When Junaid Khan was a young boy, his mother, Saira Begum, would return home close to nightfall. She would squat next to an open fire to cook rotis for her hungry son, who would smear them with butter. “Junaid would eat rotis in whole gulps. I had to stop him before he ate too much,” Saira told me one summer evening in 2019. She lives with her relatives in a small brick house in Khandawali, a village in Haryana near New Delhi. When we spoke, she lay on her divan. In a corner stood a desk on which Junaid would study. Like many women in her village, Saira is a farm laborer whose income—four thousand rupees per month in 2019, or fifty-seven dollars—does not ensure food for her family at all times. She owns one buffalo, however, that she milks and uses to plow the land that she works. Food is scarce in her home, but the white butter she made with buffalo milk was delicious and filling for her children.
Junaid was sixteen years old when he, his older brother Hashim, and two friends were attacked on a train in Haryana in June 2017. The boys were commuting home from an Eid shopping trip and a visit to the mosque when they were asked to vacate their seats by a group of men. When I visited Saira’s home, Hashim explained that the men noticed they were Indian Muslims and threatened to beat them if they didn’t move. “They were older, larger, and Hindu,” he recounted, as he fiddled with a photograph of Junaid. “They kept calling us beef eaters,” he continued, along with other faith-based slurs. “Whenever they said the word beef eater, they became more violent and coordinated in their attack. It was like the chant brought them together.” During their argument, the men stabbed Junaid with a knife. They threw the boys out at Asaoti station, where Junaid succumbed to his injuries from the assault and died.
Junaid Khan’s lynching is one of several incidents of its kind that have frequently occurred in India over the last decade. They are commonly referred to as “cow-related violence,” a subsection of crime in which those under suspicion of eating, selling, or transporting beef are searched, humiliated, mauled, and even killed for supposedly violating a cow, an animal which Hindus consider sacred. A 2019 report titled “Violent Cow Protection in India” notes that, between May 2015 and December 2018, at least forty-four people were killed in such attacks. According to the report, this violence occurred across the country; the victims were largely Muslim, indigenous Adivasis, or Dalits, members of India’s most oppressed caste. In most cases, attackers in these incidents were gau rakshaks, or self-styled cow vigilantes, operating either individually or in organized groups. Frequently Hindu, they were often members or affiliates of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government.
In 2015, a fifty-two-year-old Muslim man named Mohammad Akhlaq was dragged out of his house with his son and beaten to death by a mob on the suspicion of storing beef in his fridge. When Akhlaq was killed, the Hindi-language magazine Panchjanya published a piece in defense of his killers. According to the article’s author, Tufail Chaturvedi, seminal Hindu scriptures “order killing of the sinner who kills a cow. It is a matter of life and death for many [Hindus].” All nineteen accused in Akhlaq’s murder—one of them a son of a local BJP leader—were released on bail. Sixteen were later congratulated in person by a local politician, as if to reward their actions.
History and Hypocrisy
While India’s present government and media claim that the consumption and slaughter of beef is practiced only by foreigners, invaders, and miscreants, the history of beef consumption in India tells another, more complex tale. As anti-caste jurist and social reformer Bhimrao Ambedkar wrote in his 1948 book The Untouchables: Who Were They and Why They Became Untouchables, vegetarianism was first institutionalized in India in the fourth century as a move to reinforce rule by the Brahmin caste. (An architect of the Indian constitution adopted in 1950, Ambedkar fought against the caste system, arguing that its abolition was necessary for democracy in the fledgling Indian nation-state.) Before vegetarianism was claimed as central to Hindu culture and life, as writer Mukandi Lal explains in his 1967 essay “Cow Cult in India,” the slaughter of cows on ceremonial occasions was considered auspicious in ancient India. Lal notes this was especially commonplace among dominant-caste Hindus; gomedha, or the slaughter of the cow, is even mentioned in the classic Hindu epic the Mahabharata.
“They kept calling us beef eaters,” he continued, along with other faith-based slurs. “Whenever they said the word ‘beef eater,’ they became more violent and coordinated in their attack. It was like the chant brought them together.”
However, a change occurred under the king Ashoka, who converted to Buddhism in third century BCE and declared Buddhism the state religion of India. Lal explains that while eating beef was initially a visible practice during Ashoka’s reign, animal slaughter was eventually discouraged by Buddhists in order to promote ideas of ahimsa, or nonviolence. To defeat their rivals in the politics of purity, Brahmins followed suit. They began to oppose cow sacrifices, deifying the animal instead. In The Untouchables, Ambedkar writes that, “without becoming vegetarian the Brahmins could not have recovered the ground they had lost to their rival namely Buddhism . . . This happened because the Brahmins made the cow a sacred animal. This made beef-eating a sacrilege.”
The taboo on eating beef would later be heightened by the emergence of the “Krishna cult,” as Lal puts it. Lal details how fifteenth-century Hindu saint and philosopher Sri Vallabhacharya, who founded a Krishna-centered sect of Hinduism, translated the Bhagavata Purana from Sanskrit to Hindi, the language of the masses. Vallabhacharya’s translation and commentary on the text characterized Krishna as the most human incarnation of God. “Therefore, as the Krishna legend appealed to the common man in India, Krishna’s cow became the cow mother (Gomata) of every Hindu,” Lal explains. This is the beginning of gau raksha, or cow protection, in which protecting the animal became a way for Hindus to demonstrate their devotion and loyalty to the Hindu community and those that made its rules. The sanctification of cows and condemnation of cow slaughter were also useful tools for Hindus to combat Muslim influence. Lal asserts that dominant-caste Hindus became “even greater protectors of the cow” in response to Muslim conquests in the subcontinent, declaring beef eating as a “foreign” practice despite the growing popularity of Islam over the centuries among Indians, especially those of oppressed castes.
Today, even as large communities across the subcontinent eat beef, most Brahmins remain vegetarian—a lifestyle they’ve tried to normalize as an unquestionable part of Indian national identity.
Before vegetarianism was claimed as central to Hindu culture and life, the slaughter of cows on ceremonial occasions was considered auspicious in ancient India.
For the last eight years, under its present leadership of the Narendra Modi-led BJP, India has drastically shifted to the Hindu right. Recent years have seen pogroms against working-class Muslims in the country, as well as the passage of laws that undermine the citizenship of Indian Muslims and prevent interfaith marriages. The BJP government is aided, funded, and backed by the ninety-year-old Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a Hindu extremist organization which supported Modi’s rise to power. Together, Modi, the BJP, and the RSS make no qualms about the mission to build a Hindu Rashtra, or “India for Hindus,” at the cost of its religious minorities. The BJP and RSS is resolute in their mission: everyone who obeys their terms is Indian, and anyone who doesn’t is not.
In this environment, the BJP has pushed vegetarianism as fundamentally Indian, despite the continued predominance of meat consumption throughout the country. Recently, the Economic and Political Weekly, an Indian academic journal, found that more than 60 percent of India eats meat. Vegetarianism thrives only in the Hindu-dominated central part of the country’s northern region. In India’s northeastern states, less than 2 percent are vegetarian; West Bengal and Kerala, known for their meat dishes, are home to less than 5 percent. But under the BJP, the Hindu vegetarian’s claim that meat eating is a foreign, miscreant practice is validated. In Khandawali and surrounding areas, both legal and vigilante punishment for selling and eating meat—especially beef—is severe, resulting in death in many cases.
The BJP and its supporters are not the only ones reinforcing these myths around the ubiquity of vegetarianism. These biases are also incredibly prevalent in the cultural sector. Take, for example, how the National Museum in India banned meat-based dishes from a 2020 historical exhibition on the food of the civilization of Harappa after officials from the Ministry of Culture expressed concern upon seeing meat on the menu; or how meats like beef and pork are seldom visible on MasterChef India, the show even going fully vegetarian for one season in 2015. The myth of Indian vegetarianism is also upheld by the dominant-caste Hindu diaspora in the West, where India’s vegetarian dishes are viewed as the most “authentic” cuisine of the country. Zahir Janmohamed, an Indian American writer and former host of Racist Sandwich, a podcast about food and politics, told me that it’s the universality attributed to Indian vegetarianism in the diaspora that makes it a harmful tool for stereotyping South Asian cultures. The fact that vegetarianism is often seen as connoting purity and altruism by Western cultures is a boon for dominant-caste Hinduism and grants a degree of acceptance to the far-right Hindu agenda against beef. “It’s like Indian Muslims don’t have agency to claim a linguistic, regional, and culinary identity,” Janmohamed explained. “In the diaspora, Hinduism, vegetarianism, and ‘Indianism’ go hand in hand.”
For the Love of Beef
While beef remains undocumented in the Indian culinary canon, the meat has been essential to many around the country, especially those who work the land and rear cattle. The public declaration of the right to eat beef has taken many forms in the last decade, one of which is the formation of “beef festivals.” These festivals have been organized across India by students’ associations, particularly those headed and formed by students from the Dalit caste. In 2012, for example, Dalit students at Osmania University in Hyderabad, Telangana, organized the university’s first beef festival, challenging the Brahmanical lens through which food is usually viewed. The event was stormed by the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the youth wing of the RSS, who attacked the students and ransacked the venue. Other such festivals organized on university campuses were also threatened and attacked by the ABVP.
“It’s like Indian Muslims don’t have agency to claim a linguistic, regional, and culinary identity.” Janmohamed explained. “In the diaspora, Hinduism, vegetarianism, and ‘Indianism’ go hand in hand.”
In 2017, the BJP government instituted “beef bans” across the country, closing slaughterhouses and further encouraging the terrorizing of beef eaters. In response, the BJP’s actions were criticized as acting against India’s federalism and flattening the country’s varied eating cultures. Additional festivals and protests reemerged across India in a movement to resist the bans, especially in states like Kerela and West Bengal where beef is regularly consumed. Eating beef biryanis, kebabs, and curries in public became acts of rebellion against the BJP’s actions. Public beef consumption, then, is a method of critical protest, one that resists the Hindu state’s imposition on food cultures and directly confronts the vegetarianism dominant castes herald as supreme.
The bias against meat eating by those in power also hampers initiatives to fight hunger. The bans on beef and the vigilantism that imposes vegetarianism deny adequate nutrition to those who need it the most. Food rights activist, public health doctor, and researcher Sylvia Karpagam spoke to me about how the Bangalore-based nonprofit Akshaya Patra Foundation was criticized for disallowing onions, garlic, meat, and eggs in their midday meals for malnourished children. “Eat your green leafy vegetables, they will say. Even though it has been proven that liver and other animal proteins are the most effective and nutrient-dense sources of nourishment. Why is bias enforced on the stomachs of those that it historically excludes?” Karpagam asked. Food is not just about consumption but a matter of taste, she argued. “The mouth salivates, the brain receives signals, the food settles. To eat is to be moved, fulfilled, comforted. Would you feed your own children bland food they resented? Would you give them tablets instead of a warm meal?” Karpagam described the Hindu vegetarian’s idea of a “balanced meal”—including only lentils, rice, vegetables, and dairy—as a construct of privilege, catering to those who have constant access to food.
When I spoke to Gogu Shyamala, a Telegu-language writer and women’s rights activist from the Madiga community, a subgroup of Dalits, she echoed Karpagam’s sentiments. Shyamala’s work often focuses on the dominant-caste suppression of oppressed-caste eating cultures. Her writing expresses criticism and amusement at Hinduism’s institutional preoccupation with the cow while speaking directly to the Brahmanical authority that denies food, land, and dignity to people like herself. “To this day / have you reared a pair of bullocks? / A pair of sheep? / A buffalo or two?” she writes in her poem “Beef, our life.” “Do you know of cattle fuzz? / What, in the end, do you know my friend / but to say, ‘don’t eat beef?’” “To me,” Shyamala explained on the phone, “beef eating is a personal choice. It is related to land, cultivation, and culture, and for many Dalit citizens of India, it is part of their livelihood and lifestyle.”
Down-and-Out in Lucknow
Despite beef being eaten with relish by communities around India, it is still hidden. The suppression of beef as food or culture from public life has also been detrimental economically. The beef bans, surveillance, and incidents of violence committed by the government, cow vigilantes, and other right-wing Hindu groups have directly impacted the livelihoods of butchers and small-scale meat sellers across India.
It was a scorching day in June 2019 when I traveled to Billochpura, part of the old city in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, and home to the Qureshis, a caste of Muslims who make up the community of butchers in the city. There I tried to speak to butchers about how their lives were affected by the bans on beef and meat-selling. Lucknow has a large appetite for all meat, and especially beef. Its most beloved foods include nihari, a slow-cooked stew swiped up with fat, flaky breads called kulchas, and the tunday kebab, which is a dish of buffalo meat blitzed with spices that is famed throughout India’s north. I spoke eventually with a butcher named Shahabuddin Qureshi. As we talked, he cut mangoes for the children gathered around him. They held the fruit upside down and watched the pulp leak onto the floor. Somberly, he recounted an incident that occurred three weeks prior, where a group of men in saffron scarves roughed up three others on the street outside his shop’s window for holding a plastic bag, which the attackers suspected held pieces of beef. Qureshi’s quiet shop is only one of the twenty still open in what once was a bustling market for meat in Billochpura. I met with several other butchers before Qureshi; all of them expressed a fear of retaliation from vigilante groups and refused to talk.
The butchers of Billochpura used to source their meat from a slaughterhouse at Kursi, a forty-minute drive from the neighborhood. Following the 2017 beef slaughterhouse ban instituted by Uttar Pradesh’s militantly Hindutva chief minister, Yogi Adityanath, the Kursi location was shut down, and the butchers were forced to buy meat from small-scale operations further away from their shops. “When the ban came, they told us that it was temporary,” Qureshi said. “They wanted to build slaughterhouses with amenities, hygiene, cleanliness. Slaughterhouses that didn’t leak into the rivers and pollute them,” he added. “But they never built these, or gave us the resources to build our own—they simply closed the slaughterhouses down.” Several butchers have lost their livelihoods in Billochpura. Work is hard for those who continue, and both butchers and customers remain fearful. For many male members of the Qureshi community, trained to be butchers from a young age, gaining employment in other communities is close to impossible, Shahabuddin said. “It’s hard work, carving meat. It needs precision, and training. It is an art—like tailoring, or carpentry. Everyone is concerned about what they eat. Tourists will come to Lucknow to eat kebabs, but where will they come from? Does anyone know?” he asked.
What Was Once a Golden Bird
In India today, cow vigilantes continue to attack and torture people. Indian Muslims are especially targeted, often accused of selling beef or stealing cattle. In 2021, a Muslim biryani vendor in Delhi was forced by Hindu right-wingers into closing his stall after selling meat during the Hindu festival Diwali. In March 2022, a twenty-six-year-old Muslim man in Tripura was lynched by a mob for the alleged theft of cattle. The following August, the relative of a man accused in a cow-slaughter case in Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh, was tortured by the police. Two months later, another Muslim biryani vendor’s food cart was vandalized and forced to close in Sardhana, Uttar Pradesh, after he was accused of selling beef at a Hindu festival—this despite the “meat” being soya, a vegetarian meat substitute.
As Indian vegetarianism gains mass appeal by way of the Western diaspora, its presence in India continues to be used to deny people adequate nutrition and to enact violence on the citizens that Modi’s government is attempting to exclude. While in the past decade there have been stories of resistance to the state and the ruling elite’s imposition of vegetarianism, tales of grief and mourning crowd the conversations surrounding Indian food. In Ghasera, not far from Junaid’s village, a group of Meo Muslim singers have begun to write songs about victims of recent cow-related violence. In one such song, they sing of how a young Junaid’s life was snatched from him in mere minutes. “What was once a golden bird / The India of yore—now a living hell.” As she boiled water for chai for her sons and me in her home, Saira watched videos of these singers on Hashim’s phone. When she added tea to the water, she realized she had no milk and sent Hashim away to bring some from the store.
After he left, Saira reminisced about a young Junaid taking a motorcycle back and forth from their house to the same store to which she had just sent Hashim. Junaid would stuff his pockets with biscuits for him and his siblings, the sweet and salty snacks fueling him as he studied on the same bed on which his mother now sat remembering. “The people that killed him reduced him to one thing and one thing only,” she said. “Why are these the only stories I have to share?”