“The holiness of the cow is very much linked to the communal overtones of Indian politics,” wrote Indian historian DN Jha, who received death threats following the release of his book, The Myth of the Holy Cow.
According to Jha, ancient Hindus would relish cow meat, while the notion of the “holy cow” has become more of a construct of hardline Hindu activists. “It is possible this issue will come up again and Narendra Modi is chief spokesperson for this,” he says.
Well, the debate has surfaced once again in the heat of a general election campaign, with Modi, the prime ministerial candidate for the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party and current frontrunner for office, looking to limit the country’s so-called “pink revolution”—a reference to the “green revolution”, when India’s agricultural productivity rocketed in the 1970s.
Over recent years, India has emerged as a sizeable beef exporter to the point some analysts believe the country now accounts for around one-fifth of global supply. Indeed, according to the latest meat export figures from the Ministry of Food Processing, India exported 1.89m tonnes in the last fiscal year—corresponding to a 50% increase since 2009.
With growth like this, the country is in line to overtake Brazil to become the world's largest beef exporter—something likely to come to a head in a country with around 830m Hindus and potentially a Hindu nationalist as head of government, as opinion polls suggest will be the case.
Hindus hold the cow sacred, and protection of the sanctified ruminant is a clear vote winner for Modi, so it is no surprise the electioneering chief minister of Gujarat has been stridently attacking the current Congress-led administration’s support of beef export growth.
"Our ancient Indian ethos and values doesn't [sic] teach us to kill mother cow... Sadly, the [government] seems unbothered about this rich ethos of our culture. It wants to make India the biggest exporter of beef!" Modi wrote in his blog last year.
"Our future generation is not getting sufficient milk and this government wants to kill cows that provide us a 'ladder for life.' I'm sure that you will contribute your might in stopping such an insane act.”
In fact, India doesn’t allow cows to be killed for export at all, and their slaughter is only legally allowed in handful of states including Kerala, West Bengal and states in the northeast.
Due to a loophole that classifies buffalo as “beef”, this cheaper and leaner meat accounts entirely for India’s pink revolution, a fact that buffalo exporters like Mujeeb Malik, managing director of ALM Group, view with pride.
“Modi is not very clear and he might be mistaken that cows are being slaughtered under the guise of buffalo, but this is not so. I think he has not had enough time to understand this issue,” Malik, whose company exports buffalo to the Middle East, north Africa and southeast Asia, told FoodNavigator-Asia over the phone from his office in Uttar Pradesh.
“In India, beef is not a good word because it is synonymous with the meat of the cow, which is a holy animal here. We are totally against the slaughter of beef. What we do is slaughter water buffalo.”
It is clear that Modi, through vagueness tinged with diatribe, is looking to buy vegetarian votes here without any firm policy or commitments.
Indian buffalo is highly regarded on the world market, according to Malik, and the country is home to the world’s biggest herd. A complete ban on slaughtering the animal—while highly unlikely, it has been hinted at by the prime ministerial candidate—would pose considerable problems locally and internationally.
On a domestic level, such a sizeable population of buffalo would need to be culled—a move at odds with Hindu beliefs on the sanctity of all life. And as far as global supplies of beef is concerned, demand is now pretty much on par with production, making it a highly sensitive commodity.
A recent quarterly report by Rabobank pointed out that the shortage of beef supply, along with a number of other factors, could take up beef prices in key international markets.
These high prices, along with growing demand for imported beef, has been working in favour of Indian beef exporters, as well as the country’s wider economy. In spite of the religious rhetoric, Modi and his BJP lieutenants will want to see an end to buffalo exports at a time when the Indian economy is in trouble.
As DN Jha suggested, Modi is using the stump as a means to play to the religious beliefs of hundreds of millions of Hindu voters as a means to politicise the holy cow. But a cow is not a buffalo, and buffalo meat is one area of the Indian export economy that is booming, so debate on this issue is likely to die once parliament is elected, regardless of the leading incumbent.
As buffalo exporter Mujeeb Malik summed it up: “This is a political campaign, not a policy, and this will only be decided after Mr Modi or anyone else comes into power.”