Food is never just food. It has always been far more complicated than that. Traditionally, what we choose to eat isn’t simply a preference, it is preference informed by religion, region and often, caste. To test this theory, look no further than beef. If beef forms an important part of your traditional cuisine, it is almost certain that you’re not a Hindu Brahman. You may practise a different faith, or you may belong to a ‘scheduled’ caste or tribe.
However, eating beef means slaughtering a cow, a practice that is anathema to upper caste, cow-revering Hindus. With an increasingly vocal Hindu right wing, over the years, beef, cow slaughter, or both have been banned in many Indian states, to ‘protect’ the religious sentiments of a powerful few.
In the eyes of the radical Hindu vigilantes, ‘protecting’ the cow is synonymous with protecting the faith. And thus, the crusades began. The ‘defenders of the faith’ clashed with those who have always eaten beef and what ensued was communal violence and riots. Right wing Hindu groups have largely got away with it, by virtue of political complicity and class position. The ones they chose to wage war against were either religious minorities, or the oppressed classes.
In the last year and a half alone, Uttar Pradesh has witnessed over 330 instances of communal violence over alleged cow slaughter. In Gautam Budh Nagar, the district where Mohammad Akhlaq was lynched and killed by a mob over rumours that he stored and ate beef, 12 such incidents have been reported since June 2014. Police records suggest that in the 75-day period between 16 May and 31 July 2014, 605 incidents of communal violence took place, 60 of which were over cow slaughter. Gautum Budh Nagar, Meerut, Awadh and Muzaffarnagar have been the worst offenders.
In October 2015, a Muslim man was beaten to death and four others injured in Saharan, Himachal Pradesh, for allegedly smuggling cows to be slaughtered for beef. In the same month, two Muslim men were beaten by a mob for ‘carrying ox hide.’
Tension between Hindu and Muslim communities in Bawana, New Delhi simmered on the occasion of Eid-ul-Adha – there were rumours that young ‘defenders of the Hindu faith’ were being mobilised lest any cows be slaughtered. Posters declared war on ‘offenders’ and demonstrations jammed roads in the area.
The Vishwa Hindu Parishad planned protests in Hyderabad on Bakr-Eid, claiming that the state government did not ‘respect Hindu sentiments.’
While crusades over the cow have increased exponentially in recent history, it is important to remember, for context, that these clashes between polarised communities go back as far as the 19th century.
By the late nineteenth and the early twentieth century, the cow as a cause of strife between Hindus and Muslims had already entered the daily discourse of politics. Remember Mangal Pandey and the 1857 uprising? Rumours that the British had violated both Hindu and Muslim sentiments by using pork and beef lard in cartridges for the new Enfield rifles sparked the uprising.
Post-Independence, there have been sporadic outbursts of cow-inspired communal violence. In the 1950s, a number of clashes took place in Ahmedabad and Jamnagar in Gujarat and in Guwahati in Assam. The clashes continued into the 60s and 70s. Bakr-Eid has historically always been a cause for communal tension and strained relations between the two communities in Rajashtan and Uttar Pradesh led to riots.
More recently, in 2001, in Amravati, Maharashtra, the Shiv Sena attacked Muslims who were taking their oxen for slaughter. Two people lost their lives and 30 people were injured in the clash that followed.
This list does not claim to be either comprehensive or complete, it is merely indicative of the fact that the cow has always been a contentious issue. While the jury is out on whether communal tensions around the cow have increased under the current government or not, the fact remains that someone’s hurt religious sentiments are impinging on the food habits and livelihoods of a number of Indian communities.
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