India’s Food Fight Turns Deadly

A mob recently killed a 50-year-old Muslim man. His alleged crime? Eating beef.

Altaf Qadri / AP

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.

Sensitivities about eating meat in general and beef in particular have been present in India for decades—possibly centuries. The current outcry appears to be rooted in part in the election of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2014. Many—but not all—of the party’s supporters are Hindu nationalists for whom meat and especially beef consumption is sacrilegious. They are by no means alone in that view. The prospect of a national ban on the slaughter of cows is discussed in India’s constitution, though one has never been enforced.

Muslims, meanwhile, are India’s poorest religious group, and beef just happens to be among the cheapest available sources of protein. Owners of abattoirs also tend to be Muslim, and the various bans on cow-slaughtering have disproportionately affected them economically (though buffalo meat is still available and consumed more widely). India, of course, also has a long and gruesome history of Hindu-Muslim violence that predates the BJP’s rise to power. (There is another dimension to all this—one of caste—and you can read about it here.)

Which brings us back to last week: A group of men, all Hindu, dragged Akhlaq, an ironmonger, from his home in the village of Dadri in the northern Uttar Pradesh state. They then proceeded to beat him to death. His 22-year-old son was badly injured. Another son, a technician in the Indian air force, was unharmed—probably because he doesn’t live in Dadri.

Predictably, camera crews have descended on Dadri, reams have been written about the incident, writers have returned literary awards to the Hindu-dominated government in protest over the official response to the violence, and talking heads have opined at length on what this means for India’s status as a secular nation in which, at least in theory, all religions are equal. Critics of the response argue that the outrage is selective since religious violence is as old as modern India itself. (For an excellent analysis of the tone-deaf political reaction to this story, please read Soutik Biswas at the BBC.)

Meanwhile, the men who killed Akhlaq have been arrested, his son has appeared on television, and the story of the man who was killed on suspicion of eating beef is still dominating the news.

The kicker to all this? Preliminary tests of the meat in Akhlaq’s fridge suggest that it may, in fact, have been mutton.