Last week, a mob in northern India dragged a 50-year-old Muslim man from his home and beat him to death. Mohammad Akhlaq’s supposed crime? Allegedly eating beef.
The case, which has generated widespread outrage in India, is the latest divisive incident involving that great unifier: food. Over the past year, individual states have banned or restricted everything from beef to mutton to chicken to pork to eggs—often enforcing long-dormant prohibitions on the sale of meat. So what’s behind all the controversy? It helps to consider who eats what in the country of 1.2 billion people and, perhaps more importantly, what they don’t eat.
First, what people don’t eat: Many Hindus (who make up 80 percent of India’s population) do not eat beef because they consider the cow holy. Muslims (14 percent) are forbidden from eating pork because Islam considers pigs unclean. Jains (0.4 percent) are so particular about their vegetarianism that they eschew even root vegetables.
Add to this mix more proscriptions—and proclivities. A number of Hindus are vegetarian (estimates put the figure at about 30 percent, though their reliability is iffy) and avoid all meat, though some eat eggs. Only 3 percent of Muslims are vegetarian. Among the other major faiths—Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists—meat-eating is common.