The beef scourge for Dalits

In an interview with Scroll, Kancha Ilaiah unpacks the unsaid regarding the recent beef bans. The fact that the livelihood of dalits is dependent on the labour connected with cows and leather, and that beef is the cheapest available form of protein for them is, as always, made unseen.

Which is perhaps why privileged-caste Hindus, vegetarian or not, are united in abhorring the consumption of cow’s meat. Myths around holy bovinity have many convenient uses. (However, there is still a day to go for you to send us your entries for The Navayana Prize for Best Beef Recipes.)


“Ambedkar said the Dalits had to be respected along with their cultural roots. He said, you can’t ask them to give up their culture of food, their culture of leather technology.”

Do you think a ban on beef is a cultural imposition on certain sections of Hindus, Muslims and Christians?

It is definitely a cultural imposition, more particularly on indigenous groups—tribals and Dalits. The question of cultural imposition on Muslims and Christians comes later.

Why do you say that?


Historically, all Indian masses, including the Brahmins, used to eat beef, both in what is called the Vedic and the post-Vedic period. Gautam Buddha rebelled against this tradition because during his time there was a huge consumption of beef by the priestly class. Buddha asked people not to kill cows for sacrifice, not to kill beyond what they needed for consumption. From that stage to the modern period, most of the untouchables, for instance, the Dalits in south India, sustained themselves on beef in summer, when there used to be massive food scarcity. They would eat even dead or diseased cattle.

In my own village, when I was a child, there were about 70 to 80 Dalit families. I remember they used to have full-stomach food in summer only when they were given cattle either sick or dead. They never received rice, millet or any regular food. This situation continues even now.

As for Muslims, meat has been a historical and religiously accepted food. Again, all Muslims were and are not as poverty-stricken as Dalits were. They have other food resources.

Will the cattle slaughter go underground?

Illicit consumption will take place, particularly among Dalits and tribals, because they don’t live in the vicinity of law-enforcing agencies. But the consumption of beef by Muslims will be curtailed. This is because the Muslim community is urbanised and is not as widely dispersed as other social groups. Apart from a reduction in consumption, the ban in the city of Mumbai will adversely affect traders who became rich because of beef, bone and leather exports.

What do you think about the quantum of punishment—a person violating the ban can get five years of imprisonment in Maharashtra and 10 years in Haryana?


The problem is that the central government can’t make a law because agriculture is a state subject. It says it will make a model law and circulate it among the states. This is a very dangerous development as it tacitly encourages states to ban cow slaughter.

As for the quantum of punishment, I think cattle seem to enjoy greater privileges than some sections of society. There should have been protests—Muslims and Christians should have come out on the streets. For one reason or another, Muslims are scared. Mayawati and other Dalit leaders should join hands with Muslims and Christians to oppose this dangerous move of the state to determine people’s food habits and challenge their cultural roots and their right to choose.

Read the full interview here


  • H. D. Khobragade says:

    2500 years ago there was a custom of sacrificing animals on festival days and on certain other occasions. There were many people who liked to kill animals. It was the age when hunting for sport was not only considered manly but also a status symbol. As many as five hundred heifers, five hundred bulls, five hundred steers, five hundred goats were brought to post of sacrifice for Brahman Uggatasarira in Sāvatthī.

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