President Pranab Mukherjee has given his ascent to a law that bans sale and possession of beef in Maharashtra, 19 years after the legislation was passed by the Shiv Sena-BJP government in the state in 1996.

Maharashtra joins many other states where cow slaughter is banned.

Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan, Punjab, Odisha, Puducherry, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Jammu & Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Gujarat, Delhi, Bihar and Andhra Pradesh all have bans on cow slaughter. The implementation of the law differs from state to state depending on the political climate.

Daman & Diu and Goa permit slaughter of those cows which are old or sick, or for medical purposes. Other states such as West Bengal allow slaughter of all cattle but require a ‘fit for slaughter’ certificate.

Bulls and bullocks, and buffaloes are permitted to be sold and eaten in most states even where cow slaughter is banned. But some states—Rajasthan, Punjab, J&K and Himachal Pradesh—have more stringent laws that ban the slaughter of all cattle.

On the opposite end are states such as Kerala, Manipur, Mizoram, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, and Nagaland, that allow slaughter of all cattle, and do not require any certificate. They are in a minority.

There is no national law banning the sale or consumption of beef. None of the state laws explicitly ban beef eating either. But the laws make it very difficult for restaurants to legally source or serve beef to customers.

This legal framework derives from the fact that the cow is revered by the majority Hindu population. Mahatma Gandhi, the father of the nation, was against cow slaughter, and blamed the British for it.

There is an inevitable religious subtext to such bans because the beef industry is principally run by Muslims, who are also among the biggest consumers of the meat.

Hindu nationalist groups have attacked trucks with cattle bound for the slaughterhouse, and seized them. They have also staged blockades of meat processing plants.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi had criticised the Congress government in his election campaign for promoting export of beef.

Despite this, India remains the world’s second-largest producer of beef (after Brazil) but most of that is buffalo meat.

Bans on cow slaughter have fuelled an underground business where cows are illegally transported long distances to states where slaughter is legal. Some even land up in Bangladesh. Also, there are about 30,000 illegal and unlicensed slaughterhouses in India, where basic practices for slaughter or hygiene are not followed, and meat of diseased animals can find their way to restaurants.

Over a quarter of India’s population is scheduled tribes and scheduled castes who consume beef. It is also consumed across all sections of society in states where cow slaughter is legal. “Beef is one of the most affordable sources of protein for the Dalit community,” said Mohan Dharavath, President, Dalit Adivasi Bahujan and Minority Students’ Association, in this interview. 

Last week, around ten vehicles travelling to Mumbai with valid papers were stopped and the animals captured forcefully by Hindu nationalist groups. Drivers were beaten up, even though had not broken any laws.

This year has seen beef exports rising much faster than in 2013-14. India’s beef shipments in the last year to October rose to 1.95 million tonnes, 5 percent more than for the whole of 2013, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, due to higher demand from China and other beef-consuming countries.