The Price of Meat

The convenient contradictions in the BJP’s animal-protection politics

An abattoir operated by the Allanasons Group in Aligarh, Uttar Pradesh. India’s biggest buffalo-meat exporters and slaughterhouses are located in the state, which reported the highest number of hate crimes related to cattle slaughter between 2012 and 2018. Anindito Mukherjee / Bloomberg / Getty Images
30 April, 2021

On 2 April 2014, Narendra Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat at the time and the Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime-ministerial candidate, addressed an election rally in Bihar’s Newada district. “The same Yaduvanshi which worships Krishna, which rears and serves cows, who are they with?” Modi asked. “With whom is their leader practising politics? With those who feel proud of slaughtering animals in India.” Yaduvanshi is a reference to the Yadav community, who rear cattle by caste vocation and are a crucial vote base for the Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar and the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh. Modi seemed to be taking a dig at the Samajwadi party for courting Muslim voters. Pitching animal protection as an electoral issue, Modi added, “Brothers and sisters, the government in Delhi neither wants Green Revolution nor does it want White Revolution, they want a Pink Revolution.” Modi explained that by “Pink Revolution” he meant the colour of an animal’s flesh after it is slaughtered. He criticised the United Progressive Alliance government for “proudly stating” that India had earned the highest profits in exporting mutton in the previous year. “If my Yaduvansh brothers want to rear cows, they do not receive a subsidy,” he said. “But the government in Delhi gives subsidies to those who slaughter cows.” He also alleged that slaughterhouses had mushroomed in different parts of the country.

After Modi came to power, cow protection and vegetarianism have become pet issues for the BJP. The communal rhetoric used by Modi and his fellow BJP leaders sparked a violent campaign against beef consumption and those imagined to be linked to it—mostly Muslims and Dalits. According to Human Rights Watch, between May 2015 and December 2018, at least 44 people—36 of them Muslims—were killed across 12 Indian states in the name of cow protection. Over that same period, nearly three hundred people were injured across 20 states in over a hundred different incidents related to cattle-protection vigilantism.

Even as fringe groups, often affiliated with the Sangh Parivar, periodically engage in such violence, the BJP-led government has been quietly implementing an economic policy that in no way discourages meat production. Not only has there been an increase in meat exports over the last few years, the government also raised subsidies for modernising slaughterhouses between 2014 and 2019. Close cooperation between the government and major meat-export companies is quite evident, based on their funding of the government’s pet development projects and their proximity to top BJP leaders. And yet, none of this has stemmed the hateful rhetoric linked to beef consumption or the violence it has fuelled in the streets.

Violence related to gau rakshaks—cow-protection vigilantesis often written off by the BJP as an expression of public anger caused by affronts to religious sentiments. But sentiments seem to have little to do with the BJP’s Janus-faced policy—on one hand, it supports gau rakshaks and seeks votes in the name of ending cattle slaughter; on the other, it encourages the export of meat, tallow and other meat products for their economic value. Both in state policy and in the views of gau rakshaks, cow protection comes across less as an emotional issue and more as a convenient tool for spreading Islamophobia.