India's Holy Cow Vigilantes

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A young girl looks on next to a calf at a cow shelter owned by Babulal Jangir, a rustic self-styled leader of cow raiders, and Gau Raksha Dal (Cow Protection Squad) in Taranagar in the desert state of Rajasthan on November 5. Cow slaughter and consumption of beef are banned in Rajasthan and many other states of officially secular India, which has substantial Muslim and Christian populations. Almost every night, a vigilante squad waits for suspected cattle smugglers, in a bid to enforce the ban. Chandan Khanna/AFP/Getty

Outside the 150-year-old Tangra Slaughter House in Kolkata, India, a line of cows stretches down the lane alongside the arched, colonial-style building. There are no fixed prices for beef here, so the noise of a dozen shouted negotiations fills the air. But it's not all business as usual. Photography is prohibited, at least for today, and I'm allowed inside only after agreeing to keep my notebook in my pocket and not ask any questions. The beef-and-leather business is sensitive in the country where “holy cow” is not a throwaway phrase.

“People are scared,” says Syed Faiyazul Haque, a supervisor at a Kolkata tannery. “There’s an atmosphere of fear.”

That’s because at least three Muslims suspected of eating or transporting beef have been killed in recent weeks. Hindu nationalists have been campaigning for a countrywide ban on slaughtering cows, which they consider holy animals, and religious tensions are rising.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) pushed the issue of cows to the center of its campaign for elections in the northeastern state of Bihar during October and November. The aim seems to have been to consolidate the Hindu vote by casting Muslims as the chief enemy, and thus counteract divisions among high- and low-caste Hindu voters who favored the party’s opponents. Yet Modi’s party suffered a crushing defeat. The BJP and its local allies took just 58 out of 243 assembly seats in the Bihar polls.

Muslims and many secular Hindus across India celebrated the election result, expressing hope that the prime minister who came to power preaching economic development, not Hindu triumphalism, would return to that message. But for beef and leather traders, and perhaps for India’s bid to attract more foreign investment, it may already be too late.

Despite the cultural taboo on killing cows, slaughtering them for meat and hides is legal in five of 29 Indian states, including West Bengal, where Kolkata, the former capital of British India once known as Calcutta, is considered the center of the trade.

Traders involved in the leather and beef industry in Kolkata say vigilantes have stopped large numbers of trucks transporting cows, hides and carcasses since the anti-cow slaughter campaign accelerated last month. Many transporters are reluctant to take the risk, after a trucker accused of carrying cattle carcasses was killed in October by a Molotov cocktail in the northern state of Jammu and Kashmir. Because one carcass or hide looks much like another, not even the unrestricted buffalo trade is safe. And the charged atmosphere makes it all too easy for local police and inspectors to demand payoffs.

“This is a reflection of anti-Muslim propaganda in India,” Udayan Bandyopadhyay, a political scientist affiliated with the University of Calcutta, says of the recent attacks. “In order to gain mileage, the [Hindu nationalists] are making a partition in society between Hindus and Muslims.”

Even in ordinary times, the country’s meat-and-leather trade is a strange business. Last year, India, which is 80 percent Hindu, emerged as the largest beef exporter in the world. Combined with leather, the industry is worth some $10 billion. How's that possible?

It is partly because under a system drawn up by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the meat of Indian water buffaloes, which Hindus do not consider holy, is classified as “beef.” Exporting cow meat is banned, though cowhide accounts for around a third of India’s leather exports. Yet in Kolkata, tannery workers say the mix of buffalo hide to cowhide has fallen from 50-50 to 80 percent buffalo in recent weeks. Since the first attacks on transporters in September, buffalo-processing factories have also been facing shortages.

“Our drivers are stopped while they carry buffaloes. There is fear among drivers,” says DB Sabharwal, a Hindu, who's secretary of the All India Meat & Livestock Exporters Association.

The domestic market is more complicated. While cow slaughter is permitted in only five states, the animals are everywhere. There's no separate meat industry. But a mammoth dairy industry and the traditional use of draft animals means there are more than 190 million cattle in India, compared with about 90 million in the United States. As tractors replace bullocks in agriculture, around half of these animals are becoming a drain on the farmers' resources. And while Hindu nationalist organizations have set up nursing homes for hundreds of thousands of superannuated cows, it's no surprise that many farmers prefer to sell them rather than put them out to pasture.

In most states, and sometimes even in Kolkata, that's technically illegal. Along with bans on cow slaughter and the consumption or possession of beef, various states have made it a crime to sell or transport cows out of their jurisdiction if they are destined for the butcher. In states where cow slaughter is legal, a “fit-for-slaughter” certificate is required to document that the animal in question is more than 12 to 14 years old or “permanently incapacitated for breeding, draft or milk due to injury, deformity or any other cause,” according to the Ministry of Agriculture. But that rule too is frequently flouted, according to people opposed to killing cows.

The result is a tortuous path of payoffs, smuggling and don't ask, don't tell. The not-quite legal nature of the business means there are no large firms buying cows and shipping them to Kolkata—or smuggling them to Bangladesh. Animals pass through a chain of transporters before they’re sold for slaughter. Then middlemen collect meat and hides into the larger consignments needed by the leather businesses and other industries that rely on tallow and other by-products, says Shahid Akhtar, managing director of a leather goods manufacturer called Elrich International. “Those people will have problems now,” he says. “The police or vigilantes will confiscate the items, then corruption will increase. This has started to happen.”

It's not all Hindus vs. Muslims. Middle-caste Hindu merchants dominate the leather export business. Some lower caste Hindus eat beef, though many have adopted high-caste food taboos in a bid to avoid discrimination. So do many of the country's dozens of indigenous tribes. Many self-declared secularists and atheists partake too—some viewing it as a badge of tolerance or rationalism. Yet Hindu nationalists and some ordinary Hindus look on killing cows much the way devout Muslims view drawing cartoons of Muhammad—something they say Indian secularists would never countenance.

It's not clear how devoted to the issue Modi is, or how beholden he'll be to the larger, parent organization of the BJP—a uniform-wearing cadre of activists called the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, whose second “supreme leader,” Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar, was an admirer of Adolph Hitler.

Modi's critics still blame him for the tardy police response to the 2002 riots that killed at least 790 Muslims and 254 Hindus when he was chief minister of Gujarat, his home state, though he was exonerated in court. Opponents have taken him to task for delayed and wishy-washy public statements in response to attacks on churches, belligerent statements from Hindu nationalists and the recent cow-related violence. For instance, he waited 10 days to speak out against the September 28 lynching of a man wrongfully accused of eating beef.

Arun Shourie, once one of the BJP's most respected leaders but now marginalized under Modi, believes the prime minister’s silence was deliberate—and it was interpreted as a green light by rowdier sections of the movement. After an incident of inter-religious violence occurs, other members of the BJP and affiliated organizations keep it alive by making provocative statements, Shourie said in a televised interview with a national channel. Only after weeks pass does Modi comment, and then it is to say something cryptic. “It almost comes out as if it is by design,” said Shourie.

Supporters reject such criticism. “To defame Modi, a negative campaign is coming from the so-called secularists,” says Surendra Kumar Jain, All India Secretary of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the Hindu nationalist group leading the push for a national ban on cow slaughter. Vigilante action has to be understood in the context of the failure of law enforcement, he says. “Suppose a woman is being raped? Will you stand by and wait for the police?”

It's not only the beef and leather industry that is at stake. India has climbed in the World Bank's ease of doing business rankings and has replaced China as the most popular destination for foreign direct investment since Modi came to power in 2014. But both the devastating loss in Bihar and the flirting with sectarian strife could further derail his plans for the economy.

The vituperative atmosphere will make it more difficult to reach a consensus with the opposition. And the election loss itself means Modi is drifting further away from a majority in Parliament, where several proposals for big bang economic reforms have already withered and died.

“Along with a possible increase in violence, the government will face stiffer opposition in the Upper House as the debate turns away from economic policy,” Moody's Analytics said in a November report. “Modi must keep his members in check or risk losing domestic and global credibility.”