Meat is murder
When two cattle traders were found hanged in eastern India in March 2016, Vidhi Doshi investigated the rise of beef-related vigilante violence in the country
18th March 2016 (Taken from: #22)
Mohammad Akhlaq’s neighbours killed him on a Monday night. His killers believed that his family had slaughtered a young cow, a sacred animal in Hinduism, and so they dragged him from his bed and beat him to death.
The cow in question had gone missing from the village of Bishahra near Dadri in the state of Uttar Pradesh in September 2015. The incident occurred a few days before Eid al-Adha, the day on which Muslims traditionally sacrifice an animal to commemorate Ibrahim’s willingness to kill his son Ishmael for God.
A rumour circulated that the carcass of the missing animal had been seen near Akhlaq’s family home and a Hindu priest at the village temple announced that Akhlaq, 52, had killed the cow and was storing the meat in his house. A lynch mob attacked and killed Akhlaq and critically injured his 22-year-old son Danish. A slab of meat was found in the Akhlaqs’ fridge and was handed over to the police, so they could see for themselves that the mob had acted in defence of the Hindu faith.
Akhlaq’s death was just one of many cases of violence sparked by beef to have taken place in recent years. Three and a half months later, on 13th January 2016, Hindu gangs boarded a train in the city of Bhopal and beat up a Muslim couple, who they claimed had beef in their bags. And then on Friday 18th March 2016, two Muslim buffalo herders, one aged just 15, were found hanging from a tree in Latehar district in the state of Jharkhand: they had been taking animals to market when they were lynched. Photos of the murder scene were published in Indian newspapers and caused widespread revulsion throughout the country.
An increase in cases of vigilante violence over the last two years has coincided with an increase in anti-beef rhetoric from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which came to power in May 2014. The party’s stance is rooted in the Hindu religion followed by 80 percent of India’s population of 1.2 billion: in matters of faith, Modi is unwaveringly old-fashioned and has made his opposition to the beef trade clear on theological grounds. Cows are seen as symbols of endurance, dignity and strength by Hindus and are allowed to wander freely across the country’s traffic-filled streets. For India’s 172 million Muslims (and many impious Hindus), meanwhile, beef – whether from cows or bulls – has long been an inexpensive, stomach-filling staple.
Beef became something of a wedge issue during Modi’s election campaign. “Across the countryside, our animals are getting slaughtered,” Modi told a rally on 2nd April 2014. “The Delhi [Congress Party] government … gives out subsidies to people who slaughter cows, who slaughter animals, and who are destroying our rivers of milk.” Under the then-incumbent Congress Party, the cattle trade had flourished and Modi criticised what he termed a “pink revolution”, in reference to the blood of the animals. “Is this what we pride ourselves on?” he asked an audience of religious businessmen on the election trail. “My heart screams out at this.”
The majority of Indian states currently have restrictions or complete bans on beef sales and the BJP wants this extended nationwide. It scored a major victory in March 2015 when the new BJP-led state government of Maharashtra, home to Mumbai, the nation’s most populous city, introduced a total ban on the slaughter of bulls, bullocks and calves (cows had been protected since 1976). Selling or consuming beef from bulls, bullocks and calves in the city would now carry a penalty of up to five years in jail and a 10,000 rupee (£100) fine.
A political animal
At the butchers’ bazaar at Mumbai’s Crawford Market, Qamar Qureshi is closing his shop for the day. The bazaar is one of the only enclosed parts of the bustling open-air Crawford market, and sits in a warehouse behind stalls selling fresh vegetables and live exotic birds. Qureshi has worked in the bazaar for 17 years. “This is my father and my grandfather’s trade. It is the only trade I know,” he says. The Muslim surname Qureshi stems from the name of Prophet Mohammed’s own tribe, the Quraysh. In Mumbai, India’s financial capital, the surname has another significance; its bearer is usually a butcher by trade, or has ancestors who sold meat. This sort of labour is considered the dirtiest of trades in the Indian caste system, and was traditionally carried out by dalits (Untouchables) or non-Hindus.
Until March last year, Qureshi ran a profitable beef trade, selling to Mumbai’s less observant Hindus and the 20 percent of the city’s population that belong to other faiths. But the new ban sank their business overnight. “I used to earn 1,000-1,500 rupees (£10-£15) every day, now I barely earn 100 rupees (£1) a day,” Qureshi says. “I had to remove the guy who worked for me. If there’s no one to sell to, what’s the point of employing him?”
‘We’re in a situation where you can get a five-year sentence for eating a beef burger,’ says Qureshi. ‘This is a joke, right?’”
Water buffalo is the only cattle meat that can still be legally sold in Maharashtra. Qureshi has stocked his shop with it, but it costs more than beef and does not appeal to the local palate. “Buffalo doesn’t sell,” Qureshi says. “We’ve lost around 75 percent of our customers since the ban, which targets us Muslims, the ones who eat beef. When they first brought it in we tried to strike, but the goat and chicken meat sellers didn’t support us. All of us here didn’t work for a whole month, but it made no difference. If the people of Mumbai had made a scene on the roads, maybe we’d have a chance. But no one here has the time for us, to help our community.”
Shakeel Ahmed, a customer, chips in. “We used to eat meat two or three times a week – now even once is difficult. You can get bull meat on the black market, but I wouldn’t dare to eat it,” he says. “We’re in a situation where you can get a five-year sentence for eating a beef burger,” says Qureshi. “This is a joke, right?”
The buffalo meat at the beef bazaar comes from the government regulated abattoir at Deonar, around 20 minutes’ drive away. Since the beef ban came into force, the place has emptied out and young boys have started breaking in to use one of the slaughterhouses for their cricket matches. A worker from the Bombay Municipal Corporation agrees to show me around, and ushers me into a bull holding pen the size of a football field. “This whole ground would have been full when there was no ban,” he says. It is now empty, save for a dozen doomed water buffalo.
India’s exports of water buffalo – known as “carabeef” – have grown significantly since 2009, so much so that in 2014 it overtook Brazil to become the world’s biggest exporter of cattle meat. At its high point, the industry was worth $4.7 billion. However, a fall in demand from China and the plummeting value of the Brazilian real have now combined to help knock India from the top spot.
The industry has also been targeted by Hindu activists who allege that cows are being slaughtered and their meat mislabelled as buffalo to be passed for export. Buffalo meat deliveries have been attacked by Hindu mobs, leading to a decrease in production at meat-processing centres. Between 2014 and 2015, exports of meat from India fell by 13.2 percent.
The battle of the cattle
The offices of right-wing Hindu organisation the World Hindu Council (VHP) are lined with images of the Hindu god Krishna caressing a cow and are filled with the most extraordinary array of cow-based products. Laxminarayana Chandak, who has volunteered with the VHP for 20 years, and has campaigned passionately for a country-wide beef ban, spreads out the items on a table like a child showing off his toys. There are cow-dung incense pellets, cow soap and bottles of cow urine. There are balms and medicines for muscle pains, kidney and liver problems, blood pressure and cancer, all made from cow urine, dung or milk. Chandak tells me he takes three drops of cow ghee (purified butter) and a distilled concentrate of cow urine every day for his health. The message is clear: cows are sacred because they are useful to all mankind, right down to their droppings.
The VHP has close links with the BJP and wields influence over large sections of the voting public. Chandak has spent many years working to prevent the slaughter of cows in Mumbai. “We have guys, informants,” he says. “We keep a watch on all the areas where there is slaughter. We even have Muslim spies who work with us. They find out where there is illegal trade and we report it to the police. We’ve saved hundreds of thousands of cows this way.”
“Whoever tries to kill our cow, our mother, we won’t let them go,” continues Chandak. “We are going to show them the way, in whichever language they understand, in whichever way they want to learn. But at no cost will our organisation allow this [killing] to happen to cows on Indian land and one day we will eliminate cow slaughter from all of India.”
I ask Chandak what he thinks about what happened to Mohammed Akhlaq. He pauses before answering. “It’s wrong to kill a man, but those who eat beef should also understand the agitation they create in people’s minds,” he replies. “Nobody wants to kill a person. Murder only happens when you agitate a mind so much. To stop one bad deed another bad deed happens. Nobody can stop it. This is something that happens … If people don’t try to understand the Hindu way of life, there are going to be consequences.”
Professor DN Jha, a prominent Indian historian, has witnessed first-hand the lengths the Hindu right-wing is willing to go to in order to defend its faith. He claims that beef was widely consumed in ancient India and was not, as popular opinion has it, introduced by Muslim rulers at the advent of Islam in the country.
They cut our electricity and water, and for ten days we had to lock ourselves into this house. We were too afraid to leave”
In 2002, Jha published a controversial book exploring the theory, entitled Holy Cow: Beef in Indian Dietary Traditions. “Even before the book reached the market I began to receive threats and was asked to stop the publication,” he says. Jha was hounded on his university campus, saw copies of his books burned, needed constant police protection and had to fight a legal battle for two years before the book was allowed on sale in India.
Jha is clear that the new moves to suppress beef have a strong political component. “The beef ban unashamedly promotes Brahminical (high-caste) Hinduism,” he says. “It is designed to wipe out the dalit (Untouchable) and Muslim identities; for it is the dalits and Muslims who are known as beef eaters.”
The beef bootleggers
In Mumbai the beef trade has been effectively suppressed. On the city’s outskirts, however, an underground trade is mushrooming. While Hindu mobs like the one which killed Akhlaq are willing to take violent measures to prevent the beef trade, Muslim butchers and their allies are equally willing to fight for their livelihood.
Abrar Qureshi keeps a suitcase full of police reports, photographs and court orders to document the work of beef bootleggers. Abrar, an animal lover since childhood, was born into a family of butchers, but renounced the beef trade in his early twenties after falling love with a Hindu girl, who is now his wife. For the last 22 years, the couple have run an NGO, People Who Care About Animals, in Mira Road, a suburb of Mumbai. It has conducted hundreds of raids to protect animal rights. “It’s not about religion,” Abrar explains. “It’s about humanity.”
As a Qureshi, Abrar is well connected with beef traders and is often alerted when illegal activity is happening in his neighbourhood. As we drive to his house, he pauses at the site of one of the raids. His wife and daughter caution him not to stay for too long. “It’s not safe for you here,” they say, urging him to drive on. At his home, Abrar opens his suitcase and shows me a police report dated 27th December 2015. “This is the incident report from the raid we did a couple of months ago,” he says. His daughter Shaheen pulls out her phone and shows a photo of her father taken that same day, with blood pouring from a cut on his head.
When the family heard about illegal beef being sold in their town, they took two police officers to the site where it was happening to catch the beef traders red-handed. Shaheen urged the police to intervene, but they simply asked the Qureshi family to accept a bribe from the butchers to settle the matter. “I wouldn’t risk my life in the middle of the night if I wanted to settle,” Abrar told them. Shaheen picks up the story. “There was a mob of 15 or 20 people and they took him to the centre of the road and started hitting him,” she says. The police did nothing. When she tried to stop the men beating her father, Shaheen was attacked herself. Eventually the butchers relented and the Qureshis went to the police station to file a report. The truck carrying the illegal beef, which had been under police custody when the Qureshis left the site, was never brought to the police station, and the butchers got off without penalties.
The Qureshis claim that since the implementation of the beef ban in Maharashtra, butchers in their area have started bribing a local gang of Hindu nationalists to allow them to continue their activities, and to keep vigilantes like the Qureshis away. The family’s front room looks out onto a pile of rubble, which used to be the headquarters of their animal rights NGO until the Hindu gang destroyed it. “Since the raid, they’ve done everything to harass us,” Shaheen says. “They cut our electricity and water, and for ten days we had to lock ourselves into this house. We were too afraid to leave.” The Qureshis eventually had to move home because of the persecution they suffered.
Abrar says the ban hasn’t stopped beef production but has simply driven it out of the cities. “Things are much worse under the Modi government,” he says, explaining that the thriving black market beef trade is, of course, unregulated and therefore never checked by health inspectors. “There are at least ten places near here where beef is being sold illegally,” he says, sadly.
In May 2016, an increase in vigilante attacks led to the Bombay High Court ruling that the ban on the possession of beef in Maharashtra was unconstitutional. Meat from cattle slaughtered in other states is now legal, but the ban on slaughtering remains.
In Uttar Pradesh, the day after Mohammad Akhlaq was murdered, a funeral procession was held in his village. Press photographers came to document the weeping family. Police were deployed to maintain order. Politicians poured in for photo-ops. A local BJP leader’s son was among those arrested on suspicion of having taken part in the lynching. The BJP’s minister of culture, Mahesh Sharma called the incident an “accident” and a local BJP leader, Nawab Singh Nagar, said the attackers were “innocent children” and that “if anybody was consuming cow meat, it is wrong.” Modi said the incident was sad, but denied his government had any responsibility for Akhlaq’s death.
When the forensic tests came back from a laboratory in the nearby town of Mathura a few days later, they showed that the slab of meat taken from Mohammad Akhlaq’s fridge was not from a cow, but from a goat.
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