Although vegetarianism is more popular in India than in the west, this is not primarily motivated by a concern for animal rights. Animals are used extensively for food, leather and cosmetics, kept in zoos and used to provide entertainment, including in Hindu temples. Hinduism incorporates many rites and rituals that involve the exploitation and killing of animals and many high-caste Hindus consume meat—though not beef.
Yet since Narendra Modi’s BJP-led government came to power in 2014, there have been a number of moves not just to discourage beef consumption but to impose vegetarianism on the population—more than 70% of whom consume meat. Various government departments promote vegetarianism. Modi himself makes a show of his vegetarian diet. There has been a crackdown on slaughterhouses, while, in BJP-ruled states, school meals are not permitted to contain meat or eggs, which has raised fears about the possible impact of protein deficiencies on growing children. (Unlike western vegetarians, Hindu vegetarians generally do not eat eggs, though they do consume dairy.) Meanwhile, Cow vigilantes have attacked Muslims and Dalits for allegedly eating beef.
While some people may choose to be vegetarian or vegan out of a concern for animal rights, Hindu vegetarianism is primarily a religious practice designed to signal the purity of upper caste Hindus and their superiority over those who consume meat, especially beef. The roots of this practice do not lie in a concern for the well-being of animals. The early Hindus ate meat—including beef—and animal sacrifice was widespread, as we can see from the detailed instructions given in the ancient Kali Purana and other scriptures, including the Rigveda, Mahabharata, Ramayana and Upanishads. The Brahmins, as the highest caste, supervised the animal sacrifices and were entitled to the choicest cuts of meat. As the luminary B. R. Ambedkar puts it, in ancient times, “for the Brahmin every day was a beef-steak day.”
As we have argued elsewhere, vegetarianism came to be adopted in India as a result of the influence and growing popularity of Buddhism. But, while egalitarianism is central to Buddhist beliefs, the Hindu taboo against beef was used to bolster what Prateek Kumar Gautam has called casteist speciesism and became central to the idea of untouchability, as it was used to denigrate those responsible for disposing of the carcasses of cows.
While many modern-day Hindus are offended by the idea of cow slaughter, cows themselves are among the most exploited animals in India. The country is home to the world’s largest dairy industry. (It also produces over 5.3 million metric tons of meat and 75 billion eggs annually.) Because cow milk and by-products like cow urine and dung are deemed pure by many Hindus, they are extensively used, offered and even consumed in Hindu temples and rituals. India’s dairy giant Amul uses Hindu cultural symbols like Goumata and Lord Krishna to promote milk consumption.
In addition, according to a report by Caravan, there is a significant illegal industry in secret cattle slaughter and beef production, including in Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state, ruled over by a religious zealot: the monk Yogi Adityanath. Under the guise of “protecting” cows and upholding the ban on cow slaughter, some upper-caste Hindus are operating a cattle-smuggling network, with the collusion of local police and politicians—even as Muslims and Dalits are harassed, victimised and beaten for such “crimes” as eating beef and engaging in the cattle trade. Another report by the same magazine describes a nexus of companies, routes, and Hindu stakeholders involved in cattle smuggling between India and Bangladesh. Bovine meat is big business. In addition, dairy farmers will sell male calves and female cows that have ceased to produce milk to the meat and leather industries. So much for the animal’s sanctity. A recent report has shown that during the BJP’s Hindu nationalist rule, India has become the world’s largest exporter of buffalo meat. The government has increased subsidies for setting up and modernising slaughterhouses by around $4 million since 2019.
The conflation of Hindu vegetarianism with veganism trivialises animal rights. In a gesture of defiance of Hindutva and of the beef ban, many Indian progressives, Muslims, Dalits and religious minorities have started eating more beef. This will only change when we begin to see animals as sentient beings and not mere objects of our politics. While Hindu vegetarianism is politically oppressive, the communities affected by it must rethink their approach to resistance.
This would also have social implications. The living and working conditions of slaughterhouse workers remain miserable. In fighting for animal rights, we should also fight for a better future for these exploited people. The animal rights movement needs to shift its main focus from individual dietary and lifestyle choices to an examination of the ways in which the commodification of animals contributes to social oppression and casteist discrimination and impacts animals themselves. Until we do so, animal welfare will be a casualty of our toxic political and religious climate in India.