As a centuries-old dispute over beef intensifies in India, cattle transporter Shafiullah Mohammad Sharif Shah is caught in the middle.
Hindu vigilantes set fire to one of Shah’s trucks in December as it carried six water buffalo to a government-owned slaughterhouse outside Mumbai, he said. They beat up the driver and set the animals free, according to Shah. With such attacks becoming common, business has slowed so much that Shah says his five trucks may be repossessed if he can’t make a monthly loan payment of 150,000 rupees ($2,390).
While India is dominated by 1 billion Hindus, who revere dairy cows as sacred and hold vegetarianism as an ideal, some states still allow them to be slaughtered for meat, and output has surged from buffalo that have little religious significance. Annual beef exports are the world’s second-largest, jumping 11- fold in a decade to $4.35 billion. During the past year, hard- line Hindu groups have stepped up efforts to end cow slaughter and combat a network of small, illegal plants that produce cattle meat for domestic use.
“The atmosphere in the abattoir is very tense,” said Shah, 38. “We’re being harassed everywhere and the attacks are worsening. The industry doesn’t know how to deal with this and everyone from transporters to dealers and farmers is scared.”
Vigilantes haven’t made any distinction between buffalo and dairy cows, targeting transporters of both. Trucks carrying cattle are often blocked by the activists, who snatch drivers’ phones, beat them up and hand over the cattle to animal welfare centers, according to the All Maharashtra Cattle Merchants Association. Attacks have increased since the May election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose Hindu-backed Bharatiya Janata Party favors tighter restrictions on cow slaughtering, which is legal in five of India’s 29 states.
“Our demand is to ban cow slaughter in India,” Surendra Kumar Jain, joint general secretary of Vishva Hindu Parishad, a religious group affiliated with BJP, said Feb. 25 by phone from Rohtak in northern Haryana state.
Maharashtra, the second-most populous state with 112 million people and home to the nation’s biggest city, Mumbai, on March 2 banned the possession and sale of beef. The meat that previously was legal in restaurants and sidewalk food stalls now carries a maximum punishment of five years in prison and threatens to fan tensions between Hindus and minority Christians and Muslims.
Devendra Fadnavis, the chief minister of Maharashtra, did not respond to two calls made on Tuesday to his mobile and office phones, seeking comment on the attacks.
Supporters of Modi, including right-wing Hindu groups Bajrang Dal and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, have called for a national beef ban and activists have targeted legal businesses to disrupt production. While the organizations aren’t seeking to halt buffalo slaughter, they are promoting vegetarianism and an end to buffalo-meat exports, arguing the industry uses valuable water and land.
“Since the new government has come to power, incidents of harassment of our trucks have grown,” said Khaliq Qureshi, chairman of the All Maharashtra Cattle Merchants Association in Mumbai. “Political parties and activists feel more confident now because they feel that their own government is in power.”
In the past 10 months, about 600 incidents of harassment were recorded in Maharashtra, the third-largest producer of buffalo beef, compared with 200 to 300 cases annually in the previous five years, Qureshi said in an interview on Feb. 27. The numbers are probably higher, he said, because traders and transporters often don’t report the attacks to the association.
The growing no-beef agenda threatens to disrupt an industry that expanded under secular governments that promoted agriculture in India, which saw farm exports grow faster than any other nation over the past decade. The country is the world’s largest democracy, which includes an estimated 176 million Muslims, more than any country except Indonesia.
While beef and pork are taboo at many Indian eateries, including McDonald’s Corp. and Burger King outlets, some restaurants serve beef and others offer it off the menu. The meat is cheaper than pork or chicken, so it is a popular source of protein for the poor.
The country ranks sixth in the world among beef consumers, and demand is up 4.2 percent in the past five years. Much of the industry’s growth has been in exports to Vietnam, China and Africa. Shipments will total 1.95 million metric tons this year, more than triple what was exported a decade earlier, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated in an October report. Only Brazil sells more overseas.
The beef expansion has upset some Hindus, who revere cows regarded as an earthly embodiment of the goddess Kamadhenu. The animals often roam freely and are fed outside temples. In rural areas, home owners cover floors and walls with cow dung to prevent pollution, and some spray cow urine indoors as a purifier.
During his election campaign, Modi said the previous government spawned a “pink revolution” by promoting meat exports and cow killing with subsidies to slaughterhouses, according to the Hindu newspaper.
Cow slaughter in India began with the arrival of Muslim invaders in the early 1,000s and continued with the arrival of British rulers used to eating beef. The Sepoy Mutiny by India soldiers under British rule, one of the biggest uprisings, started in 1857 as a protest against cartridges allegedly wrapped in paper coated in a grease made of pig and cow lard.
The campaign to halt all cow slaughter and limit buffalo- meat exports is for the good of the country and isn’t targeting Muslims or Christians, said Vishva Hindu Parishad’s Jain, adding that many of the main beef export businesses are owned by Hindus.
“Exporting the meat is a loss, not a gain for the country,” Jain said. “We are wasting 7,000 liters of water to get 100 kilograms of meat. As India has a drinking water shortage, a ban on cow slaughter will also save water.”
Beef has become big business for India, which sells meat at a discount to other suppliers in the region. Exports fetched $4.4 billion in 2013-2014, compared with $395 million a decade earlier, according to the state-owned Agricultural & Processed Food Products Export Development Authority. By comparison, the U.S. exported $6 billion of beef in the recent fiscal year.
Indian beef sells for $100 to $200 less per ton than meat from its main competitor, Australia, said Ashik Hussain, a supplier of beef to exporters in Maharashtra.
Live cattle futures for April delivery fell 0.4 percent to close at $1.54 a pound on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange on March 9 after climbing to a seven-week high of $1.555. Prices, which reached a record $1.7275 a pound in November, are down 5.8 percent this year.
With fewer buffaloes sent to slaughterhouses, the cost for exporters will increase, shrinking profit, said Mohammad Ali Qureshi, president of the Bombay Suburban Beef Dealers Association.
“A propaganda is being created that it is a sin to be a non-vegetarian in this country,” said Qureshi, a third- generation beef trader at the Deonar abattoir in Mumbai. “Cows are seen as godmothers in India. When did the buffalo become the godfather? There is no religious connection. The groups want to crush the beef industry mentally and financially.”