In 2019, India came in at No.2 among the top 5 nations exporting Halal food to Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) countries. By exporting a meaty US$14.4 billion worth of halal meat and halal foods that year, the country’s food sector has laid the foundation to increase its share of the global halal market, which Techanavio, a market research company, has projected will grow to USD 388.11 billion by 2025. Indeed, Indian companies are scrambling to get their products ‘halal certified’ regardless of whether it is meat or cosmetics or toothpaste.
Parallel to this growth in halal certification, though, a peculiar economic boycott and bullying of India’s minority Muslims is taking place. For starters, let us understand that India has the third-largest Muslim population in the world - totaling 209 million (14.2 percent of the national population). Over 47 percent of India’s Muslims are concentrated in the states of Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, and Bihar. Naturally, the demand for halal meat is higher in these states and the slaughterhouse aspect and sale of the meat trade is naturally dominated by Muslims. But ancillary industries such as rearing livestock, sale and use of horns, hooves, bone and hair for making buttons and handicrafts and transportation of animals and meat – attracts other communities too.
In India, halal is a religious attestation. The government neither mandates halal certification, nor does it provide a unifying regulatory law. The Food Safety and Standard Authority of India’s (FSSAI) standard certification is the requirement for consumer edible products. Meat dealers and exporters seek halal certification from the many globally recognized Halal certification bodies including The Halal Council of India, Halal India Private Limited, Halal Certification Services India Private Limited, Jamiat Ulama-E-Maharashtra, to endorse their halal compliance. Non-Muslims did not find anything wrong with the practice before 2014 when the Hindu right wing BJP swept into power.
The first discriminatory blow fell as far back as April 2017, when two months after assuming office, the chief minister, the saffron-clad monk-politician Adityanath, of one of India’s largest states, Uttar Pradesh (UP), ordered a state-wide closure of mechanized abattoirs, including government-run facilities, and “unauthorized” meat shops. It was his fulfilment of an election manifesto promise, a move met with protests and anxiety for thousands of families who made a living selling meat or processing animal bones and other by-products. It was also a fact that the worst affected were the state’s Muslims, who controlled the meat industry.
Undoubtedly the UP government’s sweeping measures were spurred by many years of careless (non) supervision which had led to a sprawling “informal meat industry” which lacked hygiene and pollution control standards in what was India’s largest meat producing state. However, what hurt the industry most was the lack of an alternative modern infrastructure despite the High Court in the State passing an order to the State Government to make provisions and build modern slaughterhouses and abattoirs for the meat industry.
In much of India, government-run meat slaughterhouses have supported small-time dealers by professionally slaughtering animals for a fee. The advantages went beyond the traditionally low cost because unlike the present private company-run abattoirs, the livestock owner got to keep the whole animal, including internal organs, offal and also bones, horns, fat and hair which were all sold to make up the profit. Despite five years having passed since the so-called “upgrade” of the meat industry in UP, the infrastructure remains woefully inadequate, especially in small towns and rural areas.
The fact is the halal industry – whether food or cosmetics or anything else – is a convenient whipping post for India’s right-wing politicians who have little understanding of what it means. Their actions are confused by the competing need for the big profits in the global halal industry and the TRP-fueled visuals that hate politics generates when halal meat shops are attacked. For instance, in 2019, India’s Minister of Commerce, Piyush Goyal had requested Indonesia to allow export of halal meat (specifically Indian origin halal buffalo meat) from India without quotas and restrictions. On January 5, 2020, India’s Ministry of Commerce and Industry (MOCI)/Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority, the Indian authority responsible for promoting farm product exports, removed the word ‘halal’ from its Red Meat Manual stating that “the animals are slaughtered according to the requirement of the importing country.”
The move was trumpeted as a “welcome” effort to make the meat trade more inclusive for non-Muslims. However, insiders say the move is cosmetic and will hardly impact India’s flourishing halal meat trade especially to Islamic countries. Contrary to what is being projected, halal meat, food and cosmetics manufacturers are hardly going to jeopardize their profits by throwing painstaking halal arrangements out of the window. Indian exporters still have to meet rigorous halal certification export to countries with mandatory halal import requirements.
Buffalo meat, for instance, is India’s second biggest food export after Basmati rice and is exported mainly to the Islamic nations of Malaysia, Egypt, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and UAE. Closely following these countries are the non-Islamic countries of Vietnam, Hong Kong, Myanmar, Philippines and China. These countries too prefer to trade in halal-certified meat.
Market sources indicate that with Indonesia and Malaysia, two key export markets restricting their food and cosmetic product imports from India to only halal certified ones, Indian industry is being spurred to obtain halal certification to open and maintain access to key Muslim country markets. Given that the whole chain of slaughter, preparation, processing and packaging has to be certified ‘halal’, most businesses find it cumbersome and uneconomical to have a halal and a non-halal operation and prefer to invest in halal processes regardless of whether the importing country is Muslim or not. Individual halal certification agencies are approved directly by the respective importing countries and no Indian government agency plays a role in issuing halal certificates.
Objection to halal meat is confusing – claims range from lack of hygiene, animal cruelty in the slaughtering process to the more bizarre explanation that the different bodies officially certifying halal items are using the fees to foment anti-Hindu activities in India.
Until recently, the Southern states stayed out of the controversy. However, seeing the potential for quick populism, many small-time streetside politicians with aspirations to bigger roles, have mobilized around issues that clearly bait Muslims. In Karnataka, a state in South India which has an ancient Islamic heritage and more recently, a cosmopolitan global reputation as India’s Silicon Valley (Bengaluru), the Hindu right-wing BJP government in power banned Muslim girls from wearing the hijab to educational institutions, declaring that it was not mandated in the Koran and was unnecessary. The State government went so far as to ban Muslim businesses from operating near Hindu temple premises.
Now, as Hindus celebrate Navaratri, a nine-day festival with ritualistic vegetarian foods, gangs of politically inspired men have been assaulting meat vendors, insisting that they should sell non-halal meat too. Considering that most of the meat vendors attacked are Muslim and observing Ramadan fasting, the matter has stirred up panic. Even more alarming is that in the capital Delhi, a municipal council has declared its wards “meat-free” for the nine days of the Hindu festival. This gives trouble-makers the chance to roam marketplaces, declare any suspicious food item as containing meat (like soya granule biryani, for example) and collecting ‘protection money’ or indulging in violence.
Clifton D’ Rozario, national convenor of the All-India Lawyer’s Association for Justice, says these incidents are a coordinated effort to dictate food choices in a country where over 70% of the population are meat-eaters.
T Satyanath, a professor at Delhi University who researches food habits, says that the basic notion that Indians are inclined towards vegetarianism, which the BJP uses to politicize dietary choices, is false.
“Non-vegetarianism is only on the rise,” Satyanath says, pointing to data from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, which shows that Indians consumed a whopping six million ton of meat in 2020, a 16.67 per cent rise compared to 2015.”
Alongside these skirmishes, the ‘no-halal bullies’ have turned their sights also on a top cosmetics and wellness company, Himalaya, which was established in 1930 by a Muslim. Although other similar companies like Reliance, Dabur, Adani and Patanjali too have sought the all-important halal certificate to become more attractive to Muslim consumers globally, trolls identifying with the right wing have started a campaign targeting Himalaya.
Rights activists have voiced concern that the government has not said anything officially to curb this targeted attack on Muslim dietary preferences especially during the Holy Month. Although ultimately the case will probably be decided on commercial merit, its sting will burn the secular image of India.