“WHERE’S THE BEEF?” may have been a rhetorical slogan in US fast-food TV ads and presidential campaigns of the 1980s, but in present-day India it is now a deadly serious question that requires immediate attention. The government really is, actually, looking for beef.

The decades-old rhetorical catchphrase first found international fame in 1984 when US Vice President Walter Mondale made it his own during his unsuccessful campaign for the presidency.

Mondale, tapping into the popularity of the Wendy’s fast-food chain commercial, used “Where’s the beef?” to point to the insubstantial nature of his competition.

Much of contemporary Indian politics could be summed up with the same phrase, though couched in a much more literal context.

Over the last two and a half years, ever since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) took office at the centre of India’s federal government, beef has become the big political issue of the day. Laws have been changed to increase the punishment for transporting or trading in beef. Restaurants have been prohibited from serving it. People have been dragged out from their homes and lynched on suspicion of serving beef. A month ago, an innocent dairy farmer was beaten to death by a group of vigilantes who thought he might have been transporting his cattle for slaughter. Government ministers have proudly declared how much they disapprove of beef-eating.

And yet, it is hard to not to think back to Walter Mondale, or even to Wendy’s. Just as they used the phrase to refer to a lack of substance, so it is in contemporary India. The beef campaign addresses no real or direct threat to Indian society. But used as a symbol of exclusion, it could have lasting effects on the future of a nation founded on secular principles.

The current anti-beef campaign has two origins, both rooted in a conception of Hinduism. The first is the view that because the cow is sacred to Hindus, it should never be slaughtered. The second is a more general proposition: good people are, almost by definition, vegetarians, and all meat eating is fundamentally evil.

As the beef-ban is slowly being recognised as a fact of modern Indian life, it is the vegetarian-only campaign that is gathering momentum.

The anti-cow slaughter campaign has played an annoying if not particularly constructive role in Indian politics over the last century. Observant Hindus do not eat beef because the cow is venerated.

When the Indian constitution was written, a section of Hindus called for a ban on cow slaughter. The demand was opposed by liberals who said that if independent India was to be a Hindu nation then, yes, such a ban would be justified. But the idea of India was that it would be a secular nation where the state played as little a role as possible in religious matters. Every Indian citizen – whether he was a Hindu, a Muslim, a Christian, a Sikh – would have exactly the same rights.

The liberal position received unexpected support from Mahatma Gandhi, a passionate vegetarian. When the new nation was being formed, opponents of cow slaughter petitioned Gandhi who, they believed, would be on their side. In 1947, Gandhi wrote that his associates had received 50,000 postcards, between 25,000 to 30,000 letters and thousands of telegrams urging him to use his great moral influence to ban cow slaughter. The petitioners were optimistic because, as Gandhi himself wrote, “I have long been pledged to serve the cow.”

To the disappointment of the anti-cow slaughter lobby, however, Gandhi opposed a ban. “How can my religion also be the religion of the rest of Indians. It will mean coercion against those Indians who are not Hindus....It is not as if there are only Hindus in the Indian union. There are Muslims, Parsis, Christians and other religious groups here. The assumption of the Hindus that India has now become the land of the Hindus is erroneous. India belongs to everyone who lives here.”

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That should have been that. The liberals had received powerful support and the Hindu fundamentalists had been roundly trounced (shortly afterwards, Gandhi was assassinated by a member of the Hindu Mahasabha, a fundamentalist organisation). But the pressure was so strong that Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, felt he had to offer some concession to the fundamentalists.

His solution was to include a nod to an eventual cow slaughter ban in the Directive Principles of the Constitution, a non-binding set of recommendations. But he also passed the buck to the state governments (India has a federal structure where law and order is a state issue), letting them decide how they wanted to legislate cow slaughter.

As pressure grew, most Indian states agreed to ban cow slaughter, though there were some notable holdouts, among them states with high literacy rates such as Kerala, West Bengal and the seven states of India’s North East, a largely tribal region.

In practice, however, the ban in the states was rarely rigidly enforced. All those who wanted to get around the law found an unlikely ally in the water buffalo. This is a large animal, not unlike the cow, that has long been domesticated in India for its milk. Though Indians use the buffalo and the cow in the same way (most milkmen will not even explain which animal produces the product they sell) Hindus do not worship the buffalo. Thus, there is no problem with slaughtering it and eating its beef, though sometimes, to avoid confusion, buffalo meat is called “buff” or “carabeef”.

Most foodies will tell you that buffalo meat is not in the same league as beef. You can’t, for instance, get a good steak from a buffalo. But it is a perfectly acceptable alternative to beef for stews, curies and some stir-fries.

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So, in much of India, a huge buffalo meat industry has developed. Because Hindus do not have any great beef or buff recipes and because rich Muslims prefer goat to beef, buffalo is not meant for haute cuisine; it is the poor man’s meat with prices much lower than lamb or goat.

One surprising fallout of this buffalo meat boom was that India became a beef exporter. In fact, according to US government statistics, India was the world’s largest beef exporter, sending over 2.4 million tonnes abroad. Brazil, which was second on the list, exported 20 per cent less beef than India.

Was all this buffalo meat? Well, that’s what it said on the invoices but, beef traders from such rival beef exporting nations as Australia argued that much of it was real beef. And some of it was of such high quality that the Australian beef industry found it difficult to compete in the mass market against Indian beef exports. When the exported beef reached its destination, it was usually repackaged to remove any mention of the buffalo.

Using the cover of the buffalo suited everyone. There was beef (of one sort or another) available in the domestic market and exporters made millions of dollars sending Indian “beef” to the rest of Asia.

All that changed nearly three years ago, when the BJP government took office. The union government in New Delhi ordered a crackdown on beef exporters – pleas that they were exporting buffalo meat went largely unheard. Processing units were shut down. Exports collapsed and several firms faced ruin.

As the only reliable way of establishing whether a chunk of meat is derived from a cow or a buffalo is a DNA test, which takes time, hundreds of government inspectors simply classified all meat found at processing plants as beef and fined the owners or, more typically, shook them down for vast bribes.

Then, the focus shifted to the states. Maharshtra, which had a ban on cow slaughter on its books, extended this to cover bulls as well, and police began raiding slaughterhouses and meat shops. In Uttar Pradesh, hysteria over beef eating reached such a pitch that a man called Mohammed Akhlaq was lynched on suspicion of having killed a cow.

Liberals went to the courts, with limited success. In Maharashtra the High Court ruled that the government had every right to ban cow slaughter but that it had no right to control what its citizens ate. So, if a restaurant served beef brought in from Bengal or Kerala (where cow slaughter is legal) the government could not interfere.

Still, few restaurants or meat shops resumed serving and selling beef. Such is the mood of the times that the anti-beef hysteria continues unabated. In Delhi, the police (under the control of the central government) even raided the canteen of the Kerala State government’s offices in the capital on the suspicion that beef was being cooked in the kitchen. It turned out to be buffalo.

The media joined the hysteria. It was always assumed (though never explicitly stated) that deluxe hotels catering to foreign tourists could import and serve foreign beef. A TV channel sent a reporter with a concealed camera to interview a manager at the Leela Palace Hotel’s Japanese restaurant. When the manager confirmed that Wagyu beef imported from Japan was on the menu, the channel acted as thought it had scooped the world. The grainy footage from the spy cam was aired on the nightly news, there were demonstrations outside the hotel and the manager had to move his family to a secure secret location for their own safety.

The beef battle, liberals will concede, is now largely lost. But there is another battle that has yet to be decided.

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An overwhelming majority of Indians are non-vegetarian. Figures vary, but estimates range from 70 per cent to 79 per cent of Indians eat meat. In some states (Mizoram, Telangana) the proportion of non-vegetarians is 95 per cent or more.

But some Indians have always been vegetarians. Banias, a trading community found all over India, are vegetarians. Brahmins, the priestly caste, are usually vegetarian (though not in Kashmir or Bengal) and in such states as Gujarat (where Modi was born), most Hindus are vegetarians.

The connection between Hinduism and vegetarianism is relatively new. The food historian Colleen Taylor Sen writes that in the ancient Hindu epics, the gods were non-vegetarians and other historians have maintained that beef-eating (even by Brahmins) was normal among Hindus in the ancient era.

But from the late medieval era, a belief developed that vegetarianism was holy in Hinduism. Perhaps this is because all Hindus (including non-vegetarians) are required to abjure meat on various holy occasions (certain festivals, during funerals and when they fast to propriate various gods) and because many Brahmins encourage those visiting a temple to avoid meat.

State governments often ask for slaughterhouses to be closed on days that are sacred to Hindus and Jains. This practice predates the rise of the BJP. But in recent years, it has become more pronounced. For instance, the BJP government in Maharashtra closed slaughterhouses for several days because of a Jain festival (Jains constitute under two per cent of the population of the state). Curiously, it allowed fish to be sold during that period, even though Jains put fish on par with meat and the religion proscribes both.

Ever since the BJP government took office in Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state, Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath (“Yogi” is a reference to his chosen path as a political Hindu holy man) has ordered crackdowns on slaughterhouses, claiming that many were illegal. The consequence has been a shortage of all meat in butcher shops and a halt in the supply to Lucknow’s famous Kabab houses. Enforced vegetarianism by denial of supply is the new normal.

It now looks that with the beef battle largely won, Hindu fundamentalists will turn their attention – with government support – to all meat.

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All this raises several important questions. First of all, why run an anti-beef campaign and cripple the flourishing export industry? Secondly, why extend government-sponsored vegetarianism to all meat when a majority of Hindus are non-vegetarians?

Since there is no economic rationale for these decisions and no reasonable basis to much of the hysteria, critics of the government have suggested a historical explanation.

Hindu fundamentalists lost the battle to ban cow slaughter when India’s constitution was written. In the end they had to accept Gandhi’s view that India was not a Hindu country even if the majority of its inhabitants were Hindus.

But now, with the Hindu nationalist BJP firmly in control, the losers of that old constitutional battle are trying to fight it all over again. This time, with India’s ostensibly liberal political opposition in tatters, there is nobody strong enough to challenge their view that just as Pakistan is a Muslim nation, India is a Hindu country. And in a Hindu nation, all laws will be framed to respect Hindu religious sentiment.

But there is a second, more worrying, agenda.

With Hindu triumphalism on the rise the last two years, the divide between Hindus and the minority Muslim community has grown. While no responsible BJP leader in a position of power will attack Muslims openly, a wide range of proxy issues has emerged. Many of them are, on the face of it, nationalist rather than sectarian.

Can you really object if somebody criticises Pakistan, India’s traditional enemy and demands action against Pakistan sympathisers within India? Probably not. Which is why such attacks have been used as code phrases to cast suspicion on Indian Muslims.

Even the complex situation in Muslim-majority Kashmir is now viewed all over India in simplistic and jingoistic terms, with every Kashmir Muslim being dismissed as a traitor or a Pakistani agent.

In this climate, the campaign against beef and meat takes on a particular resonance. While many Hindus are non-vegetarians, most if not all Muslims are non-vegetarian.

Hindus are required by their religion to abjure beef. Muslims face no such restriction. What’s more, because beef (or buffalo meat) is the cheapest non-vegetarian option, it is preferred by poor Muslims.

The meat industry in India is largely Muslim run. The majority of beef exporters (targets of the recent crackdown) are Muslims. Slaughterhouses tend to be run by Muslims. The kabab houses in Uttar Pradesh, which have been badly affected by the closing of slaughterhouses, are mostly owned by Muslims.

All too often, the campaign against cow slaughter becomes an excuse to attack Muslims. The man who was dragged from his house and beaten to death on suspicion of slaughtering a cow was a Muslim. The dairy farmer who was killed because it was believed he was taking his cow for slaughter was a Muslim.

In every case, the assailants were Hindus. Frequently, they were Hindus with connections to fundamentalist organisations. And nearly always, they found vocal support from Hindu politicians and high-profile fundamentalist leaders.

Once you see the war on meat from a Hindu-Muslim perspective, many things fall into place. Why, for instance, did the Maharashtra government close slaughterhouses during a Jain festival but allow fishermen to sell their catch? Well, could it be because slaughterhouses are run by Muslims and fishermen tend to be Hindus?

At one level, India’s beef ban is silly and frivolous. Surely, a nation that sees itself as an emerging superpower in the 21st Century has bigger things to worry about than to ask “Where’s the beef?”

And seen that way, the issue is silly, gimmicky and unsubstantial.

But there is another way of looking at it. Beef is just a symbol of a larger transition.This is much more than a war on meat. This is a great liberal democracy going through the process of redefining itself (against the expressed wishes of its founders) as a Hindu nation that has no time for the liberal tradition.

This is a much more fundamental change in India’s national identity than the world has realised. And this just the beginning. The transformation will continue, with profound consequences, not just for India but for the entire region.

A former editor, Vir Sanghvi is a columnist and TV presenter

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