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.)