In the land of the holy cow, Hindu fury over India’s beef exports

December 12, 2013

(A poster of Indian holy cow Kamdhenu is pictured outside a goushala or a cow shelter in the old quarters of Delhi June 19, 2013. REUTERS/Anindito Mukherjee )

Symbols of India’s emergence as an economic powerhouse line the four-lane highway to Jaipur out of New Delhi: a factory owned by the world’s biggest motorbike maker, glass towers housing global call centres, shopping malls for India’s burgeoning middle class.

One night in August here, an angry mob ran amok, burning trucks and government property and forcing traffic to halt and factories to shut.

The rioters were incensed over an issue arguably as old as India itself: the eating of beef, which the country’s majority Hindus have considered sacrilegious for at least a thousand years.

Perhaps surprisingly in a country where so many people view cows as sacred, India could soon become the world’s biggest beef exporter, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Most, though not all, of the beef India exports is buffalo, an animal less venerated than the hump-backed indigenous Indian cow. But the trade, even in buffalo beef, still evokes revulsion among Hindu nationalists. The sharpest criticism comes from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the main opposition in parliament. Its candidate for prime minister in next year’s elections, Narendra Modi, has slammed what he calls the government’s “pink revolution,” (a play on the original agricultural or “green” revolution in India) and its “secret agenda … for export of beef.”

(Smoke rises as vehicles burn after they were set on fire by a mob which was protesting against the ferrying of beef in the northern Indian state of Haryana August 30, 2013. REUTERS/Stringer)

India’s vegetarian traditions and the Hindu aversion to beef mean only 2.1 million tonnes of beef are consumed domestically a year. That compares with 11.5 million tonnes a year in the United States, which has just a quarter India’s population.

But exports of beef from India are likely to hit close to 1.8 million tonnes in 2013, second only to Brazil, according to an April forecast by the USDA. The value of India’s exports has nearly doubled from $1.9 billion in 2010/11 to $3.2 billion in 2012/13, according to the government’s Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA). That’s about one percent of India’s $300 billion annual exports last financial year.

While beef is unlikely to emerge as a major issue ahead of next year’s election, Modi has made his opposition to the trade clear. In a blog on his website in 2012, he attacked the current government’s policies and called for a halt to the beef trade.

“Our ancient Indian ethos and values doesn’t (sic) teach us to kill mother cow … sadly, the (government) seems unbothered about this rich ethos of our culture. It wants to make India the biggest exporter of beef!” he wrote in August last year. “Our future generation is not getting sufficient milk and this government wants to kill cows that provide us a ‘ladder for life.’ I’m sure that you will contribute your might in stopping such an insane act.”

Read the full story by Jo Winterbottom and Meenakshi Sharma here.

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