At one of Asia’s largest slaughterhouses, there are more police officers than cattle. The stalls where butchers clean and quarter chicken, sheep, goats and pigs buzz with activity while the section reserved for bulls sits barren.
A nearly month-old ban on the slaughter of cattle in one of India’s largest states has put thousands out of work and created fresh problems for struggling farmers as conservative Hindu politicians act to protect the bovine, regarded in their religion as sacred.
At the sprawling Deonar abattoir in the suburbs of the commercial hub Mumbai in Maharashtra state, 2,000 cattle traders, transporters, butchers and others have lost their jobs. 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.
Shakeel Ameen Qureshi, who works as a cattle trader along with his three brothers and used to earn about $15 per day, said he hasn’t made a penny in the three weeks since the law went into effect.
“My wife and kids ask when I return home whether I earned something. What am I supposed to answer?” said Qureshi, who was among more than 1,000 people protesting the ban on a sweltering afternoon in the heart of Mumbai this week.
“We can't do anything else to earn a living.”
Across India, the rise of conservative Hindu politicians, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, has revived a longstanding battle over the status of the cow in this massive, multifaith nation of 1.2 billion people.
Hindus, who make up nearly 80% of the population, regard the cow as sacred, and many Hindus eschew eating beef or any other animal products. Yet India also has the world’s second-largest beef-export industry, driven largely by the beef substitute buffalo, which has no religious value.
Many minority Muslims and Christians, as well as low-caste Hindus, consume bull meat because it is a cheap source of protein, nearly half the price of chicken or lamb.
Maharashtra, India’s second-most populous state, banned the slaughter of cows four decades ago, but the new BJP-led state government this month extended the prohibition to bulls and bullocks. Buffalo – the major source of the “beef” advertised on restaurant menus in Mumbai – are exempt from the ban.
The state’s chief minister, Devendra Fadnavis, said the new law “is not driven by any hidden or communal agenda” and argued that farmers would be able to make use of the animals.
“A cow or bullock can become an alternative means of livelihood for a farmer,” Fadnavis told The Indian Express newspaper.
Critics of the law say it hurts farmers who cannot sell their aged cattle for slaughter.
“Now nobody will buy the animal and the farmer will have to look after it even when it becomes useless. It will add to his expenses,” said Vijay Dalvi, a labor activist who helped organize the Mumbai rally
“This is clearly a majoritarian decision taken by the state.”
In Maharashtra, possessing beef is punishable by a fine of about $160 and up to five years in prison. Critics noted that was longer than the maximum three-year prison term India allows for a sexual harassment conviction.
The northern state of Haryana, also BJP-led, followed suit with even stricter laws, making cow or bull slaughter punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a fine of more than $1,600.
Right-wing Hindu groups that back Modi say they want to extend the ban nationwide.
Beef remains legal in a handful of Indian states, including coastal Goa, which is also led by the BJP but has a large Roman Catholic population for whom beef is a central part of the diet.
“In Goa [religious] minorities are 39[% to] 40%. If it is part of their food habits, why and how can we ban it?” the state’s chief minister, Laxmikant Parsekar, said this week.
The All India Muslim Personal Law Board, an advocacy group, cited the beef ban this week as one reason why Muslims are “increasingly feeling insecure” since Modi came to power in May.
The ban in Maharashtra has disproportionately affected Muslims, who are active in the cattle slaughter industry. Sheik Ismail Qureshi, a butcher, worried that he would soon run out of his savings while school tuition fees for his four children were soon due.
“The school keeps telling me that the kids will be expelled or won’t be allowed to appear for exams if I don’t pay their fees,” he said. “I don’t know what am I going to do."
Parth M.N. is a special correspondent.
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