In 2015, BJP leader and Union minister Kiren Rijiju had famously rebuked a party colleague for suggesting that those who eat beef should go to Pakistan. “I eat beef, I’m from Arunachal Pradesh…can somebody stop me?” Rijiju had said in response to Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi’s comments. Four years later, India’s Northeast is running short of beef. Not because of the ruling BJP’s clampdown on cow slaughter, like in the rest of the country, but due to rampant smuggling of cattle to Bangladesh.
Beef is a staple—kosher as well despite the raging debate over it—in the Northeast, especially in the Christian-majority Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland. In Arunachal Pradesh too, beef is consumed by almost all the tribal communities, besides the large Muslim population in Assam. An estimated 70 per cent of the beef comes from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan and Gujarat to the Northeast. The rest is sourced locally. The eight NE states need more than 1.5 lakh kg of beef a day.
Beef has not yet assumed religious connotations in the region, though Assam and Tripura—two Hindu-majority states—have seen attacks by right-wing groups on suspected cattle traders and beef-sellers. Even Manipur chief minister N. Biren Singh of the BJP has said his government had no intention of banning beef in the state, where the majority community, Meiteis, are devout Vaishnavite Hindus.
Traders say despite the demand in the region, illegal trade to Bangladesh is on the rise as the smugglers earn a better price—almost double—in the neighbouring country. “It’s getting very difficult. We are getting infirm, ill, and old cattle from suppliers in Bihar and UP. The young and healthy livestock is getting smuggled into Bangladesh via Assam,” says Arun Lyngdoh, president of the All India Livestock Traders and Transporters Association. Assam shares a 262-km border with Bangladesh, a considerable portion of which is riverine and porous.
A major reason for the recent crisis, traders say, is the Assam government’s failure to streamline the legal cattle business. “We want the illegal smuggling of cattle through the Indo-Bangladesh border to be curbed but at the same time, the Assam government should take steps to ensure that legal transportation of cattle is not hampered,” says Lyngdoh.
Recently, the Assam government put a temporary ban on cattle transportation from UP and Bihar as a step towards curbing smuggling to Bangladesh. The move has aggravated the region’s beef shortage.
Munna Saikia, the general secretary of the traders’ association, says that the cattle smuggling syndicate even lures the local cattle traders to boost their business. “This is happening because of the lack of awareness among the people and the traders. The government too has failed to create awareness. As a result, the illegal syndicate is running a multi-crore-rupee business and those doing legal trade are in the red. The consumers are victims of this nexus. They are not getting no meat. The government is losing revenue,” Saikia says.
“We support the government’s initiative to stop illegal transportation...But at the same time we demand that legal business shouldn’t be stopped,” he pleads. The association has sought legalisation of cattle trade with Bangladesh to ensure revenue in taxes and levies to the government exchequer.
Last month, Assam Police arrested the alleged lynchpin of the racket, Mohammed Sharfaraz, in Gopalganj district of Bihar. Director general of police Kuladhar Saikia says all the districts have been put on alert and special teams have been formed to combat smuggling of cattle to Bangladesh. Guwahati commissioner of police, Deepak Kumar, says Sharfaraz used to be the main man behind this racket. “Police are working to nab the other culprits who have been running the smuggling syndicate,” Kumar says.
The Sangh Parivar too says the government must take strict action to end the cattle smuggling across the border as it is a question of faith. “I think the smuggling has reduced a lot after the BJP government came to power. I would like appeal to the government to bring a complete closure on this. The public vigilance is also important here. No illegal activity should be allowed,” says the RSS’s Samparka Pramukh, Ranjeev Kumar Sharma
On the issue of beef consumption, Sharma says that as the Hindus worship the cow, it’s against their principle to eat the animal’s meat. “In Assam we perform Goru Bihu (dedicated to cattle). Hence, there is no question of killing a cow. We oppose cow slaughter. And everyone must respect it. But at the same time, we are against lynching and attacking someone who eats beef,” he asserts.
By Abdul Gani in Guwahati