The new Uttar Pradesh administration’s clampdown on illegal slaughterhouses has given many people reason to cheer. Headed by an unconventional chief minister, who is seemingly unfettered by bureaucratic protocol, the government appears to have got down to business from day one.

In this analytical universe, the violent and polarising antecedents of the people in power are less important. What they do in office is paramount. And to align oneself with what is legal would seem to be a step in the right direction.

What exactly is this legality that we are embracing in the slaughterhouse ban narrative?

Law is the body of norms and rules contained in constitutions, legislation, and judicial texts. It is used as a formal mechanism for ordering and governing society. If law is a formal means of creating social order, India, and societies in general, have elaborate informal mechanisms for ordering themselves. These informal mechanisms may be good, bad, or downright ugly, but the point is that they exist.

The informal economy

Take India’s economy for instance. According to the National Council for Applied Economic Research, 83% of the country’s population works entirely in the informal sector. This is that part of the economy that is not regulated or taxed by the state, or covered by official data on registered enterprises. This informal economy includes the street vendor who just about ekes enough money to bribe the policeman and local dada to allow her to occupy the pavement space that provides her livelihood. The informal economy also includes that part of formal factories that under-report their labour force, profits, and production to dodge welfare and tax obligations. It also covers property buyers who as a matter of course pay for part of their homes and shops in what is referred to as “black money” or untaxed income. Every time we offer chai-pani, or pay a bribe to a public authority to jump a queue or push through work that is tangled in official requirements, we are contributing to the vast informal shadows that surround our state institutions.

In this sea of informality and even illegality that dodges the laws of the land, the new Uttar Pradesh administration might have considered a hierarchy of actions. The illegal activities of political parties, reflected, for instance in benami land transactions to hold and grow unaccounted income, may have been top of that list. Sectors like real estate that become conduits for illegal political income, and untaxed income in general may also have been good candidates. But when the war on illegality prioritises slaughterhouses that do not have their papers in order, or may be contravening animal welfare regulations, or whatever else, we have to conclude that illegality is not entirely the point here. The point is illegalising and illegitimising the slaughterhouse, its operators and users. While some slaughterhouses may produce the right paperwork, and political connections, and survive the cull for now, Uttar Pradesh’s rulers will have succeeded in proclaiming their moral and legal credentials. These credentials will be utilised in re-ordering society along an upper caste, Hindu morality. Creating order, after all, is the function of the law – formal as well as informal.

The case of Gujarat

As Uttar Pradesh experiments with the politics of food, we can turn to precedents in other Hindutva dominated states. In Gujarat, for instance, politically and economically powerful Jains and Hindu upper castes have for long advocated a clamp down on jeev hatya, or the taking of animal life. This demand becomes especially strident during particularly holy periods such as Paryushan. But it is only with a powerful political ally in the form of the Bharatiya Janata Party that the ban on slaughterhouses during Paryushan is a reality in contemporary Gujarat, aided by a court order.

The ordering of society into the protectors versus the takers of animal life seeps into spheres well past the official and juridical. We know that in Gujarat, housing is decided according to food habits, with vegetarians being favoured by many landlords. In my field research in coastal Gujarat, industry dominated by Hindu upper castes, systematically excludes fish workers and other meat eaters from employment, and corporate social responsibility initiatives relating to health and education. By this stage, we are well past questioning the legality of denying housing, health, education, a livelihood, and life itself, to sections of society. Morality and righteousness, in what we eat, and more generally, has seemingly been wrested by the jeev protectors. It is this morality and righteousness that the powers that be in Uttar Pradesh are pursuing.

Nikita Sud teaches at the University of Oxford.