Data from National Family Health Survey, India (NFHS), shows that vegetarianism has been on the decline in India in the past decade.1 Conversely, there has been a 600% increase in US vegans, noted by the research firm Global Data. While the western world is making a steady shift towards a vegan diet for ethical and environmental reasons,2 India, known for its vegetarian traditions, seems to be looking the other way. The ban on cow slaughter and other policies of the right-wing ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has confused the narrative surrounding vegetarianism/ veganism and animal protection in India. Views on the left have not helped matters.
Far-right Hindu nationalist Narendra Modiwas elected Prime Minister in 2014 on a campaign that emphasized accountability and fighting “corruption”, as well as economic development. Modi himself is vegetarian and of course endorses cattle protection.3 Some sections of the animal welfare community in the country saw much promise in this development. The BJP-led government even lived up to some of the expectations, imposing a ban on the sale and purchase of cattle for slaughter at animal markets across India under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, in May 2017.4 Though legislation against cow slaughter was already in place in most India states, the rules have varied greatly. They have been traditionally lenient in left-ruled states of Kerala, Tripura and West Bengal and much stricter in right-ruled states such as Gujarat. The new law applied to the entire country.
Cow protection movement goes as far back as the 1800s and has been a source of religious conflict in India. This is because upper-caste Hindus consider cows sacred and vehemently oppose their slaughter. Lower-caste Hindus, on the other hand, are known to consume beef as are members of religious minorities such as Muslims and Christians. Since the policies of the BJP have historically aligned with Hindu ideology, most people had a strong suspicion that the ban on cow slaughter was politically motivated and aimed at alienating certain sections of society.5 Nevertheless, some animal activists still hoped it would “prevent uncontrolled and unregulated animal trade” and improve the overall condition of cows — or at least curtail live exports, which are especially horrendous in the extreme climatic and lawless conditions of India.
In reality, however, situation turned extremely volatile. There was intense resistance to the ban across the country especially in southern, eastern and coastal states where beef consumption is high. Muslims, Christians and lower-caste Hindus, all beef eaters, wildly protested against the ban.In a particularly brazen incident, members of the Kerala Youth Congress, a centrist opposition party, slaughtered a hapless calf in full public view and organized beef festivals as a mark of dissent.6 In a related incident, 80 students at IIT Madras organized a beef festival on campus to intensify the protest. Similar such festivals were held in various institutes across the southern states. Left-leaning liberals saw the ban as an affront to personal choice and religious freedom of people. Meanwhile, Gaurakshaks (cow protectors) further polarized the situation by initiating vigilante violence against Muslims in the name of cow protection. Cattle vigilante groups took it upon themselves to uphold the cow slaughter ban and carried out gruesome attacks which resulted in several deaths. The gruesome lynching of a Muslim man in Dadri, accused of being in possession of beef, was not only a sign of deeply embedded intolerance towards minorities7 but also how contentious the issues of beef eating and cattle protection had become.
Historically, the focus on cow protection has led to many public controversies. One of the earliest cow-related riots broke out in 1880sin British India. Post-independence India saw a continued emphasis on cattle protection. In 1955, India’s first Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru vehemently opposed a bill mooting a national ban on cow slaughter. In 1966, representatives of right-winged parties, such as Rashtriya Swayam Sewak Sangh and Vishwa Hindu Parishad, held huge demonstrations in front of the Indian Parliament demanding protection for cows. As many as eight men were killed in the confrontation that ensued. In 2012, Bhartiya Gau Raksha Dal (BGRD), a Hindu nationalist and right-wing federation of cattle protection movement, was formed. The federation provides support and guidance to gaurakshaks across the country.
Notably, cattle vigilante violence has grown in the country since 2014, under the leadership of BJP government. According to http://lynchfactchecker.com as many as 46 people- 57% of them Muslim – were killed and 297 became victims of cow-related hate crimes between 2012 and 2019.8 Police inaction and government apathy and collusion have also played a role in the escalation of vigilantism and an increase in cow-related riots.9 Moreover, the pan-India ban, which came into effect in 2017, brought with it economic ramifications as well: the multi-billion dollar beef and leather industries, run mostly by Muslims, were suffering major losses.10
In a particularly ignorant move, the BJP government further confused the narrative by setting up a fund, worth Rs 10,881 crore (1,635 million USD), to boost the Dairy industry.11 As a consequence of such government interventions, the population of cows would continue to increase to ensure the ‘boost’ – but there would be a ban on their sale and purchase.
According to a 2012 livestock census, there are more than 191 million cows in India; and dairy farmers usually sell “dried-up animals” in markets.12 Because of the restrictions on sale and the fear of cattle vigilantes they were left with no choice but to abandon their old cows that they no longer considered profitable to feed. Thought not a new development -as per the same census there are about 5 to 10 million stray cattle in India, especially in states where cow slaughter rules are stringent – the all-encompassing central law predictably led to a massive surge in the number of stray cows across India. On the streets, cows’ existence is precarious and dangerous. They forage for food in garbage bins, consume plastic, and die horrific deaths in road accidents. Veterinary hospitals that cater to large injured animals are few and far between in India villages and towns. Likewise, in parts of drought-hit central India, as per a local tradition called Anna Pratha (food grain tradition), thousands of old cows are locked inside empty school campuses and left to starve in searing temperatures. Farmers confine these cows inside enclosures to prevent them from grazing on the standing crop, which is the only source of livelihood for these men. Earlier, farmers usually sold the unproductive animals in markets but given the present hostile environment, they indulge in and perpetuate this cruel practice.13
Needless to say, these animals are denied quick deaths and instead made to suffer prolonged indignities in the name of “protection”. The ban on cow slaughter was both in theory and officially meant to prevent animal cruelty, but it brought with a complex set of problems and arguably more suffering to stray animals. The BJP government did not foresee the magnitude of these problems and was depending on an extremely fragile system for the managing the surplus cow population
As part of the larger cow protection movement, hundreds of cow shelters have been established across India. Wandering cows are rescued and kept in these gaushalas or sanctuaries for cows. The gaushalas are run by religious trusts, charitable institutions, the Bhartiya Gau Raksha Dal and even the government which disbursed 5.8 billion Rupees (87 million USD) on cow shelters between 2014 and 2016. The government even started the Rashtriya Gokul Mission in mid-2014, a national program that works for building havens for retired cows.
However, even all these initiatives and contributions combined were not enough to manage the enormous number of cows on the streets. The government, despite spending a great deal to promote new gaushalas, did not provide enough for their upkeep.14 Consequently, a comparatively small number of gaushalas were entrusted with the task of caring for the extremely large number of these animals with no economic value and past their milk-producing years. Moreover, the reality is that most gaushalas only function as commercial dairy farms and seldom serve as resting places for old cows.15
Despite the ban and cattle vigilantism, India retained the dubious title of being the second largest exporter of beef in the world in 2017 and 2018. India also remained the largest consumer and producer of milk, with a Rs 5,000 billion domestic industry.16 And, most perversely, the chicken revolution got a major lift as chicken sales rose significantly amidst the beef ban controversy.17
The Supreme Court suspended the ban a couple of months later. In April, 2018, and the BJP government diluted the rules of cattle sales.18 However, 20 out of 29 states in India still impose some sort of restrictions on the slaughter or sale of cows. Furthermore, cow vigilantes, with the backing of the ruling party, continue their militant cow protection endeavors unabated. The year 2017 was deadliest in terms of cow-related hate crimes with a total of 11 deaths being reported.19 In December, 2018, a police inspector was killed in a mob attack in Bulandshahar. Amnesty India blamed the ‘growing impunity’ of the self-appointed cow protectors and unabashed government complicity for the murder.20 The ignominious killing and other such incidents across northern states have instilled much fear among people. As a result, farmers are still scared to engage in cattle trading which, as noted above, only facilitates a different kind of cruelty.
In the end, the beef ban has done little for the vegan/ vegetarian movement in India. Instead, it has given credence to a brand of young, anti-establishment liberals who turn to beef and meat-eating to rile the BJP government, mainly consisting of upper-caste Hindu hegemons, who accord moral superiority to vegetarianism and cow protection. Historically, upper-caste Hindus (Brahmins) were lacto-vegetarians and lower-caste Hindus, Muslims and Christians were meat eaters. In earlier times, through a process termed Sanskritisation,21 lower-caste Hindus emulated the vegetarian dietary habits of Brahmins to gain some degree of upward social mobility.22 But today, any identification with brahminical customs is deemed archaic and a threat to personal freedom. Hence, minorities find it imperative to perpetuate and celebrate their non-vegan traditions. So, they eat meat to uphold their caste identity, to mark their rebellion against their historical oppressors and to quash the idea that vegetarianism begets superiority, moral or otherwise.
From Culture to Economic Modernity
India got its vegetarian nation identity through its brand of spirituality and religious habits of Jains and Hindus. However, long before the beef ban controversy came to the fore in 2017, and even long before the BJP came to power, Indians started to explore meat cuisines. Today, India’s reputation of being a largely vegetarian country is not entirely accurate. According to the sample registration system (SRS) baseline survey 2014,23 released by the registrar general of India, of the 1.1 billion Indian people only 330 million are vegetarians.24 Most Indians, barring upper-caste Hindus, Jains and some Buddhist sects, eat meat. On the other hand, UNFAO statistics indicate that Indians have the lowest rate of meat consumption in the world. This is because even meat eaters in India eat meat sparingly: once in a while or once a day, unlike in the western countries.25 In recent times however, even those sections that were traditionally vegetarian, have started to develop a taste for meat
India is one of the fastest growing economies of the world today. Over the last 30 years, this emerging economy has seen a rise in disposable incomes of a burgeoning middle class. Usually, an increase in wealth often leads to a shift to meat-heavy and dairy diets. A similar change has been observed in India where per capita meat consumption was 3.7 kg in 1980 and 5.1 kg in 2005, according to an FAO report. Globalization and cultural cross influences have further established meat-eating as an exotic, world class experience among Indians. According to FAO, this trend is only expected to gather further momentum as Indian economy continues to grow.
Meat-eating across cultures has long been correlated with affluence. Likewise, in India, meat has always been more expensive than plant-based food items, as meat production is not subsidized and the availability of fewer meat options (only chicken and goat meat is eaten in majority areas) pushes meat prices up.26 Thus, a diet comprising meat and dairy symbolizes higher economic status. The aspirational Indian middle class laps up this idea and consequently throngs McDonalds and KFCs to look and feel rich. Young Brahmins, oppressed by strict traditions, have also started to eschew vegetarianism and favour meat after they move out of their rigid family home environments. Eating meat has in fact never been cooler in India than it is now: it symbolizes modernity, status, good health, liberal thought and even emancipation
As far as dairy consumption is concerned, even Krishna-worshiping Hindus do not consider milk inhumane. What is more, vegetarian Hindus consume high quantities of dairy products to make up for the perceived nutrient deficiencies in their diet.27 The consequence of all these factors combined is that veganism has deep barriers. A mass-based organizing programme from left animal liberationists is still urgently needed
Politically – and especially electorally – neither the left nor the right cares about animal protection in India. Even though cow protection has been on the BJP agenda for decades, the rights of other hugely exploited farm animals, such as chickens, water buffaloes and the extremely neglected pigs, are never a part of political discourses. Addressing their status and their abuse doesn’t garner any political mileage – especially vis-à-vis the favour of upper caste Hindus
What is more, the BJP government allocated Rs 68-crore (US 10.2 million dollars) subsidies to modernize slaughterhouses.28 Meanwhile, the Maharashtra state government is gearing to tap into the unexplored pork market by setting up fully-equipped international-standard piggeries that will produce export-quality meat.29 Again, while western countries are trying to curtail factory farming given the many animal welfare and environmental concerns associated with it, India is evidently making leaps in the other direction and exploring new markets.30
The left parties continue to peddle meat eating in the name of anti-casteism, and young Indians are always up for gastronomic adventures.
Several individuals and groups such as Animal Aid Unlimited (located in Udaipur) and Badmash Peepal Farm (located in Dharamshala) are engaging in animal protection activities at the grassroots level. These centers provide shelter and medical aid to sick, injured and rescued animals and also work intensively towards other initiatives such as spaying and neutering of stray dogs
Vegan activism is also gaining momentum in places like Bangalore. An animal liberation march is being organized in Mumbai on April 28, 2019. It is clear that veganism and animal liberation are growing social movements in India, but it may be a long while before it the movement can have national impact. Grassroots animal liberationists in India need to campaign on a platform that brings ordinary Indians together in a way that deals not only with the liberation question for animals, but with working class needs, the needs of women and the wider ecology central to its political program.
A renewed struggle in India could be a leadership model for the world.
India is on the verge of the 17th general elections,to be held in May. If Modi gets elected a second time, a similar state of affairs is likely to continue. If the opposition party, the Indian National Congress (INC) comes to power then the cow might lose its special status.
Historically, the INC has favoured the preferences of minorities and has largely been against according any special rights to cows. In 2013, when INC came to power in the Indian state of Karnataka after six years of BJP government, the then Chief Minister Siddaramaiah reversed the BJP rule’s strict law pertaining to cow slaughter and reverted to an older tamer law. However, a different story is playing out presently. The INC has allegedly caught BJP’s cow contagion. In 2018, when the INC formed a government in the Indian State of Madhya Pradesh after 15 years of BJP rule, the new Chief Minister Kamal Nath vowed to open 1,000 goushalas in villages across the state where homeless will be taken care of. “Treatment of cows in MP convinced me to build gaushalas, it has nothing to do with competitive politics,” he asserted31
The Congress-ruled Rajasthan government organized a state-level convention on ‘cow conservation’ in March, 2019. Moreover, cow politics was an essential component of state-election manifestos of both Congress and BJP.32
Whether Congress is trying to “out-cow” the BJP is yet to be seen. But the BJP needs to take accountability for cow-related mob violence and ensure state action in such situations. Additionally, both parties should endeavor to make a strong case for animal rights in the country and ensure adherence to just laws.
Banner Image: Buffaloes walking along the road in Bhopal, March 5.
All photos by Anusha Narain
- Srinivas, A.,“ No vegetarianism is not growing in India”, Live Mint, October 9, 2018. Accessed January 30, 2019 from https://www.livemint.com/Politics/dWUqT4epdPTHNAYuKYVThK/No-vegetarianism-is-not-growing-in-India.html
- “Why the Global Rise in Vegan and Plant-Based Eating Isn’t A Fad”, Food Revolution Network, January 18, 2018. Accessed January 4, 2019 from https://foodrevolution.org/blog/vegan-statistics-global/
- “India’s vegetarian prime ministers”, LiveMint, September 27, 2014. Accessed April 4, 2019, from: https://www.livemint.com/Politics/VRyNqLz9fLQtiVkU2LXYjN/Indias-vegetarian-prime-ministers.html
- Mohan, V., “Centre bans sale of cattle for slaughter at livestock markets”, Times of India. Accessed January 4, 2019 from https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/centre-bans-sale-of-cattle-for-slaughter-at-livestock-markets/articleshow/58861631.cms
- Mayer, P., Oak, M., “India’s ban on cow slaughter: appeasing the BJP Hindu base but scoring an economic goal?”, Asian Studies Association of Australia, July 11, 2017. Accessed January 4, 2019 from http://asaa.asn.au/indias-ban-cow-slaughter-appeasing-bjp-hindu-base-scoring-economic-goal/
- Babu, R., “Police book Youth Congress workers for slaughtering cow in Kerala Market”, Hindustan Times, July 19, 2017. Accessed January 4, 2019 from https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/youth-congress-workers-slaughter-cow-in-kerala-market-animal-activists-cry-foul/story-MW0w6xgd17R15CEBrjMAoN.html
- Kumar, A., “The lynching that changed India”, Al Jazeera, October 5, 2017. Accessed January 4, 2019 from https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2017/09/lynching-changed-india-170927084018325.html
- “Hate Crime: Cow-related violence in India”.Accessed on April 4, 2019 from https://lynch.factchecker.in/?fbclid=IwAR1B8kvTNhuKSxsud0DUv8nR9xTwLFaSsqxGIgOdI_S1b_DoI7HEg8FvT08
- Regan, H., “Indian authorities failed to stop ‘cow vigilante’ violence : Report”, CNN, February 21, 2019. Accessed on February 28, 2019 from https://edition.cnn.com/2019/02/20/asia/india-cow-vigilante-hrw-report-intl/index.html
- Dunseith, B., “India’s ‘Beef Ban’: Repercussions for Meat Leather and Dairy Industries”, India Briefing, June 13, 2017. Accessed January 4, 2019 from https://www.india-briefing.com/news/indias-beef-ban-repercussions-meat-leather-dairy-industries-14421.html/
- Mohan, V., “Govt approves Rs. 10,881 crore fund to give a boost to dairy sector”, Times of India, September 12, 2017. Accessed January 4, 2019 from https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/govt-approves-rs-10881-crore-fund-to-give-a-boost-to-dairy-sector/articleshow/60480746.cms
- Padhan, K., “Why Modi govt’s new cattle slaughter rules will hurt Inda”, Hindustan Times, July 5, 2017. Accessed January 4, 2019 from https://www.hindustantimes.com/analysis/beyond-bull-why-restriction-on-cow-slaughter-will-hurt-india/story-TDkKNbCzkgEFKIdYInkA4O.html
- Patwardhan, A., “Cows in drought-hit Mahoba are Abandoned, Starved and Locked Up. This activist aims to save them”, The Better India, March 28, 2017. Accessed January 4, 2019 from https://www.thebetterindia.com/93156/mahoba-drought-abandoned-starved-cows-abhinav-srihan-animal-rescue/
- Pal, M., “Gaushalas need help, and now”, The Pioneer, 24 October, 2017. Accessed January 4, 2019 from https://www.dailypioneer.com/2017/columnists/gaushalas-need-help-and-now.html
- Narain, A., “What’s behind that glass of milk”, The Hindu, May 4, 2013. Accessed January 4, 2019 from https://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/whats-behind-that-glass-of-milk/article4675921.ece
- “A Study of India’s Dairy Sector 2017: The World’s Largest Producer and Consumer – Research and Markets”, Business Wire, January 2, 2018. Accessed January 4, 2019 from https://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20180102005671/en/Study-Indias-Dairy-Sector-2017-Worlds-Largest
- Shenoy, J., “Chicken consumption and price may rise up to 30%: Survey-cum-analysis”, Times of India, June 5, 2017. Accessed January 4, 2019 from https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/mangaluru/chicken-consumption-and-price-may-rise-up-to-30-survey-cum-analysis/articleshow/59000827.cms
- “India’s Supreme Court suspends cattle slaughter ban”, BBC News, July 11, 2017. Accessed January 8,2019 from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-40565457
- Saldahna, A., “Cow-related hate crimes peaked in 2017, 86% of those killed Muslims”, The Wire, December 8, 2018. Accessed February 28, 2019 from https://thewire.in/communalism/cow-vigilantism-violence-2017-muslims-hate-crime
- “Bulandshahr: Amnesty India blames ‘growing impunity’ of cow vigilantes for police inspector’s death”, Scroll, December 4, 2018. Accessed February 28, 2019 from https://scroll.in/latest/904505/bulandshahr-amnesty-india-blames-growing-impunity-of-cow-vigilantes-for-police-inspectors-death
- According to M.N. Srinivas, sanskritisation is a process by which “a low or middle Hindu caste, or tribal or other group, changes its customs, ritual ideology, and way of life in the direction of a high and frequently twice-born caste. Generally such changes are followed by a claim to a higher position in the caste hierarchy than that traditionally conceded to the claimant class by the local community”
- Chanana, D.R., “Sanskritization, Westernization and India’s North-West”, Economic Weekly, 13(9), pp.409-414, 1961
- According to the Registrar General of India, the Sample Registration System is a large-scale demographic survey for providing annual estimates of birth rate, death rate and other mortality and fertility and mortality indicators at the national and sub-national levels. Food and Agriculture organization defines baseline survey as “a descriptive cross-sectional survey that mostly provides quantitative information on the current status of a particular situation”.
- Khara, T., “The myth of a vegetarian India”, The Conversation, September 11, 2018 Accessed January 4, 2019 from http://theconversation.com/the-myth-of-a-vegetarian-india-102768
- Sage, Colin, “Making and Un-Making Meat: Cultural Boundaries, Environmental Thresholds and Dietary Transgressions,” Food Transgressions: Making Sense of Contemporary Food Politics, M K Goodman and C Sage (eds), Farnham: Ashgate (2014)
- “Food Prices in India”, Numbeo. Accessed from https://www.numbeo.com/food-prices/country_result.jsp?country=India (Updated April 2019)
- Damodaran, H., “In India, to be veg is to drink a lot of milk”, Indian Express, June 12, 2015. Accessed February 18, 2019 from https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/in-india-to-be-veg-is-to-drink-a-lot-of-milk/
- Singh, R.K., “Modi govt gave Rs 68 crore subsidy to modernize slaughterhouses, reveals RTI query”, India Today, July 4, 2017. Accessed February 19, 2019 from https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/narendra-modi-government-bjp-slaughterhouses-1022430-2017-07-04
- Mishra. L., “A ‘pink revolution’ quietly takes place in Maharashtra”, The Hindu, February 3, 2019. Accessed on April 9, 2019 from https://www.thehindu.com/business/Industry/pink-revolution/article26168901.ece
- Srinivasan, K. and Rao, S., “Will Eat Anything That Moves”, Economic and Political Weekly, 50(39), pp.13-15. 2015.
- “Treatment of cows in MP convinced me to build gaushalas, it has nothing to do with competitive politics: Kamal Nath”, Economic Times, February 9, 2019. Accessed on April 13, 2019 from https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/treatment-of-cows-in-mp-convinced-me-to-build-gaushalas-it-has-nothing-to-do-with-competitive-politics-kamal-nath/articleshow/67913019.cms
- R. Ranjan., 2019. “Congress or is it BJP? Rajasthan Govt organizes first cow convention”, The Citizen, March 4, 2019. Accessed on April 13, 2019 from https://www.thecitizen.in/index.php/en/NewsDetail/index/2/16393/Congress-or-is-it-BJP-Rajasthan-Govt-Organises-First-Cow-Convention-