As Hindu politicians campaign to ban beef throughout India, critics blast the move as food fundamentalism, unfair on the diverse nation’s Muslim, Christian and Dalit populations, reports Amrit Dhillon.

It’s early morning and Radha Kant Vats is stroking the neck of one of the 140 residents of his “cow shelter”, a retirement home for elderly bovines. Against a backdrop of noisy evacuation, he explains why he reveres the animal.

“The cow is the most useful animal in the world. It gives us milk, its dung can be used as fuel, its urine has disinfecting properties, when it dies we can use every part of her body. It’s a mother in the way it nurtures us all.”

As he walks around the shelter, in Geeta Colony, in east Delhi, feeding some, touching the heads of others as though blessing them, Vats, an ayurvedic doctor, laments, “Indians are no longer drinking enough cow milk. This is ruining our mental and physical health, [disrupting] our haemoglobin levels, giving us autoimmune diseases and causing road rage, divorce, diabetes and rape. But …,” he shakes his head sadly, “the elite don’t understand this.”

Vats is surrounded by young men who hang on his every word. When they hear of a cow being taken to slaughter (a practice that is banned in the Indian capital), they give chase on scooters and, if they manage to catch the vehicle being used, they drag the driver and other culprits to the police station and bring the rescued beast to the shelter.

Radha Kant Vats at the cow shelter he runs in Geeta Colony, Delhi.

Throughout the day, residents of Geeta Colony, a noisy, crowded, scruffy neighbourhood, pop into the shelter with food scraps, making a point of feeding some of the cows themselves. It’s a gesture of affection and Vats watches approvingly.

“I’ve been taught from childhood that the cow has a special status, so I bring some leftovers every morning on my way to the metro station,” says 24-year-old com-puter engineer Akash Gupta, as he pats the animal he has just fed.

Not all Hindus drop by at cow shelters regularly. Not all believe, as Vats does, that bunkers made of cow dung can provide effective protection against nuclear radiation. Nor do all believe, as do many faddish Hindus dotted all over small-town India, that drinking cow urine can cure cancer. And while their religion’s teachers and scriptures encourage it, not all Hindus are vegetarian. However, what is almost universal among the Hindus of India is a basic respect and affection for the cow, born of culture and religion.

The cow, always a volatile symbol in Indian politics, is now at the centre of a major controversy. The federal government, run by the right-wing Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has floated the idea of imposing a nationwide ban on the slaughter of cows and the eating of beef. Home Minister Rajnath Singh said recently that “cow slaughter cannot be accepted in this country” and that his government would “try its level best” to introduce a national ban.

The idea isn’t new. Beef and the killing of cows are now banned in 20 of India’s 29 states. In March, Haryana and Maharashtra became the latest states to ban beef, making it illegal to sell or be in possession of the meat. Unusually draconian punishments have been introduced for violations: up to five years in prison in Maharashtra and up to 10 years in Haryana.

The ban is controversial because many among the 1.28 billion-strong Indian population do eat beef: 160 million low-caste dalits (formerly known as “untouchables”), 180 million Muslims, 25 million Christians, the 40 million residents of the northeast, and the Hindus scattered across the nation who do not deny themselves the luxury.

That last group covers Kerala, in southern India, where most of the population, including high-caste Hindus, eat beef.

“A friend recently came back to Delhi from Kerala and brought me good quality beef, the kind you can’t get in Delhi, where you only get buffalo meat,” says author and freelance journalist Binoo John, who lives in Mayur Vihar, a salubrious suburb not far from Vats’ shelter. “We had a nice beef fry [cubed meat cooked with coconut milk and spices: a Kerala speciality] over Easter.”

As a Christian, the meat is not prohibited for John but millions of Hindus in Kerala also eat beef fry, because it’s become a habit, one that’s abhorrent to Hindus in northern India.

Before politicians started to polarise and divide Indians in order to win votes from certain communities, this state of affairs was largely been ignored and an each-to-his-own attitude prevailed. But the country is in the midst of a culture war; at stake is the very idea of India.

On one side are those who want India to be a secular nation, with great diversity of cultures and religions, where people live peacefully while pursuing different beliefs and lifestyles. On the other are those who insist India must be an overtly Hindu nation, with a predominantly Hindi character, where Hindu sentiments – such as those concerning the cow – must take precedence over the preferences of the minorities.

“For years the BJP has promoted the idea that the minorities have been appeased and Hindus neglected by secular governments,” says Seema Mustafa, political analyst and head of the Centre for Policy Analysis, in New Delhi. “Now that the BJP is in power, it wants to ‘correct’ this imbalance through its cultural agenda.”

It has always been part of the BJP’s agenda to assert Hindu cultural hegemony but it has previously had to rule through a coalition with other parties. Since last May’s general election, however, the party has enjoyed a handsome majority, and it is led by the dominating personality of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

“This is our time to assert Hindu rights and no one can stop us,” says Jitendra Singh, a burly air-conditioner repairman with dark stubble and one of Vats’ acolytes. “Our sentiments must be respected.”

The idea of a nationwide ban arouses disturbing images of Indians reporting neighbours after having rifled through their dustbins at night, perhaps to settle scores; of “vegetarian terrorism”; and of policemen, acting on tip-offs, barging into homes and raiding the fridge, as it were.

Yet many devout Hindus would not subscribe to the more extremist views.

Krishna Gupta is 85 and has been a strict vegetarian all her life. Dressed in a crepe silk sari at her elegant Greater Kailash, south Delhi home, Gupta is preparing palak paneer (spinach and cottage cheese) and stuffed capsicum (the filling being mashed potato flavoured with spices) for dinner.

“When I was growing up, it was out of the question to eat meat or kill a cow,” she says. “I remember the maid used to drink a few drops of cow urine every day because she believed it gave her good health.”

But Gupta would not support a ban on beef, not just because her son and grandson are devoted carnivores but because she respects cultural differences.

“I have never eaten meat but how can I tell others, with different beliefs, not to? People should be allowed to do what they wish when it comes to food,” says Gupta.

I have never eaten meat but how can I tell others, with different beliefs, not to?

Her point has been echoed by many. If the government imposed a blanket ban on beef, could Indian Muslims demand a ban on pork and alcohol, which are abhorrent to them? If every religious group in India were allowed to impose its food diktats on others (including the Jains, who would want even root vegetables banned because, in pulling them out of the earth, insects could be killed), Indians might be left eating … cake.

A nationwide ban on beef would be especially unfair to dalits.

For centuries, ruthless subjugation and exploitation by the upper castes have kept them in such poverty that they have been unable to afford most sources of protein. Chicken, fish and mutton are often far too expensive. Beef, though, precisely because it has been shunned by the upper castes, is cheap. Even today it is half the price of chicken or mutton. Out of necessity, therefore, beef has become an integral part of the dalit diet.

Having forced dalits to eat beef and then despised them for doing so, now the upper castes in the BJP and the establishment want to take the meat off their plates. The irony seems lost on the self-obsessed Brahminical elite.

“How can you impose a food dictatorship?” asks dalit writer and columnist Chandra Bhan Prasad. “You see, for thousands of years, the upper castes have controlled the food habits of dalits and consequently this urge to dictate food habits is in their central nervous system. They consider it their privilege and their right.”

In fact, cow products used to form part of the ritualistic humiliation of dalits. Bindeshwar Pathak, a Brahmin who runs Sulabh International, an NGO which builds toilets in rural India, recalls his grandmother’s horror when, as a little boy, he innocently touched the sari of a dalit woman who had come to clean their home.

“I had been polluted so I had to be purified. My grandmother made the panchagavya, [a mix] of curd, milk, ghee [clarified butter] and cow’s urine and dung and said I had to drink it,” he says.

As the upper-caste establishment has tried to impose vegetarianism in many public and educational institutions, some dalit groups have hit back. They have held beef festivals on campuses, cooking beef curries outdoors in the hope the aroma will assail the delicate olfactory senses of Brahmin students and reinforce the point: dalits enjoy beef and will continue to eat what their heritage and history have bequeathed to them.

“This is a cultural imposition, an attempt to destroy the food culture of Muslims, Christians and dalits,” says Kancha Ilaiah, academic, dalit-rights activist and author of the book Why I Am Not a Hindu. “Democracy is about choice but they want to take that away.”

Ask Vats what dalits should eat if beef is outlawed and the reply is: “Fruit and nuts give you all the protein you need.”

This is an attempt to destroy the food culture of Muslims, Christians and dalits

Walnuts cost 2,000 rupees (HK$240) per kilo. Fruit is unaffordable even for many middle-class families, let alone dalits. A diet of fruit and nuts is what the ascetic and frugal Mahatma Gandhi used to follow but, as Sarojini Naidu, one of Gandhi’s political colleagues, tartly observed at the time: “It costs a lot to keep him in poverty.”

Gandhi, incidentally, was devoted to the cow, and said, “The central fact of Hinduism is cow protection,” and, “I worship it and I shall defend its worship against the whole world.” Dalits have always taken issue with Gandhi for not having been more forceful in dismantling the caste system and many continue to oppose his views on the cow.

The belief harboured by many vegetarian Hindus that eating meat is demonic and generates violent tendencies is, for Prasad, a pathology.

“If eating vegetables makes you gentle and compassionate, then why have Brahmins been so inhuman and violent towards dalits?” he asks.

What’s being called “food fascism” has been on the rise for some years in Mumbai, India’s commercial capital and a city whose reputation for cosmopolitanism has been somewhat dented by Hindu fundamentalist groups. Some apartment blocks predominantly occupied by upper-caste Hindus have enforced an informal ban on Muslim tenants, ostensibly because the latter eat meat. Hindu tenants say the odour of meat being cooked is repugnant and that their sensibilities are offended if the smell wafts up to them from a neighbour’s open window.

The debate on food fundamentalism has raised interesting questions. How can democracy allow freedom of expression but not the freedom to eat what you wish? Why has the buffalo, which also gives milk, not acquired the same privileged status as the cow?

“The poor buffalo, by being a black animal, has never acquired divine status,” writes Ilaiah in his book Post-Hindu India, hinting at racial prejudice.

Another problem with the proposed nationwide beef ban concerns mature cattle. If farmers are stopped from selling their aged cows for slaughter, what will they do with the animals? Once a cow stops producing milk, will the government expect its (perhaps impoverished) owner to forgo the money he’d get from a slaughterhouse and keep feeding the animal until it dies of natural causes?

There is, of course, another option. But Indian towns are already overrun by stray cattle, let loose by owners who prefer to let them forage in rubbish dumps rather than feed them. Experts predict their numbers could swell by 200,000 in Maharashtra alone, as farmers abandon animals they can’t sell.

When the Haryana and Maharashtra governments banned beef, no minister said anything about setting up funds to feed, keep and clean the cows that are saved from slaughter.

“It takes seven to eight men to lift an infirm cow. How will a farmer manage?” says Prasad. “It’s hard enough to look after one’s elderly parents, particularly if you are poor, much less care for elderly cattle, too.”

Since no BJP politician or right-wing Hindu group has addressed the issue of who will look after elderly or sick cows (apart from saying they will build more shelters, turning India into a gigantic cowshed), the question of motivation cannot be avoided. Is a genuine regard for the animal behind the demand for a nationwide beef ban or is it a way of appealing to Hindu voters by characterising Muslims and Christians as cow killers?

Furthermore, if the cow were genuinely loved, why do Indian vets so commonly find the intestines of starved cows clogged with plastic bags. BJP Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar said recently, while talking about the need for an anti-plastic bag drive, that 30 kilos of plastic can be found inside the stomach of every cow that dies in India.

Is the Indian cow to be saved from slaughter only to be allowed to starve slowly at the traffic lights?