rutgers University professor Parvis Ghassem-Fachandi writes that eating meat is increasingly tied with social feelings of disgust in India, something Modi has exacerbated. Ghassem-Fachandi conducted his field research in Gujarat, India’s western state that Modi governed from 2001 to 2014 and observes that during Modi’s rule, butcher shops were threatened. Non-vegetarians, especially Muslims — who by default are assumed to consume meat regularly — were characterized as not only barbaric but also less Indian.
Indeed, in his speeches, Modi has often said that “Gujarat’s strength is its vegetarianism” and that “meat eaters have a different temperament.” This casts eating meat not as a dietary choice but a lower form of being and a source of contamination that needs to be expunged, even if it requires violence. As Ghassem-Fachandi writes, “Disgust has regrettably become a medium for a vegetarian ethos that claims empathy with the suffering of animals; it remains predicated on a secret desire to devour, to take revenge and to revel in the rejected substance.”
I saw this hatred myself the past four years when I lived in Ahmedabad, Gujarat’s most populous city of 7 million. A few weeks before the prime ministerial elections in 2014, I visited a friend in the Muslim ghetto of Juhapura where I lived. His daughter was turning four and he invited our whole building to celebrate. Shortly after I arrived, police officers, accompanied by volunteers from a right wing Hindu nationalist group, raided the party, on a tip they received that we were consuming beef. No beef was found but it mattered little. The police officers, who walked away with a hefty bribe that night, said that the fact that some of us had at some point in our lives consumed beef was enough of a reason not only to assault us but also, in their words, to fear us.
“This is India,” the police officer kept yelling at us. We all knew it was code for something else: “Who are you Muslims who dare act in the way you please in our Hindu country?” This is a logic that Modi has articulated himself several times — that India is a land for everyone, so along as people respect the Hindu way of life.