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India's 'vegetarian nationalism' targets meat eaters

Adil Bhat in Haryana
April 6, 2023

Butchers and cattle transporters are being targeted by "cow vigilantes." This is part of a wider Hindu nationalist campaign against India's Muslim minority to cripple the community economically.

India - halal meat
Butchers and cattle transporters are being targeted by so-called cow vigilantes in HaryanaImage: Javed Akhtar/DW

In India's northern state of Haryana, regional authorities shut down Mohammad Idris's butcher shop and took away his keys because of the nine-day long Navaratri festival — one of Hinduism's most sacred festivals.

Idris has been a butcher for over two decades. In the last few years, he, like other butchers in Haryana, has had to close their shops on Hindu festivals and every Tuesday, an auspicious day for Hindus. Failure to do so could lead to a fine and the cancelation of their business license, as well as threats from Hindu nationalist mobs.  

For Idris, the butcher shop is the only means of survival for his family of five.

"I have shut my shop because of fear of the mob. They come with sticks and beat butchers as they like. Even if we report to the police, we know there is no one to hear us," Idris told DW.

Idris used to earn €120 ($131) monthly, but the ban on these days means losing almost half of his monthly income, as well as his meat expiring during forced shutdowns.

Last month, Idris’s son-in-law, Yusuf Qureshi, who is also a butcher, was attacked by a group of cow vigilantes (cows are considered sacred in Hinduism) while he was transporting meat to a dog farm in the Maruthi Kunj area of Haryana. The vigilantes beat him and broke his right hand.

Being a butcher in India means putting your life everyday at risk, Qureshi said.  

Since Narendra Modi became prime minister in 2014, measures targeting meat consumption have increased in parts of the country, especially in northern India. Hindu extremist groups like Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Bajrang Dal, and Hindu Sena have been at the forefront of "vegetarian nationalism." 

India's 'vegetarian nationalism' targets Muslims

Cow vigilantes conduct search operations on cattle traders

Some 100 kilometres (62 miles) away from Idris's shop, Deepak Arya, leader of a self-appointed cow vigilante group, met his group members last Friday to prepare for a cattle search operation.

A DW team followed Arya and his team on their illegal patrol. The vigilantes chanted "hail mother cow" before starting their search. They divided themselves into groups and stopped every vehicle they suspected of carrying cows.

Arya told DW it's the Muslim community who sell and eat cows and so their main target is to "catch them red handed."

After an hour of patrolling, Arya received a tip from his informer about a vehicle transporting cows.

The team wait for the vehicle to pass by. The vigilantes then grabbed two men from the cattle truck, pulled them out of the vehicle and beat them, hitting one of them with a glass bottle. The two men cried that they were transporting the cows to a dairy farm.

As the beatings became more violent, Arya requested the DW team to stop filming. Police officers, who were located only meters away from the scene, ignore the violence.

"Muslims are the ones who kill and eat our cows and hurt the sentiments of Hindus. To stop cow slaughter, we are ready to give our life and also take the lives of these people. We will not stop in this mission," Arya said.

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'They will have to pay a heavy price'

Ghazala Wahab, an author who writes on security and Islam, sees cow vigilantism as part of a wider campaign against India's Muslim minority which punishes and marginalizes them economically.

"What has happened in the last few years is that the government found a lucrative way of othering the minority communities, creating some sort of hate campaign against them and encouraging the vigilante groups. All of this has created a sort of pervasive fear in the country," she told DW.

But Vishnu Gupta, the national president of the right-wing Hindu Sena, the organization behind the campaign to ban meat, sees the sale and consumption of meat during Hindu auspicious days as a direct attack on Hindu culture and values.

"Muslims have to respect the sentiments of the Hindu majority and stop selling meat during the festivals and holy days. They will have to pay a heavy price, if they do not adhere to this," warned Gupta.

The spread of "vegetarian nationalism" has been associated with a rise in violence against the Indian Muslim community. Cases of lynching have been reported in various states in the last month over suspicions of cow transportation.

For Idris, being a butcher in modern-day India is a dangerous occupation. With no alternative for survival, he says he fears for his life at the hands of cow vigilante groups who seem to operate with impunity in many parts of the country.  

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Edited by: Sou-Jie van Brunnersum

DW Adil Bhat
Adil Bhat TV reporter and correspondent with a special focus on politics, conflict and human-interest stories.