A ban on the sale of cattle for slaughter in Maharashtra is threatening to push millions of farmers into penury, deepening distress in the countryside and fanning resentment against ruling BJP.
Slaughter of cows, considered sacred in Hinduism, has historically been banned in most states but was rarely enforced in India, the world’s largest exporter of beef.
But over the past year, states ruled by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), such as Maharashtra, have broadened the ban to include other types of cattle, (BJP like bulls and bullocks, and Hindu vigilantes have stepped up attacks on traders to enforce the prohibition.
The stricter rules come as Modi and the nationalist BJP lay greater stress on India’s Hindu faith, to which the majority of the population belongs. Minority groups, including around 180 million Muslims, have expressed concern over the implications.
The impact of the beef ban has been significant. Prices of cattle have fallen across the country, India’s meat exports fell 13% in the April-December period and rival beef supplier Brazil is gaining from India’s loss.
It has also left millions of farmers, already reeling from bad harvests due to back-to-back droughts and unseasonal rains, struggling to sell animals they can no longer feed or water.
“I wonder what the government wants – our survival or the cattle’s?” said farmer Revaji Choudhary, standing next to a pair of bulls he has been trying to sell for weeks in a cattle market in Maharashtra.
Traditionally, farmers have sold cattle in a drought year to butchers, mostly Muslims, and bought new ones when their earnings rise after monsoon showers.
That cycle has been broken and could leave farmers with little money to buy seeds or fertiliser ahead of the next sowing season, starting in June. Farmer suicides have nearly doubled in the drought-hit Marathwada region of Maharashtra.
To ban or not to ban?
Their predicament is causing concern within the BJP, which has been trying to bolster its credentials in the countryside, where most of India’s 1.3 billion people live.
Rural distress contributed to an embarrassing defeat for the party last year in a state election, and more state polls are due over the coming year.
In the federal budget last month, Modi’s government pledged nearly $13 billion on rural development, aiming to double farmer’s incomes by 2022.
Maharashtra BJP legislator Bhimrao Dhonde said the government’s priority should be to support farmers, and they should be allowed to sell their cattle to whomever they want.
“It is time to withdraw the ban,” Dhonde told reporters.
Madhu Chavan, a spokesman for the BJP in Maharashtra, said Dhonde’s view did not reflect that of the party.
“The party thinks the ban is necessary,” he said, adding that more money would be made available to alleviate the effects of drought if needed.