February 24, 2015 / 9:14 PM / 2 years ago

Friction over India's beef trade heats up after attacks

Rescued cattle are seen at a "goushala", or cow shelter, run by Bharatiya Gou Rakshan Parishad, an arm of the Hindu nationalist group Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), at Aangaon village in the western Indian state of Maharashtra February 20, 2015.Shailesh Andrade

MUMBAI (Reuters) - Hindu nationalists in India have stepped up attacks on the country's beef industry, seizing trucks with cattle bound for abattoirs and blockading meat processing plants in a bid to halt the trade in the world's second-biggest exporter.

The industry is predominantly run by Muslim traders, but some groups in the majority Hindu population vehemently oppose it due to the revered status of cows and beef traders are concerned elements in the party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi may be condoning the latest flare-up in protests.

There has been a surge of raids this month. An official at a beef transport group in Maharashtra state said around 10 vehicles traveling to Mumbai had been stopped, the animals taken forcefully and drivers beaten by members of Hindu nationalist groups despite carrying valid documents.

"We are doing everything legally, but these people harass us and disrupt our work for no reason," said Mohammad Shahid Sheikh, president of the beef transporters' group in Deonar, the site of India's biggest abattoir on the outskirts of Mumbai.

A majority of India's beef comes from buffaloes, which are not worshipped, but members of Hindu nationalist groups involved in protests such as Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) consider themselves protectors of both cows and buffaloes.

Some of these groups have close links with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of Prime Minister Modi, who himself criticized the previous government for promoting a "pink revolution to butcher cattle and export meat" when campaigning last April.

The BJP's national general secretary, Ram Madhav, declined to comment on the party's stance on the beef trade and the protests, while Modi's press officer did not respond to calls and a text message seeking comment.

Satpal Malik, a vice president of the farmers wing of the BJP, said: "We did say we would discourage beef exports and even the prime minister was against it, but I can't comment on what we think of the issue now."

CRACKDOWN?

Officials in Maharashtra – scene of some of the most violent protests seen to date – have pledged to arrest anyone found impeding access to slaughterhouses or disrupting cattle movement.

A circular had been sent to all the police units to enforce this and was due to be implemented immediately, said a senior police officer from Maharashtra, declining to be named.

Mohammad Ali Qureshi, president of the Bombay Suburban Beef Dealers Association, said that while beef processing has resumed at many facilities, he would back calls for a nationwide protest if fresh protests break out.

"We will monitor the situation for a month and if the promises are not kept we will launch a nation-wide protest," he said, in between sipping tea as butchers went about their job in Deonar.

But those opposed to the trade vowed to keep staging protests. Killing cows is legal in just two of India's 29 states, though reports of illegal slaughter surface regularly.

"We don't care if the butchers shut shop or announce a strike," said Laxmi Narayan Chandak, head of the Maharashtra unit of VHP's cow protection committee, which says it has been seizing cows held illegally for slaughter for years.

"The previous government supported the butchers to secure votes of the minority community but they have no support in the new government."

India is the world's top beef exporter after Brazil, cornering a fifth of the market. Its outbound shipments 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.

Additional reporting by Rupam Jain Nair and Krishna N. Das; Writing by Krishna N. Das; Editing by Gavin Maguire and Ed Davies

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