Beef ban in India reflects a society becoming intolerant

Monday July 24 2017

A buffalo for sale at the Deonar slaughterhouse in Mumbai, May 1, 2015. Many Muslims working in India's beef trade have struggled to enter the buffalo business following a Maharashtra state law passed by Hindu nationalists banning the sale or even possession of beef. PHOTO | TOM JAMIESON

A buffalo for sale at the Deonar slaughterhouse in Mumbai, May 1, 2015. Many Muslims working in India's beef trade have struggled to enter the buffalo business following a Maharashtra state law passed by Hindu nationalists banning the sale or even possession of beef. PHOTO | TOM JAMIESON  

By RASNA WARAH
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If you plan to make a trip to Mumbai, don’t expect to order a steak in a restaurant.

In India’s most cosmopolitan city, the slaughter of cattle has been banned.

Beef is also off the menu in several other cities and states across India.

Strangely, people in these cities and states still wear leather shoes and carry leather handbags.

The so-called “beef ban” has generated a heated debate about whether state governments in India have the authority to decide what people can or cannot eat.

LIBERALS

Many liberals say that the ban is not based on logic or a concern for animal rights, but is aimed specifically at victimising the beef-eating Muslim community, whose population of around 180 million is almost the same as that of the whole of Pakistan. 

In recent weeks, the beef ban has also led to the killing or lynching of Muslims by vigilantes.

Critics say that although Prime Minister Narendra Modi has condemned these acts of violence, the fact that most of the perpetrators have not been arrested suggests that his government is not particularly concerned about attacks on Muslims.

Mr Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party equates India with Hinduism, which has made people from minority religions to feel like outsiders.

FORCED CONVERSIONS

Even Sikhs, whose last guru, Gobind Singh, formed a warrior community known as the Khalsa to resist Mughal emperors’ forced conversions of Hindus to Islam, are feeling discriminated against.

Ironically, this intolerance is being witnessed in what is arguably one of the most pluralistic and diverse societies in the world, where Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Parsees, Jains, Buddhists, among many other religious groups, have lived together in harmony.

Islam came to in India around the 7th century but Hindus’ historical grievances against Muslims began with the invasion and conquest of northern India by Muslim Mughal emperors in the 16th century.

During the struggle for independence from British colonial rule, Muslim leaders’ demands for a Muslim-majority country resulted in a painful partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947 into a predominantly Hindu India and a purely Muslim Pakistan.

HISTORICAL

India’s founding fathers promoted a secularist agenda and often underscored the fact that India held the moral high ground when it came to religious freedom because it did not deport Muslims living in India to Pakistan.

Today, the Bharatiya Janata Party is propagating an insular form of Hinduism that has little to do with the historical origins or the philosophical underpinnings of the religion.

Every Hindu worships in his or her own way, adopting deities and belief systems that sometimes contradict each other.

Hinduism is not a monotheistic religion and is considered by many of its adherents as a way of life rather than a religion.

The goddesses Durga and Kali and the gods Ram, Krishna and Hanuman symbolise different things to different people.

HINDUISM

The great thing about Hinduism is that it is non-dogmatic and can be interpreted in many ways, which is also one of its great appeals.

Hinduism has also evolved over the centuries. For instance, cows were not “sacred” when pastoralists from central Asia – the originators of the Hindu religion – settled in northern India around 2000BC.

Then, cows were routinely slaughtered for food and sacrificial rituals.

According Indian author Pankaj Mishra, cows were only elevated to sacred status when the pastoralists became settlers and began engaging in agriculture; cows and buffalos were not only valued for the milk, ghee and manure they provided, but also because they were used to plough the land. 

VEGETARIANISM

Though vegetarianism is associated with the higher castes in India, some Hindus, particularly the lower castes and Kshatriyas, the warrior caste, are not exempted from eating meat.

For Sikhs, meat-eating is associated with strength and virility.

A purely vegetarian Sikh is a rarity, not the norm. While Sikhs shun eating beef (perhaps because they were originally Hindus), meat has always been a staple in Sikh households that can afford to eat it.

If people want to be vegetarians (as a large majority of Indians are) or want to eat meat, that is their choice.

But imposing a ban on beef crosses a line that can only lead to more religious intolerance.  

In a world that is becoming increasingly polarised along religious and racial lines, it is unfortunate that India has joined a growing group of countries where religion is being used to oppress minorities.