NEW DELHI • India's Supreme Court yesterday suspended a government ban on the trade of cattle for slaughter, a boost for the multibillion-dollar beef and leather industries mostly run by members of the Muslim minority.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist government in May decreed that markets could trade cattle only for agricultural purposes, such as ploughing and dairy production, on the grounds of stopping cruelty to animals.
The slaughter of cows, which are considered holy in Hinduism, was already banned in most parts of India, but Hindu hardliners and cow vigilante groups have been increasingly asserting themselves since Mr Modi's government came to power in 2014.
Muslims, who make up 14 per cent of India's 1.3 billion people, said the May government decree against the beef and leather industry was aimed at marginalising them. The industry employs millions of workers.
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The Supreme Court, in issuing its decision, stressed the hardship that the ban on the trade of cattle for slaughter had imposed.
"The livelihood of people should not be affected by this," Supreme Court Chief Justice Jagdish Singh Khehar told a court packed with lawyers and representatives of the beef industry.
India's meat and leather industries are worth more than US$16 billion (S$22 billion) in annual sales.
After the decision, the government told the court it would modify and reissue its May order, Additional Solicitor-General P.S. Narasimha said.
The government could exclude buffalo from the ban - buffalo are not considered sacred - and buffalo meat constitutes the bulk of India's "beef" exports.
The crackdown on the beef industry has become highly emotive, with a wave of attacks on Muslims suspected of either storing meat or transporting cattle for slaughter. About 28 people have been killed in cow-related violence since 2010.
Mr Abdul Faheem Qureshi, the head of the Muslim All India Jamiatul Quresh Action Committee that supports meat sellers, welcomed the court decision. "We have to now restore the confidence of cattle traders that they can resume their business. It's a victory for us," said Mr Faheem Qureshi, who had lodged a petition with the Supreme Court against the government ban.
The Supreme Court order was also a boost for the leather industry, which supplies brands such as Inditex-owned Zara and Clarks.
"The order has brought huge relief," said Mr Puran Dawar, chairman of Agra-based shoe exporter Dawar Footwear Industries.
Besides Muslims, the leather industry also employs lower-caste Hindus, mostly in jobs in tanneries.
But a cow protection group said the government should have been more forceful in making its case in court. "The government should have stood its ground by fighting for the implementation of the ban," said Mr Pawan Pandit, chairman of the India Cow Protection Group.
"Modi must respect the sentiments of millions of Hindus, who have supported his government," he added.