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Are India's Hindu nationalists trying to start a beef? By banning beef?

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Altaf Qadri/AP/File

(Read caption) Student activists hold a placard during a protest denouncing the killing of a 52-year-old Muslim farmer Mohammad Akhlaq, in New Delhi, India. Government investigators have found the fatal mob attack of a Muslim man over rumors he slaughtered a cow was premeditated, and not a spontaneous act stemming from heightened emotion and religious devotion as many Hindu nationalist politicians have claimed.

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On Monday night in Delhi, 20 police officers showed up at Kerala House, a popular government restaurant that served “beef” on the menu, after receiving a call from a Hindu religious leader. Although no arrests were made, the story went viral – and became a warning for a country that is becoming increasingly religious.

Protests against the “raid” soon took place outside the restaurant in central Delhi, where protestors called out against what they saw as a larger problem in India: intolerance for non-Hindus.

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Cows have been considered sacred in Hinduism for centuries, when the cow became divinely associated with the Indian god Krishna. Despite this, beef dishes have been a popular treat in Indian restaurants spanning across the country – especially in parts of India that are home to other religions like Kerala's Christian population or Jammu & Kashmir’s Muslim population. In March this year, however, laws began to change.

In early March, beef was banned in Maharashtra, the country’s second largest state and home to India’s largest city of Mumbai. Restaurants were forced to remove any beef content from the menus, and offenders could be charged with up to five years in prison. The state government extended the ban to include bulls and oxen, causing an estimated 500,000 beef farmers to lose their jobs. A few weeks later, the state of Haryana followed suit and passed similar laws.

To date, beef is banned in 11 of India’s 29 states, including major cities like New Delhi and Mumbai. This isn’t a problem for a country that’s eighty percent Hindu, but for the 138 million Muslims and 24 million Christians, resentment towards the government is mounting, and, in some cases, leading to murder.

Earlier this month, a young Muslim man was beaten to death in a village outside Delhi for allegedly killing a cow. Protestors also beat his 75-year-old mother. In September, a mob in the north Indian city of Dadri dragged a man from his bed in the middle of the night and beat him to death with bricks for having eaten beef. And a few weeks ago, the Indian government banned beef in Kashmir during Eid - and then, to quell protests, they banned the Internet.

Much of the recent change can be attributed to India’s new Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, who swept into power under the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a pan-Hindu group that has, in the past, advocated a national ban on beef. The party has been accused of being aggressively “hard-line” when it comes to promoting Hinduism, and has passed a series of conservative measures to reclaim Hindu roots. In December 2013, for example, homosexuality was re-criminalized.

Still, protestors are pushing back against the BJP. Soon after police raided the Kerala House, owners of the restaurant promised to remove all buffalo meat from the menu – a favorite of Kerala’s government officials who often visit the government-run establishment. (Beef is not banned in Kerala, India’s southernmost state and home to a large Christian population.) 

But a few hours later, following a call from Kerala’s Chief Minister to Modi, Indian papers reported that beef fry will be back on the menu tomorrow.

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[Editor's note: An earlier version misstated the proximity of Haryana to Maharashtra.]