Three Muslim construction workers, including a minor, were arrested on April 6 in Jorhat, in Assam, for “hurting religious sentiments by displaying beef in a marketplace”. Their crime, said the superintendent of police in the district, escalated from “talking about their purchase” to “displaying” it, thus prompting people to lodge a complaint.

The Bharatiya Janata Party, with its otherwise rigid anti-cow slaughter stance, has declared without irony that it will not oppose the consumption of beef in states of northeast India. This has prompted both amusement at and charges of opportunism for the party across the political spectrum, but what is to become of beef-eaters in BJP-ruled Assam?

In the Constituent Assembly debates, Rohini Kumar Chaudhuri, representative from Assam, echoing other members’ support for permitting cow slaughter, spoke of the “great source of danger” unless uneconomical cows were allowed to be slaughtered. Cow slaughter, governed by the Assam Cattle Preservation Act of 1950, is not prohibited in Assam, though slaughter is restricted to cattle (not just cows) that are either old or incapacitated for work or breeding.

Despite the rather wide berth given by the law, and the fairly liberal interpretation of it thus far, attitudes towards what people eat are far more intricately balanced in social practice, often exposing deep underlying polarisation.

Assam’s Kokrajhar district provides an illustration of the complex attitudes to meat and eating.

Eating out in Kokrajhar town

As you drive in towards Kokrajhar town from National Highway 31, eateries start to pop up on either side of the road, serving the local fare of rice, dal, meat or fish, and endless accompaniments. Today, most of these eateries have names like “Aabo”, “Bajwi”, and “Aai”, words from the Bodo language, suggesting ownership of these establishments by the Bodo tribal community. Twenty years ago, only one or two of these establishments existed, instead, the few hotels and restaurants were owned primarily by the Marwari and Bengali communities, who continue to own eating joints in town, without dominating the scene as they once did for decades on end.

Much of Kokrajhar’s development as a town – the buildings, roads, new educational institutes, and even the proliferation of eating joints – happened after the creation of the Bodoland Territorial Council, an autonomous body created in 2003 to grant a degree of self-rule to the tribal Bodo community, following a period of insurgency and violence in the 1980s and 1990s. The Bodos form a third of the population in the area administered by the Council, other communities include Muslims, Adivasis (who migrated from central India in the 19th century), Bengalis, Marwaris, Nepalis and Rajbongshis.

Kokrajhar town is the unofficial capital of the Bodoland Territorial Council, the headquarters of its secretariat and assembly, and arguably the most urban of all its spaces. From a time when most businesses in Kokrajhar were owned by people from the Bengali or Marwari communities, the creation of the Council has also empowered and created a section of Bodo elite, who are now much more visible in the commercial arena, even as markers of Bodo history and culture shape the contours of the town.

Much as Kokrajhar’s food landscape is divided along lines of ownership, and the kind of food, the gaps widen further when one looks at what sort of meat is served and eaten. Pork, traditional and much loved among the Bodos, is served at the Bodo-owned hotels, but rarely at those run by members of other ethnic groups. But, most noticeably, beef, while not banned by law in Assam, is conspicuous by its absence. No restaurant or hotel serves it, save for one nondescript hole-in-the-wall nestled between the Kokrajhar mosque and graveyard (aside from this one, no other eating establishment in town is owned by Muslims). As its owner testifies, “most of our clientele is Muslim”, and the surrounding neighbourhood is also largely inhabited by Muslims.

The processes of procuring pork and beef are also revealing. While pork is readily available at the town’s main market, bara bazaar, one must travel at least 30 kms to get beef, as the owner of the only place that serves beef confirms, from Muslim majority areas. The same is true of local village markets close to town — pork is more readily available, but beef is mostly available only when cows are slaughtered privately, away from sight, and the meat distributed to willing buyers. Even though many among the Bodos or Adivasis are Christian and consume beef, and indeed even some who identify as Hindus do, there is an unspoken convention not to sell it openly.

Food, violence and belonging

Eating and selling practices of meat reflect the current tense relationships between different communities, but the fortunes of Kokrajhar’s eating establishments have always been tied to its conflict-ridden past. Violence has run through much of Kokrajhar’s history as a theme, starting with an uprising in 1987, by Bodo groups, for a separate state of Bodoland, continuing into the 1990s, targeting Adivasis, Muslims, Rajbongshis, and the Indian state.

The creation of the Council in 2003 largely brought an end to the militancy, but ethnic violence has continued, with riots in 2012, between Bodos and Muslims, being among the most large-scale in recent times. For the eateries, this meant closures because of days and weeks of bandhs and agitations in the 1990s, to curfews and a severe drop in footfall following the 2012 violence.

In 1994, one of the owners of the oldest tea shop in Kokrajhar, Lakshmi Mishtan Bhandar (or LMB as it is ubiquitously known throughout town, with few knowing its expanded form), was shot dead in the same establishment which now does bustling business with its samosas and rasmalai. The ownership of the establishment serving beef changed hands in 2012 in the backdrop of two tragedies: its previous owners fled Kokrajhar following the violence, while its present owner took up it up as his own cable business was occupied by Bodos in his village following the riots.

Current politics around beef eating in much of India is proof that what we eat, where we eat, and whom we eat with tell a much deeper story about the social and political world we live in. Most owners of eating establishments in Kokrajhar are quick to point out that “all types” of people come there. LMB has a poster of Jesus below one of Krishna, and when I ask why, its current owner Sujit Sharma shrugs and says it’s because “LMB is for everyone”.

LMB. Photo credit: Saba Sharma.

Despite the carefully-constructed rhetoric of inclusion, groups like the Muslims and Adivasis in Kokrajhar and the rest of the Bodoland Territorial Council area have struggled to establish a firm sense of belonging. The recent alliance of the local ruling party, the Bodoland Political Front, with the BJP at the state level has done little to quell their tentativeness. .

Never mind the BJP’s claims to openness on the subject, the clandestine way in which beef, in particular, is sold and consumed speaks of a much more conditional acceptance of food habits and tolerance in Kokrajhar.