WHEN the state of Maharashtra banned the slaughter of bulls and bullocks, and the possession of beef, earlier this year, it was bad news for those, mostly Muslims, who turn the state’s ageing cattle into leather and cheap cuts. But it was not surprising. Maharashtra is led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which hopes the ban will play well with its core Hindu voters.
More startling was a declaration on March 29th by the national government’s minister for home affairs. Standing alongside religious leaders who had called for a ban on beef exports, he said that he would try to end cattle slaughter across India. Then on April 6th Maharashtra’s advocate-general struck fear into the hearts of non-vegetarians. “This is just the beginning,” he said. “We may consider banning slaughter of other animals too.”
Very many of India’s Hindu majority are vegetarian, and of the Hindu carnivores, most eschew eating cattle flesh. Yet India’s beef industry has flourished, with exports growing tenfold in the past decade. The country is now the second-largest exporter of beef, behind only Brazil. The paradox depends on a crucial ambiguity: “beef” in India can refer to the meat of either cattle or buffalo, and India’s water buffaloes do not enjoy the sacred status of its cows. Since the government began encouraging farmers to raise and slaughter buffaloes, exports of their meat have boomed. More than 95% of meat exports come from them.
On the campaign trail last year the prime minister, Narendra Modi of the BJP, decried this “pink revolution” (named by analogy with the “green revolution” of the 1960s, in which crop yields soared). But during his first six months in office, India’s meat exports grew by 16%. Talking down Muslim butchers plays well with Hindu activists. But since his advocate-general’s provocative statement, Maharashtra’s chief minister has clarified that the state’s ban will not apply to buffaloes—India’s cash cows.