During the religious Hindu festival Sankranti every January, the open fields in farming villages throughout India are filled with people dressed in their best holiday attire celebrating the harvest and new beginnings. It is hard to say who is more colorful—the people or the cattle being led to the field. This is the day for honoring cattle and every household is parading its bemused bovine population: horns painted, necks garlanded, bells tinkling.

The Hindu reverence of cattle—particularly the cow—is well-known. Census data shows that nearly 80 percent of India's 1.2 billion population are Hindu. Most Hindus worship the cow and abstain from eating beef, so it might come as a surprise that India has become the world’s second-largest beef exporter. India’s beef industry says all its beef comes from buffaloes, a claim challenged by right wing, religious, and animal rights groups. While it's true that cow slaughter is banned by most Indian states and the export of cow meat is against the law, the acceptance of the cow’s sacredness is not uniform throughout India and it's likely that cow meat is sneaking into the buffalo beef market. The export numbers don't match up, and it's suspected that cow meat is being snuck out.

The Indian beef industry didn’t happen overnight. Export began in the 1960s and grew significantly in the last decade. Last year, India exported $4.3 billion worth of beef, a number expected to increase by $200 million this year. Today, India exports to 65 countries where its beef competes with meat from all over the world. The demand for Indian beef is especially high because it comes from free-ranging buffaloes fed on natural pastures and not pumped with growth hormones, says Santosh Sarangi, chairman of the Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA). “India has 115 million buffaloes, more than half the world’s population, and produces about 1.53 million tons of beef every year,” Sarangi says.

The debate of the sacredness of the cow is an issue even amongst India’s historians with some arguing that the “holy cow” is a relatively recent phenomenon exploited by political and religious groups. In The Myth of The Holy Cow, historian Dwijendra Narayan Jha says that ancient Hindus ate beef—the cow got its revered status around 500 A.D. coinciding with an agricultural boom on the subcontinent. Jha's research offers copious evidence that ancient Hindu kings regularly sacrificed and ate animals including cattle. Cattle, even cow, meat was not sacred during the Vedic period (1000-5000 B.C.) which was the time when Hinduism’s oldest scriptures—the Vedas—were written.

Around 500 A.D., India became an agrarian economy. Cattle, cows, and bulls, became invaluable for small-scale farming that, even today, is the heart of Indian rural life. This coincided with a time when Hindus were beginning to reject animal killing and gravitate towards vegetarianism. Cattle became not only a sign of wealth, but also sacred. (Interestingly, the buffalo never achieved this revered status.)

To Hindus, the cow is now worshipped as Gaumata (mother cow) because it provides milk to everyone. It symbolizes selfless giving. There are about 3,000 Gaushalas (cow shelters) in India where old and infirm cows are looked after. The cow, to many Hindus, embodies gentleness and non-violence. Hinduism holds the belief that all living creatures are sacred and promotes the idea of ahimsa (non-violence). “In China, dogs are killed for their meat and leather,” says Poorva Joshipura, CEO, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, India. “In the United States, where they are loved and kept in homes, they aren’t killed. So when people call for cow slaughter bans, there isn’t always an ulterior motive.”

India has a checkered past with cow slaughter bans. The Muslim Mughals ruled for three centuries and the British colonized the country for two centuries. The first Mughal emperor, Babur, banned cow slaughter in 1527 out of respect for Hindus; but some Hindu kings did not enforce the ban. The big picture today is a mixed one: On the one hand, there are Muslims and Christians who don’t eat beef out of respect for their Hindu neighbors. On the other, there are Hindus who eat beef.

According to Chetan Rajhans, spokesperson for Hindu Janajagriti Samiti—a social organization that hopes to revive Hindu values, India’s present anti-cow slaughter movement probably began with the Mutiny of 1857. The mutiny was an uprising of Indian soldiers against their British superiors for introducing pork and beef-greased cartridges for P53 Enfield rifles. The ends of these cartridges had to be bitten off before use, enraging Muslims, who don’t eat pork, and Hindus, who don’t eat beef. “The cartridges mobilized people to Gauraksha (cow protection),” says Rajhans. “That was the beginning of a nationwide Cow Protection Movement uniting Hindus against the British.”

The Cow Protection Movement activists think there is little progress. “We want to completely stop slaughter of cow and bulls,” says Ashoo Mongia, who founded the Rashtriye Gauraksha Sena (Cow Protection Army) in 2010. But as the cow’s sacredness is debated, a nationwide ban is hard to impose. While some Indian states ban slaughter of any cattle, others ban slaughter of only cows, and some only ban the slaughter of milk-producing cows. States in the northeastern part of the country have no bans at all. Punishments, too, vary from minimal fines to five years in prison.

APEDA, the Indian government’s gatekeeper for exports, has stringent guidelines for beef export. Last year, APEDA introduced a requirement that exporters must prove that their beef was sourced from government-approved and registered abattoirs. But with a sizable Muslim and Christian population—14 percent and 2 percent respectively—that doesn’t worship the cow’s divinity, there is speculation that illegal cow beef is sneaking into the mix. “Meat is meat and it would be hard to tell if it came from a licensed slaughterhouse, municipal slaughterhouse, or export facility,” says Joshipura.

India’s rapidly growing beef industry is a political issue, especially during elections when the country is divided along cultural, religious, and political lines: Muslims and Hindus, left versus right, beef-eating Hindus versus non-beef eating Hindus. “Politicians take a stand on the issue just as they take a stand on any issue of public concern,” says Joshipura. “A politician's position on the matter would determine how much support he or she would get and from whom.”

When Narendra Modi, India's current Prime Minister, ran for office in 2014, one platform he ran on was criticizing the ruling Congress Party-led government's “Pink Revolution”—the nickname for India’s rising beef exports. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) blamed the Congress Party for encouraging beef trade to woo India’s 180 million Muslims. Modi promised to curb the industry, a promise he hasn’t followed through with since he became Prime Minister last May.

To give Modi credit, putting the brakes on India’s beef industry isn’t as easy as it sounds. The lack of a comprehensive, uniform law regarding cow slaughter makes it easier for people to find ways to kill cows if they want to. It is estimated that almost two million cows are smuggled across a 2,400-mile poorly-patrolled border from India into Bangladesh every year. Inside India's borders, people dodge the law by smuggling cows to states where there are little or no penalties for cow slaughter. Rajhans says that India has about 3,600 legal slaughterhouses and 30,000 illegal ones, many of which slaughter cows.

The lucrativeness of the beef business is attracting people—including Hindus. “I have seen Hindus in the cow slaughtering business,” Rajhans laments. “They are just not aware of their spiritual responsibilities, that they shouldn’t kill cows.” Two business opportunities in the beef industry, Rajhans explains, is the money from exporting meat to oil-rich Gulf countries and the political power held by India's Muslim population. The Congress Party is blamed by activists for its Muslim vote-mongering, as beef is a Muslim-dominated industry and beef sales doubled between 2007 and 2012 while the Congress Party was in power.

As if the issue of beef isn't divided enough, there is even disagreement amongst those who oppose the beef industry. “Buffalo meat isn’t beef,” says Vinod Bansal, spokesperson for Vishva Hindu Parishad, a Hindu nationalist organization. “Only cow meat is beef and India doesn’t export that. And if a Hindu eats beef he or she cannot be called a Hindu.” Others like Mongia accept that a lot of Indian beef comes from cows, though it is difficult to say how much. “India’s 'Pink Revolution' may have happened mostly when the Congress was in power,” Mongia speculates. “But under Modi it has become worse.”

Beef exports have increased by 16 percent since Modi came into power. “It was just a ploy to get the vote,” says Rajhans. International anti-slaughter activists like PETA say that the BJP’s push for a uniform, nationwide, cow slaughter ban itself is contradictory: The BJP touts milk as a revered cow product, encouraging the growth of the dairy industry. With 76 million cows, India is now the world’s largest milk producer producing 140 million tons of milk a year. Most cows, past their milk-producing age, end up being turned to leather and beef rather than living out their years in cow shelters—a retirement home of sorts for cows.

As animal-rights groups decry the terrible conditions in slaughterhouses and religious groups mourn the sacrilege of cow slaughter—urban, well-traveled Indians are developing a taste for beef. Many upmarket, chic, restaurants offer steaks on their menu—and the people ordering them aren’t always Muslim or Christian. While some Hindus might argue that the beef comes from buffalo, those who have already developed a taste for beef might not want to believe that there's cow in their burgers. Does not knowing where beef comes from absolve a Hindu of eating cow meat? Even if so, it's still likely supporting a booming (and illegal) cow-slaughter industry.