India’s Got Beef?

Exploring the country’s contentious relationship with bovine meat.

Snigdha Bansal
4 min readDec 14, 2020

By Snigdha Bansal

woman feeding cows India
Monthaye via Unsplash / All visualisations made using Flourish

Globally, beef is one of the most widely consumed forms of meat. From satiating epicurious taste palettes to serving as humble comfort food, it takes on many forms. In 2016 alone, approximately 129.5 billion pounds of beef was consumed around the world. But where is all this beef coming from?

According to data by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the world’s top 4 exporters of beef make up almost 60% of the world’s beef exports. In the past few years, India’s contribution to these figures has risen consistently. In fact, in 2020, India contributed 13.14 percent of the world’s beef exports.

For most of these countries that lead the world in the export of beef, it’s just another commodity. However, the distinct connotations that beef has in India make it an unlikely cash cow for the South Asian country.

Hindus consider cows sacred, and also regard them as a mother figure. This belief has to do with both ancient Hindu scriptures, and the fact that cows give milk. While many people think that Hindus, and by extension, Indians, are mainly vegetarian, Hindus are “major meat eaters”. Even so, most upper caste Hindus avoid eating beef because of these associations with the bovine animal. However, in recent times, this individual preference has also manifested in intolerance for other people, not necessarily bound by religious beliefs, consuming beef. It’s important to note here that while Hindus are an overwhelming majority in India, forming 79.8% of the population, the country’s constitution brands it a secular nation, home to people of many different faiths and religious inclinations. But in recent years, the cow has become a symbol of the growing religious divide in the country. As troubling as this trend is, it might also be intentional.

Since 2014, when the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power, there has been a visible shift in the Indian socio-political fabric towards majoritarian Hindu values. This can be noticed clearly in the way people’s dietary habits have become a point of contention.

While laws banning the selling or consumption of beef have been in place in many states for a long time, since 2014 India has increasingly seen incidents wherein violent mobs attack people consuming, legally trading, or even simply suspected to be smuggling cow meat. These attacks have led to severe injuries, and in many cases, death. In such attacks between 2010 and June 2017, “28 Indians — 24 of them Muslims — were killed and 124 injured”, states a report by Reuters. Although such events have taken place before 2014, there has been a noticeable upsurge since 2014.

As noted by the Reuters report, most victims of these attacks have been Muslims. In many cases, Dalits and other marginalised Hindu communities have also faced the wrath of cow vigilante mobs. One of the most horrifying incidents took place in Dadri in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh (UP) in 2015. 50-year-old Mohammad Akhlaq was lynched to death by a frenzied mob who suspected that he was consuming and storing cow meat in his home. Lab tests of the meat sample recovered from in or around Akhlaq’s home later revealed that it mightn’t even have been cow meat. But five years later, the case still languishes in India’s courts, denying justice to the family.

“Earlier, reporters called, local politicians called. Now, the frequency with which people want to know about the case has dropped. Lynchings have become so normalised in India, that they don’t shock anyone’s conscience anymore,” Akhlaq’s brother told The Quint.

While the BJP government has distanced itself from these attacks in the past and blamed them on ‘fringe elements’ of the society, its inaction has only emboldened those willing to take the law into their own hands. At the same time, stricter laws on cow slaughter have been put into place. This makes India’s global advancement in beef export seem even weirder. No one would expect a country to lead the world in exporting the same commodity that has proved fatal for its citizens to use or even possess.

As seen above, India boasted of a spot in the top 5 exporters of beef in the world in 2019. Six Indian states contributed to India’s 2019 beef exports — Bihar, Maharashtra, Nagaland, Punjab, Telangana, and UP. While the Northeastern state of Nagaland made a negligible contribution, UP exported a whopping $2,012 million worth of beef to 49 countries, according to a report on the export preparedness index of India by Niti Aayog, the policy think tank of the Indian government.

Two of these states -Bihar and UP- have been notorious for cow vigilante lynchings in recent years, and 2019 was no different. Both Bihar and UP saw two reported instances of such lynchings each.

In Bareilly, UP, four including two Muslim labourers were beaten with belts and shoes by a mob out of suspicion that they were eating cow meat, even when they said their food was vegetarian. This incident is one of over ten known attacks in UP since 2014. The state has come to be known for Hindu extremism under current Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, who is also a Hindu monk. His blanket ban on cow smuggling has exacerbated such cow vigilante lynchings.

In the past, he has denied claims that UP is the largest exporter of cow meat in India, saying that even cruelty to cows, let alone killing, can lead to imprisonment. But the data by the Indian government’s own report proves otherwise.

In its bid to make India a Hindu nation, the BJP government supports the politicisation of food, which is an essential requirement for human sustenance. But the readiness and complicity in making profit off of the same commodity that has caused innocent deaths are shocking.