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India cow vigilantes' beef more about politics than meat


Rising attacks in India on people transporting and selling beef feed off identity politics more than religious ideas about cows’ special status.

That’s one finding from a study by Brunel University London anthropologist Dr James Staples. 

The cow is thought sacred among India’s majority Hindu population and many states ban slaughter. But nearly one in five Indians eat beef and many more work in the beef trade.

But since India’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in 2014, self-styled vigilante ‘cow protectionists’ have killed or injured hundreds.

“People outside India tend to see cow veneration as a harmless cultural quirk,” said Dr Staples. “But it’s actually far more politically charged.”

‘Cow politics’ has been an issue in India since its 1947 independence, but it has ramped up dramatically since the BJP brought in legislation controlling cow slaughter.

Even if the government has not openly condoned vigilante violence, extremists are now bolder, said Dr Staples. “It’s open season against Muslims and other minorities. But all sorts of people are involved in the beef trade, even high caste Hindus who can’t eat beef come to market to buy, butcher and sell. 

“Beef eating is being weaponised by Hindu nationalists against anyone seen as ‘other’ whether that’s Muslims who eat beef, Dalits or Christians. People have been murdered because they were suspected of having beef in their fridge. And a government minister said if it turned out to be beef then it is terrible.”

Dr Staples spoke to butchers, cattle traders and beef eaters in rural Andhra Pradesh, and in Hyderabad, south India, for the research published yesterday by the Journal of South Asian Studies.

“I was interested in how ordinary people tend to be more ambivalent about eating beef than either the vigilantes or the pro-beef activists who dominate the headlines. If it’s cheap and available, they might eat it, even if they disapprove of slaughter, but if there’s better, cheaper meat from other animals available they are likely to go for that instead.”

The study is part of a broader look at food in India which has a book Holy Cows and Chicken Manchurian due out next year with University of Washington Press.

India is one of the world’s largest beef exporting countries. Much of it, while not strictly beef, but buffalo meat, goes to the Middle East, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam and neighbouring countries.“The government perhaps needs to take a firmer stance on the vigilante attacks or make clear that the practice is not acceptable, even if they continue to want to regulate the industry. And if they really want people to stop eating beef, promoting the chicken industry would probably be more effective than attacking beef traders.”

Reported by:

Hayley Jarvis, Media Relations
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