Trucker's death stirs controversy over beef

Clashes, curfew in Jammu and Kashmir after cow-slaughter rumours spark killing

A police officer trying to put out a fire started by Kashmiri Muslim protesters during demonstrations over a trucker’s death in Srinagar, Indian Kashmir, on Sunday.
A police officer trying to put out a fire started by Kashmiri Muslim protesters during demonstrations over a trucker’s death in Srinagar, Indian Kashmir, on Sunday. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

The state of Jammu and Kashmir was once again hit by a beef controversy as protests broke out over the death of a Muslim trucker attacked by a right-wing mob angered by rumours of cow slaughter.

It was the second such incident in India, the world's largest exporter of beef.

Consumption of beef and slaughtering of cows, which are banned in many states in India, have become a hot political issue and a source of communal tension over the last couple of months. Last month, a Muslim blacksmith was lynched to death by a Hindu mob in the state of Uttar Pradesh over false rumours that he had beef in his house.

Most Hindus consider the cow to be holy while many Muslims, Christians and poorer Hindus eat beef, a cheaper source of red meat.

Yesterday, the authorities imposed a curfew in Jammu and Kashmir. Schools and shops were shut in many parts of Muslim-dominated Kashmir Valley with separatist leaders put under house arrest.

In the district of Anantnag, protesters and security forces clashed during the funeral of 20-year-old Zahid Rasool Bhat, who died on Sunday in a Delhi hospital after battling severe burn injuries suffered in the mob attack on Oct 9. The attack took place in Udhampur in Hindu-dominated Jammu. A mob threw a petrol bomb into a coal-laden truck in which Mr Bhat was sitting, following reports that carcasses of two cows had been found nearby.

Mr Bhat just happened to be in the area at the time and forensic tests later revealed that the cows had died of poisoning.

A second person who was in the truck is battling for his life.

Udhampur Superintendent of Police Mohammad Suleman Choudhary said nine people have been arrested and there was heavy deployment of police in the area.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in the run-up to elections last year, had promised to protect the cow, regarded as holy by Hindus who make up 80 per cent of the population. Mr Modi, who is from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), also pledged to come up with a "legal framework to protect and promote the cow".

The BJP-ruled state of Maharashtra enforced a beef ban in March, while another BJP-ruled state, Haryana, tightened laws to make cow slaughter a non-bailable offence.

In the midst of all this, Hindu far-right groups have become increasingly emboldened, seeing an opportunity to shut down cow slaughter completely in India, which exported beef worth US$4.3 billion (S$6 billion) last year.

In Delhi yesterday , three men reportedly belonging to a right-wing Hindu organisation threw ink on Mr Engineer Rashid, an independent legislator from Jammu and Kashmir, who had thrown a beef party on Oct 7. He was addressing a press conference with relatives of the truck attack victims.

Reports in the Indian media said Mr Modi was "upset and distressed" over comments made by the BJP leaders, saying they were harming the party's image.

Critics have accused the government of igniting the beef controversy to polarise voters along religious lines and win votes in the ongoing elections in Bihar. Bihar is crucial for Mr Modi, who has staked his popularity on ensuring a win for the BJP.

"It has been the BJP's long-time agenda to consolidate Hindu votes. And it will help them to consolidate those elements which believe in these issues," said political analyst and member of the Uttar Pradesh Planning Commission Sudhir Panwar.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 20, 2015, with the headline 'Trucker's death stirs controversy over beef'. Subscribe