On Sunday, India’s Home Minister Rajnath Singh voiced his support for a total ban on cow slaughter throughout the country. Cows are sacred to Hindus, which make up 80% of India’s population and generally support such a move. Several Indian states already ban cow slaughter, and the selling and possession of beef, but a national ban will be trickier to enact. “How can we accept the fact that cow slaughter is allowed in this country? We will use all our might to ban it. We will try to build a consensus,” Singh said.
The home minister’s comments, following Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s campaign pledge to ban beef exports, has alarmed many in the $5 billion per year meat industry who fear massive job losses. Much of the industry exports buffaloes, which have no religious significance but are still labeled sometimes as “beef,” making precise export figures hard to confirm. A ban on bovine slaughter would not affect buffalo exports, but it would devastate the real beef industry, which disproportionately affects the Muslims who work in the industry. (Beef is perfectly fine with Muslims as long as it is halal). And halal beef from India is popular in Middle Eastern markets such as the U.A.E., representing a significant export revenue stream that would be foregone.
The credibility of Modi’s administration should not be doubted in this agenda. In 2011 he led the successful push for a ban on the beef trade in his home state of Gujarat, which he governed for over a decade. And since Modi and the right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in May 2014, other BJP-led states have tightened their restrictions on beef. In early March, Maharashtra expanded its four-decade ban on slaughtering cows to now include steers as well, effectively ending the beef industry and putting thousands of farmers out of work. Across the state, an estimated 1 million people who work in the cattle industry could see their livelihoods threatened in a year in which a drought has already devastated farming, according to the LA Times.
Jharkhand and Haryana, also BJP-run, have tightened curbs as well, and their penalties are by no means the slap-on-the-wrist type. In Haryana, the slaughter of a cow or bull is now punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a fine of more than $1,600.
The BJP’s Hindu nationalism wants to prevail over economic logic and social inclusion, but a nationwide ban still faces many difficulties, in parliament and on the ground. Beef remains legal in a small number of Indian states, including coastal Goa, which is also led by the BJP but has a large Roman Catholic population. With minorities making up nearly 40% of the population, and since beef “is part of their food habits, why and how can we ban it?” asked Goa’s chief minister, Laxmikant Parsekar. Likewise, communist leaders in the southern state of Kerala (where beef remains legal) have announced a nationwide “beef festival” to raise awareness of the problems facing beef dealers.
Modi came to office promising jobs and improved standards of living for all Indians. Yet a ban on beef would harm minorities and poor farmers most of all. Buffaloes may be somewhat of an alternative, but not for farmers who currently own cows that would lose all value overnight. How much is the sacred cow really worth?