Home / Opinion / Columns /  The outrage against Bakra Eid slaughter is misleading

In July 2016, the late actor Irrfan Khan found himself in a soup upon questioning the intent behind animal slaughter during Bakra Eid. An examination of videos from the time shows that the actor was not unequivocally against the practice of animal sacrifice; it’s another matter that he had said he wasn’t fond of eating meat in unrelated interviews. His criticism, instead, was of the mockery of a ritual with a deeper spiritual origin and the meaninglessness it had acquired over time.

The legend of Ibrahim and his elder son Ishmael bears two messages for Muslims: that sacrifice means surrendering something dear in the way of the Almighty as a test of faith; ‘qurbani’ is not an object. Khan questioned the ritual practice of helpless animals bought and slaughtered, saying he was unable to see any semblance of sacrifice in this. Expectedly, clerics and custodians of the religion were rattled, and condemned Khan’s remarks, asking him to shut up and stick to films. As I recall, a few even debated him on news shows, patronisingly trying to teach him that the ritual held great significance for believers. Khan argued that blindly following a ritual, without imbibing its philosophy, was deeply flawed. His call for introspection was lapped up by prejudiced commentators. They mischievously appropriated the sincere criticisms of an “insider" to single out a community for its alleged savagery. Such attempts to pick on Muslims have multiplied in various spheres since then.

Evidence suggests that such narratives, including those on meat eating, are half-baked. The National Family Health Survey 2019-21 shows that 57% of Indian men consume fish, chicken or meat at least once a week. 53% Hindu men are at least weekly consumers, as compared to 80% Muslim and Christian and 74% Buddhist men. This is a matter of diet, not faith, for Indians.

During Bakra Eid, only ruminants and camelids are eligible for sacrifice. However, the combined share of buffalos, goats, sheep and cattle in annual meat production was lower than that of poultry, at 51% in 2019-20, according to data from the department of animal husbandry and dairying (DAHD). As for qurbani meat, only one-third is retained by the family, and the rest is given away to the poor and needy, relatives and friends, including non-Muslims. As is the case with mine, several Muslim families usually share an even larger proportion of meat.

Bakra Eid is celebrated over three days, its festive significance decreasing every day. I recall whenever the first day happened to be a Tuesday (when many Hindus abstain from eating meat), we would do the major cooking the next day, so our non-Muslim neighbours and friends, who far outnumber Muslim ones, could join the festivity.

Spurious debates on animal slaughter, which only surface during Muslim festivals, not only hide our community-wise trends on food preferences and celebratory practices, but also deceptively decouple the practice from its economics.

The meat industry in India is not only significant, but flourishing. The country was the world’s sixth largest meat producer in 2018, data from the Food and Agriculture Organization shows. Our production rose from 4.3 million tonnes in 2008-09 to 6.2 million tonnes in 2013-14. By 2019-20, this increased to 8.6 million tonnes, going by DAHD data. Livestock accounted for 5.2% of India’s total gross value added in 2019-20. Meat produce comprised roughly a quarter of livestock output.

Based on per capita availability of meat in 2019-20, the top five states were Telangana, Haryana, Andhra Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland. The Muslim population share in all these states is lower than India’s average of 14.2%. It’s as low as 2% in Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland and 7% in Haryana. Surely, Muslims alone aren’t consumers.

The practice, however, does merit scrutiny on two ethical grounds: animal cruelty and environmental cost. Let’s take the second one first. It’s true that emissions of greenhouse gases per kilogram for red meat products (beef, mutton or lamb) is far higher than for eggs, dairy, vegetables or cereals. Yet, per capita meat consumption in India is as low as one-fifteenth and one-tenth of that in the US and China, respectively. Further, India’s per capita protein supply is far lower than the world average. While Western markets must contain outsized emissions, we still need protein sources for overall nutrition.

The evocative images of blood-stained streets and hapless goats awaiting slaughter that do the rounds on social media on Bakra Eid are misleading. Not in terms of what they reveal, but what they conceal—the shabby conditions of slaughterhouses and battery cages. Most of them are unregulated, lack basic facilities like spacing, proper flooring, ventilation and hygiene standards, and are badly in need of regulation and upgrades. They not only cause grave discomfort to live animals, but also lead to unsafe disposal of waste generated by these units.

Muslims are not having it easy, be it hijab bans, Friday prayer disruptions, bulldozer politics or police brutality. Any call for introspection on a moral or spiritual plane, say, like Irrfan Khan’s, would be a hard sell in such times. It might even be an unfair ask.

Tauseef Shahidi is a senior assistant editor at Mint


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