KARACHI, Pakistan — Like many men of his generation, my grandfather had a simple answer for a question that India and Pakistan have been asking themselves since independence: Why did we have to separate? He used to say that Muslims and Hindus couldn’t live together because of a fundamental difference over what was cooking in their kitchens. Hindus worship their cows. We eat ours. How could these two people live together?
Of course, grandfather conveniently ignored the fact that more Muslims live in India than in Pakistan, that millions of Hindus eat cow and that many Hindus who worship cow and don’t eat it are fine raising it to sell to people who do eat it. But 70 years after partition, India seems to be taking my grandfather’s theory very seriously.
The Bharatiya Janata Party government in the Indian state of Gujarat has just passed a law imposing life imprisonment for anyone who slaughters a cow, and 10 years in jail for anyone who drives a cow to slaughter.
Elsewhere, self-appointed cow protectors are dishing out their own justice. People are being lynched by mobs over rumors that they keep beef in their fridges. Just this week, vigilantes in Rajasthan beat a Muslim man to death for transporting cattle.
In Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state, thousands of people could lose their jobs because of a government campaign against slaughterhouses and meat shops, which the authorities consider illegal. For a time, the tigers and lions of Lucknow Zoo were being fed only chicken and mutton.
What we eat and don’t eat forms the basis of many of our prejudices, and many of our hypocrisies. Many Muslims believe that drinking alcohol is a sin, but around the world you’ll find Muslim men heading into the night in search of halal food while drunk. Muslims can break every imaginable Shariah law and still be offended if someone offers them a ham sandwich.
Eating meat isn’t just a matter of faith; it’s also the subject of historical myths.
There has been an influx of Chinese workers in Pakistan over the last year, and that’s brought with it a predictable joke: Don’t let your dogs out because the Chinese love dog meat. Every year, despite the outrage of conservationists and court orders upholding their concerns, the Pakistani government makes sure its rich guests from the Persian Gulf and the Middle East can hunt and devour the endangered houbara bustards, whose precious meat they believe is the best aphrodisiac in the world. In late March, a mob thrashed Nigerian students in the suburbs of New Delhi claiming that Nigerians have a taste for human flesh.
In the popular imagination in Pakistan, Muslims, who have always been a minority in what is now India, managed to rule the area for hundreds of years because their meat diet made them stronger. How could lentil eaters stand up to warriors fed on kebabs?
This, to others, is anathema. I can only imagine the offense taken by people born into a faith that considers the cow sacred: Picture your holy mother minced and marinated and barbecued over coals.
But we’ve also all known for ages that what’s sacred for one person is sustenance for another, that my filth is your delicacy. And then there’s politics. The same Bharatiya Janata Party that is supervising cow vigilantism in one part of India promises potential voters in the northeast that they will be able to continue enjoying their beef.
On the other side of the border, in Pakistan, is a country that was created partly so that we could enjoy beef without being attacked by cow worshipers. But for many Pakistanis meat remains a treat. They only get to eat it once a year: for the holiday Eidul Azha, when we slaughter goats and cows and camels, and distribute part of the flesh to the poor. Before the industrial production of chicken, poultry was such a delicacy that, or so it was said, a poor man would eat chicken only if the chicken was sick or the poor man was sick and told by the doctor to eat it.
For millions of people today meat is still a luxury because it’s a livelihood. In the rural communities of India and Pakistan, cattle are one of the poor’s only tangible assets. People pay for their children’s education by raising a couple of water buffaloes or cows and selling the milk, and then, when the animals’ life cycle approaches an end, selling them to a butcher. Cattle are like a savings account.
Yet in the name of faith, or for lack of it, some of us convince ourselves that the cow, with its soulful eyes, has nothing to do with the skewers on our plates. I happen to have grown up with water buffaloes and still think people who eat them are barbarians. But I am fine eating bits of beef when they’re well-done.
Maybe the world would be a better place if cows ate humans. At least they wouldn’t invoke divine sanction or cultural taboos before having us for lunch. They’d just say: We’re hungry.
Mohammed Hanif is the author of the novels “A Case of Exploding Mangoes” and “Our Lady of Alice Bhatti,” and the librettist for the opera “Bhutto.”