The sacredness of cows in India might be a cliché, but it is deeply felt, rooted in the history of Hinduism. In Mumbai, one often encounters women selling grass to feed the cow they have in tow — for a few rupees, the donation affords not only a blessing, but also a chance to feel connected to the country’s farmland roots. The cow is divinely associated with Krishna, the cowherd, and considered a mother figure because of the milk it gives. One doesn’t go into an Indian branch of McDonald’s expecting to order a Big Mac.
And yet, beef has long been available at various Mumbai restaurants — from the burger at the iconic Leopold Cafe to the marrowbone curry popular at eateries in Muslim neighborhoods. This reflects the accommodation necessary in a city — and country — with such extraordinary diversity of religion, culture and wealth.
Last month, however, this changed. Beef dishes were forced off the menu when Maharashtra, the country’s second most populous state, which incorporates Mumbai, extended a ban on cow slaughter to bulls and oxen, and made the sale of beef punishable by up to five years in prison. A few weeks later, the state of Haryana passed similar legislation. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s office has suggested that such bills are models for other states to emulate.
The laws have affected more than just restaurants. Thousands of butchers and vendors, their livelihood abruptly suspended, have protested in Mumbai. The leather industry is in turmoil. Beef is consumed not only by Indian Muslims and Christians, but also by many low-caste Hindus, for whom it is an essential source of affordable protein. The poorest waste nothing, from beef innards to coagulated blood, while their religion pragmatically turns a blind eye. Low-caste Dalit Hindu students, and others, have organized beef-eating festivals to protest the infringement on their culture and identity.
With the recent re-criminalization of gay sex, bans on controversial books and films and even an injunction against the use of the colonial-era name “Bombay” instead of “Mumbai” in a Bollywood song, the new laws join a growing list of restrictions on personal freedom in India. Already, the police in the city of Malegaon have arrested three Muslim men accused of calf slaughter, and ordered livestock owners to submit mug shots of cows and bulls to a cattle registry, to create a record in case any of them go missing.
The Maharashtra law had been in limbo, awaiting the Indian president’s signature for 20 years, but was resurrected only after the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party came to power last year. This suggests its real purpose is to play to the party’s political base.
Some Hindu hard-liners insist the idea of eating beef was introduced by Muslim invaders, despite references to its consumption in ancient texts like the Vedas, written more than a millennium before the time of Muhammad. By eradicating this “alien” practice, they hope to return the country to values they hold dear as Hindus. “Our dream of ban on cow slaughter becomes a reality now,” Maharashtra’s chief minister tweeted upon passage of the new law.
Another problem with such bans is that aged or unwanted cattle must be looked after at great expense (presumably by the state) if they are not to waste away.
The only practical reason advanced by Maharashtrian officials for their law is that it will help farmers hold on to their cattle in hard times, when they might otherwise be tempted to sell. This motivation actually does have historical standing. In fact, it fits in perfectly with a theory on the origination of the beef taboo that the American anthropologist Marvin Harris proposed almost five decades ago.
Mr. Harris observed that more important than their value as milk producers, cattle in India formed the backbone of small-scale agriculture. They were used to plow fields, provide dung for fuel and fertilizer and produce calves to stock the herd. He noted that a family that consumed its cattle during a time of drought and famine was not able to recover afterward: They had lost the means to work the land. Over the years, farmers who preserved their cattle were the ones who survived, leading to this practice’s being gradually codified into religion.
This drama is still being played out in Maharashtra, which in recent years has experienced persistent and devastating drought. Although religious rules ensured that a farmer would no longer eat his cattle, he could still succumb to the modern equivalent — selling it for slaughter, usually at throwaway prices. The beef ban, then, can be interpreted as an extension of the religious proscription: Thou shalt neither eat nor sell thy cattle.
Unfortunately, the situation in Maharashtra has deteriorated past the point where such a ban will help. Previous governments have squandered billions of dollars on failed irrigation schemes, while encouraging water-intensive crops like sugar cane in drought-prone areas. Farmers are desperate: On average since 2011, there have been four suicides of Maharashtrian farmers every day. Rather than ancient proscriptions, they need a financial safety net and responsible agricultural policies in order to deal with the current situation and probably worse climate change effects to come.
Indian civilization has evolved over the centuries to include multiple diverse communities with competing interests. Despite its secular Constitution, India remains strikingly unequal. The government must make every effort to balance majority sentiments with minority needs. This is what the previous rules that restricted cow, but not bull, slaughter did.
Imposing ideals from a mythic past is not the answer. The true lesson to take away from history is how utilitarian goals can shape religious custom. Hinduism has always been a pragmatic religion; what today’s India needs is accommodation.
Manil Suri is the author of the novel The City of Devi and a mathematics professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.