I’ll confess to the sin of beef eating in a moment. Let me first confess to the sin of not having a true knowledge of science.
In May of this year, Justice Mahesh Chandra Sharma of the Rajasthan High Court suggested that the cow be adopted as the national animal of India. His rationale was that millions of gods and goddesses reside in the cow. And here’s the crucial science bit: According to the judge, the “cow is the only living being which intakes oxygen and emits oxygen.”
I grew up in India during the 1960s and ’70s in a meat-eating Hindu family. Only my mother and my grandparents were vegetarians. The rest of us enjoyed eating—on special occasions—chicken, or fish, or mutton. But I had never eaten beef in India until this summer. And what I ate in restaurants in Mumbai and Delhi, I was repeatedly informed, technically wasn’t beef—it was buffalo meat, or “buff.” It has become too dangerous, in the current political climate, to kill a cow. On the very day I had my first taste of what turned out to be a surprisingly tender buffalo steak in Mumbai, national newspapers carried a report from my hometown of Patna, headlined “Three thrashed in Bihar on suspicion of carrying beef.”
When Prime Minister Narendra Modi led the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to a landslide victory in the national parliamentary elections in 2014, one of the planks of his campaign was a ban on cow slaughter. He accused the party in power at that time of promoting a “Pink Revolution” (pink because “when you slaughter an animal, then the color of its meat is pink”). The government, Modi said, boasted of India being the world’s leading meat exporter. Even in his earlier speeches, available on YouTube, you can hear him declaiming against the killing of cows: “Brothers and sisters, I cannot say whether your heart is pained by this or not, but my heart screams out in agony again and again. And why you remain silent, why you tolerate this, I just cannot understand.”
Speeches like this were not simply about animal welfare. Modi’s words are an incitement for India’s Hindu majority, which mostly doesn’t eat beef, to turn against the minority, particularly Muslims, who are conventionally represented as beef eaters. Cow slaughter has long been banned in parts of India, but after the BJP’s victory, frenzied mobs of vigilantes felt emboldened to make accusations and mete out brutal punishment.
In Mumbai, two journalist friends took me to a restaurant named Imbiss, which bills itself as a “meating joint.” The chef-owner, Bruce Rodrigues, said that he’d love to serve beef, but added that it’s “a sensitive issue.” Since 2015, when the right-wing Hindu government in Maharashtra state criminalized the consumption (or even possession) of beef, Rodrigues has relied on the buffalo brought by farmers to the city’s largest abattoir, in the suburb of Deonar. Deonar is also Mumbai’s biggest garbage dump, the waste standing 18 stories high. (It’s not too much of a stretch to say that, in a Hindu-dominated society, meat and waste can often be relegated to the same place. A conjecture favored by some historians is that India’s beef taboo has its roots in the cow’s hallowed position in an agricultural society adversely affected by traditional animal sacrifice.)
In a country where a large segment of the majority holds fast to this taboo, a steak is cheaper than chicken. Rodrigues told me that prior to the ban on cow slaughter, he served steaks for only 180 Indian rupees (roughly $3) apiece. Away from a middle-class restaurant like Imbiss, there is a grave economic and social cost to the ban: It deprives some of the poorest Indians, mostly Dalits and Muslims, of the cheapest source of animal protein. As journalist Shoaib Daniyal pointed out a couple of years ago, this subset is far from insignificant: The number of people who eat beef in India—about 80 million—is larger than the population of Britain, France, or Italy.
Before I left Mumbai, I had dinner with the controversial columnist Shobhaa De. She told me that eating beef was, for her, “an act of defiance.” After the government in Maharashtra enacted the proscription, De tweeted: “I just ate beef. Come and murder me.” She received many angry responses, and a complaint against her was filed with the police.
The truth is that, in recent times, it is more often than not the poor and the powerless who have been lynched for eating beef—or merely the suspicion of doing so. Earlier this year, in June, two brothers were stabbed on a train in Haryana state, in northern India, in a fight over seats. The victims, one of whom died from his wounds, were Muslim; the men who attacked them had called them “beef eaters.” And last year, also in Haryana, a Muslim woman who was gang-raped said that her attackers had asked her if she ate beef; when she said no, they insisted that she was lying.
When I went from Mumbai to Delhi, a friend took me to a restaurant called Mahabelly. The restaurant serves Malayali food from the southern Indian state of Kerala, where a left coalition is in power and the consumption of beef is legal. But at Mahabelly, too—because it was in Delhi and not Kerala—we were served buff. The dish was called “Erachi double fry”: small pieces of the protein fried with grated coconut, mustard seeds, cumin, curry leaves, pepper, and other spices, generating a dark, intense flavor.
About a two-hour drive east from the restaurant where we were sitting is a village called Bisada. On a late September night in 2015, a middle-aged carpenter named Mohammad Akhlaq had just finished dinner when a mob poured into his house. Akhlaq’s family were the only Muslims in the Hindu village, it was later reported. Earlier that evening, an accusation was made from a public-address system at the village temple that a calf had been stolen and slaughtered. The enraged crowd, led by the son of the local Hindu-party legislator, cornered Akhlaq in his bedroom, where he was hiding with his daughter and one of his sons.
The assault was brutal. Akhlaq’s son was left for dead after a sewing machine belonging to Akhlaq’s wife was used to split his head open. Akhlaq was dragged out of the house by his legs and then beaten with bricks and iron rods. While he lay dying in the lane outside his home, some people recorded videos on their cell phones as others called him a Pakistani and shouted for his death.
There is a further twist to this horrifying story. The police couldn’t find any evidence that Akhlaq had slaughtered a calf. Was the meat found in his fridge beef? At least one lab test concluded that it was mutton. Regardless, Akhlaq’s killing was a crime, and by now most of those accused of his murder have been released on bail. The sad truth that Akhlaq’s lynching has revealed about us Indians is that, while we will not kill cows, killing human beings is an entirely different, and entirely palatable, matter.