On the 30th of September, Mohammad Akhlaq, a muslim resident of Bisara, a village near New Delhi, was dragged out of his home and beaten to death. Akhlaq’s alleged crime? Eating beef.
The mob of Hindu men responsible for 52-year-old Akhlaq’s murder were spurred into action by a broadcast made from the village temple’s loudspeakers, condemning Akhlaq’s household for apparently slaughtering a calf and eating its meat. The issue of eating beef has long sparked debate in India, where many of the 1.3 billion Hindus believe the cow is holy and eating beef is sacrilegious. Some Roughly 250 million Indians, however, including Muslims and Christians, have no such religious reservations.
Akhlaq’s murder comes in the wake of bans on the slaughter of cows and the possession of beef products passed in a number of Indian states. These bans seem to betray what has historically been one of India’s most defining features- secularism. The Indian notion of secularism, written into state law in 1976, is markedly different from secularism as practiced in the west. While western secularism enshrines a separation of religion and state, Indian secularism envisions acceptance of religious laws as binding on the state, and equal participation of state in different religions. So in theory, the Indian state and its institutions are required to respect all religions and even enforce religious laws instead of parliamentary laws.Muslim Indians thus have Sharia-based Muslim Personal Law, while Hindus, Christians, Sikhs and other non-Muslim Indians live under common law.
In an interview with The Politic, the President of the Muslim Students Association, Elamin M. Elamin ’18, commented on the recent events in India. “I was not surprised by the fact that there were these beef bans in place, however I was not aware of the extent to which these bans were implemented. I think it’s a very drastic measure and very unfortunate that it had to go this far.” Speaking specifically about dietary restrictions and bans on the consumption of certain foods Elamin said, ‘I think when you hold a religious belief; it’s a very personal thing. Say you are a Muslim, and you want to eat halal food, I think by all means, go ahead, but if for example you do not want to abide by certain guidelines, that should also be fine.’
While the beef bans seem at odds with principles of religious freedom, they are not unprecedented- dietary restrictions have been prominent features of various nations’ laws and culture. Ten Muslim majority countries and Israel enforce religious dietary laws. The precise details of these dietary laws as well as the extent to which they are enforced differ from country to country. In conversation with The Politic, Jonathon Fox, professor of political sciences at Israel’s Bar Ilan University, explained how dietary restrictions work in Israel. “There are a few laws on the books, but mostly about the sale of goods, not what you can eat and not eat. For instance, there are some restrictions on the sale of pork.” When discussing regulations on the consumption of foods, Professor Fox explained that there were no laws restricting the consumption of pork, stating, “You can eat all the pork you want.” In his book, “Political Secularism, Religion and the State: A Time Series Analysis of Worldwide Data,” Fox expands on the situation in Israel. “In Israel, the official Rabbinate – which is a government agency – enforces standards for restaurants and food producers that want to be considered kosher, but non-kosher food is generally available and not illegal. Although it is illegal to raise pork ‘on’ the land of Israel, pigs are commonly raised on platforms creating a legal loophole where they are technically ‘above’ the land of Israel”
In Muslim countries the dietary restrictions generally take the form of requirements that meat be slaughtered according to specific guidelines detailed in Islamic law. Only meat slaughtered according to these guidelines is considered Halal i.e. permitted for consumption. Most of these nations also have restrictions on the consumption of pork and alcohol. In certain cases, these restrictions apply only to Muslims and not to non-Muslim minorities. For instance, in Dubai and Pakistan it is possible for non-Muslim residents to purchase and consume alcohol if they possess alcohol permits. At the same time however, some Muslim countries, like Indonesia, Nigeria and Sudan, impose total bans on the sale and consumption of alcohol and Saudi Arabia imposes total bans on the consumption of both pork and alcohol. These religious bans, which place restrictions on all citizens regardless of religious affiliation, seem to mirror the recent beef bans passed in India.
Despite the broad scope of bans enacted in certain countries, most religious texts do not support religious dietary restrictions which extend to non-adherents of that particular religion. For instance, Islamic law permits the consumption of pork and alcohol by non- Muslims- in other words, according to Islamic law minorities in Muslim countries should not be held to the same restrictions that their Muslim counterparts abide by. Muslim states that impose dietary restrictions on minorities seem to be acting contrary to the principles of religious freedom as outlined in Islamic law.
Similarly, India seems to betray its secular foundation with the imposition of beef bans on its citizens, regardless of their personal beliefs. Indian secularism, as highlighted before, rejects the imposition of uniform laws on disparate religious groups. It is shocking then, that religious bans which attempt to govern something as basic as what people eat, have found a place in Indian society. Many Indian liberals see a link between growing religious intolerance in India and Narendra Modi’s rise to power. In 2011, Modi, India’s current Prime Minister and leader of the Hindu-nationalist BJP party, spearheaded a ban on beef trade in his home state of Gujarat, which he led for more than a decade. Modi has also on several occasions been criticized for remaining quiet on anti-Muslim incidents and was Chief minister of Gujarat during the 2002 Gujarat riots- a three-day period of violence carried out against the minority Muslim population in the region. Despite being cleared of complicity in the violence in 2012, Modi does continue to operate on an agenda that seems to target religious minorities- evidenced by his conspicuous silence on the issue and in some instances his administrations emphatic defense of the beef bans. In fact a controversial BJP MP from Uttar Pradesh, Sakshi Maharaj, even pitched for a law that provides for the death penalty for cow slaughter, stating that ‘a strong law should be put in place to hang people responsible for cow slaughter.’
Tariq Thachil, professor in the department of political science at Yale, spoke to The Politic about the possible connection between Modi’s rise to power and growing intolerance, on part of the government and otherwise. Thachil clarifies that religious intolerance has always plagued India, stating, “Its not that under the congress or under other regimes intolerance did not exist.” However, he stated that on a national scale Modi’s rise to power probably reinvigorated interfaith tensions, citing that Modi’s failure to condemn acts of intolerance would likely embolden the more radical factions of Indian society.
Beef bans, however, are not entirely new to India. In an interview with The Politic, history professor, Rohit De, shed light on the legal history of beef bans in India. “Once India gains independence, everyone from Gandhi downwards makes a very clear case that we cannot have a ban on cow slaughter through law,” said De. De goes on to explain that in spite of this, when the Indian national assembly began the task of drafting the constitution there was an outcry amongst the Hindu Right over the lack of concern for India’s sacred animal- the cow. Eventually a clause, article 48, was introduced in the new constitution, which called for agriculture and animal husbandry to be arranged along modern and scientific lines.
As a caveat to that, it was added that the state would endeavor to limit the slaughter of cows, as doing so would be good for Indian farming and agriculture given that the cow was an important economic resource. De described the article as intentionally ‘couched in scientific terms.’ While the introduction of article 48 was not followed by a national ban on cow slaughter, several states began passing, what De characterized as fairly ‘draconian laws’ banning the slaughter of all kinds of cattle and criminalizing the possession of beef. It is unlikely that these bans were introduced solely out of concern for the Indian economy, but more likely that proponents of the bans spoke in a way that allowed them to avoid allegations that restrictions on the sale or consumption of meat were religiously or politically motivated.
Despite the strong enforcement of the bans initially, India’s beef industry soon returned with renewed vigor. De describes how this shift occurred. According to him, following the enactment of the bans, ‘A number of Muslim butchers go to court and describe the bans as unconstitutional.’ One of the claims they make is that the banning of cow slaughter makes it difficult for Muslims to celebrate the festival of ‘Eid-ul-Adha’, which requires the sacrifice of an animal in God’s name. However, the courts did not accept this claim, stating that Muslims did not have to slaughter cattle and could sacrifice other animals, such as goats. The butchers did, however, end up making a compelling argument for why the bans were perhaps bad for the Indian economy. They argued that cows seized to be assets after a certain period of time and maintaining old cows was an economic burden on farmers and the government. The court decided that cow slaughter bans could not be absolute and must allow for the slaughter of old, useless cattle.
This in turn led to the growth of the Indian beef industry so that by the mid 90’s India was exporting beef to the Middle East in large quantities and had a thriving leather and hide industry. In response to this development the Hindu right began campaigning, both through the legal system and via popular protest, for the resurgence of absolute bans and in the early 2000’s the Supreme court yielded to this powerful faction, decreeing that absolute bans on the slaughter of beef could be enacted by individual states. A number of states under BJP control began to do exactly that. The bans that these Indian states enacted have been strengthened following Modi’s election. While described by proponents as noble attempts to preserve the sanctity of the cow, the bans have both political motivations and political consequences.
In 1989 the BJP adopted ‘Hinduvta’ or Hinduness as its official ideology. According tothe party, Hindutva is cultural nationalism favouring Indian culture over westernization, thus it extends to all Indians regardless of religion. However, many scholars and political analysts have called their Hinduvta ideology an attempt to recast India as a Hindu country to the exclusion of other religions. This ideology has been reflected in many of the BJP’s policies, such as its campaign to replace the historic Babri Mosque with the Ram Temple in 1991, and extensive movements to revise textbooks used in Indian schools along what some may call Hindu nationalist lines. It is quite plausible that the beef bans are another component of the BJP’s Hinduvta ideology.
When discussing the function of food bans in contemporary Indian politics, Thachil suggested that the bans may function as a marker of difference, stating that ‘the bans have a very clear political purpose, in polarizing Indian society and Indian politics,’ going on to say that the bans function to ‘define Hinduism as opposed to other religious practices.’ Akhlaq’s story, however, is about more than just government legislation. His murder was a harrowing example of society- sponsored violence and vigilante’s taking ‘justice’ into their own hands. What’s more is that Akhlaq’s murder is not an isolated case. In October of 2015, clashes erupted in Indian-administered Kashmir after a truck driver was accused of smuggling cattle and beaten to death by a Hindu mob. It is worth considering the link between such acts of violence and government legislation. Thachil explains that intolerance has long existed in Indian society, but points out that ‘the breakdown of tolerance is often a part of much broader and deliberate political mobilization.’ He goes on to say that the bans likely do contribute to the break down of ‘traditions of tolerance and interfaith symbiosis.’ The bans certainly send a dangerous message to members of the population, perhaps even in some cases lending the government’s tacit approval to violent acts- or at least not demonstrating the kind of strong disapproval which would be expected of a self-proclaimed secular state.
The issue of food intolerance is a deeply complex one, which undoubtedly has its roots in wider intolerance and interfaith disharmony. Any solution would require compliance on part of the government and society as a whole. When discussing how to address intolerance in wider Indian society, De cemented the idea that government action was necessary, stating that the problem is in part about ‘political messaging at the top,’ and going on to say that ‘it would be useful if a political party took a strong stance,’ on the matter. Thachil also shared his thoughts on what the way forward may be, explaining that Indian society required ‘political incentives to not engage in this kind of mobilization.’ He went on to describe how political parties must not see communal violence as a means of political gain, but rather as a strategy that is neither ‘viable nor helpful.’ Political leaders must also take it upon themselves to publicly and loudly condemn acts of violence carried out in the name of religion- the absence of such political messaging surely contributes to the growth of intolerance. Of course, citizens and activists are also key players in the move towards greater cohesion. Governments will only feel pressured to make positive changes if they know that a responsible citizenry will hold them accountable. While removing bans on the sale and consumption of beef would by no means solve the problem of religious intolerance in its entirety, and would likely only be the beginning of a long and difficult struggle towards greater harmony, it would probably be a good first step.