Photographer: Anindito Mukherjee/Bloomberg

Cow-Saving Vigilantes Are a Sign of Rising Political Risk in India

  • With ‘cow vigilantes’ roaming roads, meat exports are at risk
  • Meat is frequent flashpoint between country’s Hindus, Muslims

When government inspectors visit the Allana Group’s slaughterhouses in India’s most populous state, they usually come in groups of two or three, company officials say.

But soon after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party swept Uttar Pradesh elections in March and appointed a Hindu nationalist priest to run the state, a more intimidating group showed up at the company’s plant in Aligarh: About 30 people, including 15 police officers. The group toured the facility, checked documents and left without finding any lapses, executives said.

That was just the beginning. Soon, so-called cow vigilantes were roaming the state’s rural roads, ostensibly to protect an animal considered sacred in Hindu culture and banned from slaughter in 24 of 29 states. Allana, a private company that says it’s India’s largest exporter of processed foods, including the less-appreciated buffalo, has been caught up in the tumult, and seen its supply of live animals dwindle.

Employees prepare buffalo meat at a slaughterhouse operated by Allana Group in Uttar Pradesh.

Photographer: Anindito Mukherjee/Bloomberg

“The situation is killing us,” said Ayaz Siddiqui, general manager of the Aligarh plant, about 140 kilometers (87 miles) southeast of Delhi.

Representatives of the meat industry say cow vigilantes, emboldened by BJP election promises to shut illegal slaughterhouses and ban mechanized abattoirs in Uttar Pradesh, have been stopping vehicles, extorting money, beating people up and in some cases stealing the valuable animals. In the state of Rajasthan, vigilantes beat a Muslim dairy farmer to death earlier this month. The Uttar Pradesh government says it’s merely enforcing licensing laws ignored by previous administrations and doesn’t condone the attacks.

‘Anti-Romeo’

From the rise in cow-related violence to alcohol bans and “anti-Romeo” police squads supposedly aimed at protecting a woman’s honor, signs of political risk are rising in Asia’s third-largest economy. With more than a dozen state polls before national elections in 2019, a tilt toward populist policies may energize voters but also undermine the radical overhaul which has propelled Modi’s India to the world’s fastest growing major economy.

“It’s representative of broader uncertainty that investors don’t like in India,” said Reshmi Khurana, head of South Asia for Kroll, a risk consultancy. “There is demand for ostensibly respecting local sentiment, which overrides economic rationale.”

Despite the fact that about 1 billion of India’s Hindus revere the cow as a maternal figure, the country overtook Brazil to become the world’s largest bovine meat exporter in 2014, driven by low-cost water buffalo meat from culled dairy animals. 

The industry, which earns about $4.8 billion annually and employs about 2.5 million people, is operating around 40 percent capacity, according to the All India Meat and Livestock Exporters Association.

Shuttered Line

In Allana’s Aligarh plant, a man wearing a blood-spattered apron sharpens his knife as a buffalo carcass rises before him on hooks. Moments later, dozens of young men slice meat off the partly processed carcass. Women then trim the cuts of fat before they’re chilled, loaded into containers and shipped to more than 60 countries, including Vietnam and Saudi Arabia. The company exports about $1.8 billion worth of meat annually, Allana officials said. 

But an entire slaughter line, which employs about 200 workers, is shut as the animals arriving at the 1,600-employee Allana factory shrinks to about 400 daily from around 1,900.

“They should be tackling issues like infrastructure, health services, education and jobs,” said Siddiqui, the plant manager. "But they’re not talking about these kinds of things. They’re going about trying to ban established businesses."

Scared Traders

The supply of buffalo has slowed because fear has swept the supply chain.

Mohamed Majid, a 26-year-old livestock trader, said he’s been threatened and thrashed on the roads of Uttar Pradesh. "All this started after the election," he said. Vigilantes don’t care if the animals are buffaloes, not cows, he added.

Some suggest vigilantes are acting with the implicit support of the government and police. “Otherwise, they could not do it,” said Sirajuddin Qureshi, managing director of Hind Agro Industries Ltd., another private meat exporter.

Siddharth Nath Singh, Uttar Pradesh’s health minister and a spokesman for the government, denied the administration condoned the vigilantes and said the scrutiny on slaughterhouses was about enforcing laws, around such issues as the disposal of waste and quotas. He said illegal attacks would be punished.

“There have been a few cases that were initially reported, and we came down heavily on them,” Singh said.

Daljit Singh Chawdhary, an additional director general with the Uttar Pradesh police, said they have received complaints about officers being involved in vigilantism. “We will take strict action against anyone being involved in this kind of wrong thing.”

A devotee feeds grass to a cow outside a Hindu temple in Mumbai.

Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg

‘Cow Mother’

The controversy has religious overtones because Muslims are perceived to be in charge of India’s meat industry, while it’s mostly Hindu nationalists supporting the crackdown.

Balraj Doongar, a leader of the youth wing of the Vishva Hindu Parishad, or the World Hindu Council, said the group doesn’t assault people, but tries to stop vehicles carrying animals and have drivers arrested.

“I will not tolerate if somebody kills my cow mother,” he said, adding he’s raided a meat factory himself. “We will continue this movement and protest until cow slaughter is stopped.”

Flash Point

Meat is a frequent flash point between India’s Hindus and Muslims. In 2015, a Muslim man was dragged from his house in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh, and killed by a mob after rumors he slaughtered a cow.

The meat industry’s problems intensified after the BJP appointed Yogi Adityanath to lead Uttar Pradesh, a decision perceived by some as a concession to religious conservatives. 

Yogi Adityanath

Photographer: Rajat Gupta/EPA

Upon being appointed, Adityanath launched raids on slaughterhouses. He also asked police to form “anti-Romeo” squads to crack down on men who harass women, although women’s groups say they’re just another way of curtailing women’s freedoms and passing moral judgment on consenting couples, according to a report in the Times of India.

The choice of Adityanath was a sign of a “triumphalist phase” of Hindu nationalist politics, said Harsh Mander, an activist who advised the previous Congress government on social issues.

Calls to Adityanath’s office asking for comment were not returned.

Focusing on topics such as cow protection is a way of “pushing Muslims into a sense of subjugation,” Mander said, adding that Modi’s failure to quickly and forcefully condemn anti-Muslim attacks speaks volumes.

“What he chooses not to criticize is more significant than what he does say,” Mander said. “Even a private reprimand would be powerful. It’s disingenuous to say that all of this is happening against his will.”

Jagdish Thakkar, a spokesman in the Prime Minister’s Office, didn’t return calls seeking comment.

Jobs

To some in the meat sector, it makes no sense to be shutting factories at a time when India needs jobs. In Uttar Pradesh, one of the country’s poorest states, per capita income is just $625, according to the government, slightly more than half the India average of around $1,150.

“There are bigger things to think about,” said Fauzan Alavi, a representative of the exporters association and a director at the Allana Group. "As a nation, we need to get our focus together."

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