India: Violence Spreads in Beef Row

Amin Ahmad and Masuma Parveen
151012-IN-rashid-1000.jpg Lawmaker Engineer Rashid (center) shouts after a group of Bharatiya Janata Party legislators beat him during a session of the Jammu & Kashmir legislative assembly in Srinagar.

Intercommunal tensions over consumption of beef have taken an ugly turn in the restive state of Jammu & Kashmir and other parts of India.

The Kashmiri portion of J&K – India’s only state with an overall Muslim majority – was shut down Monday due to a strike in protest of a Friday night attack on two Muslim truck drivers that left both men severely burned.

The victims, Showkat Ahmad Dar, 34, and Zahid Rasool Bhat, 19, were attacked with a petrol bomb as they slept in their truck along the roadside in Udhampur, a district in predominantly Hindu Jammu, officials said. A third truck driver escaped unhurt and six suspects have been arrested, according to local authorities.

Investigators have yet to nail down a motive, but the attack appears to have stemmed from growing tensions between Hindus and Muslims over a statewide ban on beef eating and slaughter of cow, which the state’s High Court imposed on Sept. 9. The ban has added to inter-communal tensions in Kashmir, a Himalayan region disputed between India and Pakistan since 1947, and where an anti-Indian separatist insurgency has raged for decades.

On Sunday morning, another attack was reported on a truck driver passing through Udhampur on his way to Anantnag, a district in south Kashmir that is home to the two truckers who were burned Friday. The latest attack sparked protests in Anantnag.

“I somehow managed to save myself from a group of goons, who targeted my vehicle at a check post in Udhampur,” trucker Sayar Ahmad Nayak told BenarNews.

“The drivers are feeling immense insecurity to their lives following Friday’s assault by miscreants. I appeal to authorities to take necessary measures and ensure safety of drivers,” he added.

Authorities say they have boosted security along Kashmir-bound truck routes that pass through Jammu.

“During night hours, security persons escort the Kashmir-bound drivers throughout the district to avoid chances of such attacks by miscreants,” Udhampur Deputy Commissioner Shahid Iqbal Choudhary told BenarNews.

“Security has been enhanced at sensitive [locations] in Udhampur district and along the Jammu-Srinagar highway.”

Dead cows

Friday’s attack occurred soon after Hindus in Udhampur and other districts in Jammu became enraged by the reported discovery there of the carcasses of three cows.

The attack also came a day after a Muslim lawmaker in the state assembly, Engineer Rashid, was allegedly ganged up on and punched by legislators from the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) during a legislative session. The BJP politicians accused Rashid of breaking the law by hosting a beef party at his official residence the night before, Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported.

Inter-religious tensions over beef have spilled over into violence elsewhere in India. The most serious incident to date took place near Dadri, a town in Uttar Pradesh state that lies less than 30 miles from the Indian  capital of New Delhi.

On Sept. 28, a Hindu mob reportedly lynched a 50-year-old Muslim man, Mohammad Akhlaq, after rumors circulated alleging that his family had eaten beef during the Islamic holiday of Eid-ul-Adha.

His 22-year-old son was also critically injured in the attack. It turned out that the family had marked the occasion by eating mutton, not beef, according to Indian news reports.

‘Undeniably on the rise’

Tensions surrounding beef consumption have increased since the BJP took the helm of India’s government in May 2014. Twenty-four of India’s 29 states have now banned the slaughter of cows and sales of beef.

This all has to do with an aversion toward beef shown by most members of India’s religious majority.

The majority of Hindus do not eat beef. In their faith, the cow is a sacred animal. They refer to her as ‘goamata,’ or cow mother, because she produces milk.

According to Indian historian Shyamal Sengupta, a Hindu grassroots movement to protect cows from slaughter dates back to the late 1800s. In 1893, major rioting between Hindus and Muslims broke out over the issue. The movement persisted after India became a nation. It resurfaced under the leadership of its first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and under his daughter Indira Gandhi, India’s first female prime minister.

"Cow slaughter and beef eating has remained one of the more contentious issues in India's socio-political scene. It evokes such emotions on both sides of the political divide that this one issue can polarize votes in a way that almost nothing else can. Since the BJP came to power, the politics of beef ban is undeniably on the rise," Sengupta told BenarNews.

However, such bans at the state level trouble Muslims and Christians, as well as lower-caste Hindus who rely on the relatively cheaper meat for their protein.

"Beef has always been a very contentious issue. However, under the current regime, the Muslim community in India has reasons to fear that the controversial meat will cause them further trouble, Abu Bakr Laskar, a left-wing Muslim political activist in West Bengal, told BenarNews.

“Beef is not often a choice, but a compulsion,” he added. “This is the only meat many poor can afford. So, those who do not have any religious reason to avoid it, consume beef. Why deny them the only animal protein they can afford?"

PM calls for unity

The beef controversy has also cropped up in state assembly elections in Bihar, which got underway Monday. The leader of the BJP in Bihar and the state’s former deputy chief minister, politician Sushil Modi has drawn flak for going on record to say that his party would push for a statewide ban on beef sales and cow slaughter should it come to power.

But in addressing a campaign rally in Nawada, Bihar, his powerful namesake, Prime Minister Narendra Modi publically spoke about the issue for the first time. He urged unity and calm among the nation’s Hindus and Muslims.

"Hindus should decide whether to fight Muslims or poverty. Muslims have to decide whether to fight Hindus or poverty. Both need to fight poverty together,” Indian news reports quoted the PM as saying on Thursday.

“The country has to stay united, only communal harmony and brotherhood will take the nation forward. People should ignore controversial statements made by politicians, as they are doing so for political gains," he added.


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