“Dear comrades, can anyone tell me where I can buy beef in Jamshedpur?” wrote Jeetrai Hansda in Hindi. “I want to organise a beef party.”

This two-sentence Facebook post set off a storm in Jamshedpur. Right wing groups such as the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s student wing were aghast that a teacher – Jeetrai Hansda taught drama at the Graduate School College for Women in the town – not only ate beef, he had the gall to advertise the fact publicly.

Jeetrai Hansda had posted this status on June 1 as a protest against the beef hysteria gripping the country as well as his home state of Jharkhand. “As a Santhali, eating beef is part of my culture,” explained Jeetrai Hansda. “If Santhalis are Indian, there should be no laws which force us to adopt Hindu customs. I reject that.”

While the impact of the hysteria against beef on Muslims and even Dalits has been well documented, its effect on Jharkhand’s Adivasis hasn’t. In Jharkhand, the issue of beef is being subtly used by Hindutva organisations to put pressure on Adivasis and influence them in ways that will benefit the BJP politically.

Cow slaughter law

Jharkhand passed its cow slaughter law in 2005 that penalises illegal cow slaughter and transport with a term of up to 10 years. While it has now been overtaken by states such as Gujarat (which now awards a life sentence for cow slaughter), at the time, Jharkhand had one of the harshest cow slaughter laws in the Union – a highly ironic state of affairs given that Jharkhand was created in 2000 as a home for Adivasis, for whom beef is an everyday part of their diet.

“When the law was passed we did not realise the impact it would have on society,” said Raimul Bandra, a member of the Ho community and a member of the Bindra Institute for Research Study and Action, a Jharkhandi nongovernmental organisation which works on Adivasi welfare. “Beef has always been a part of diet. Most Adivasis eat it since it is such a cheap meat.”

Jeetrai Hansda explained that for the Adivasis, the issue wasn’t even limited to food. “We not only eat beef, cattle sacrifice is a part of the Santhal festival of Doson. Even the Mundas sacrifice cattle,” he said. “Any ban on beef is an attack on our culture. This law forces Hindu customs on us.”

Religious discrimination

This clash between the cow slaughter law and Adivasi religious practices was bought to the fore in 2015, as a Munda village conducted a Dangri Puja (cattle worship) that entailed the sacrifice of an ox. Conflict with the area’s Hindus meant that the police – under pressure from the local BJP – booked eight Adivasis under Jharkhand’s anti-slaughter law.

In the same year, the law also led to tension in the Santhal community as BJP member and former Lok Sabha MP Salkhan Murmu – a Santhal himself – tried to stop Adivasis from sacrificing cattle in the village of Karandih in East Singhbhum district. “Murmu threatened us with the anti-cow slaughter law on the Santhali festival of Doson,” recounted Dasmath Hansda, a traditional Santhal leader of Jugsalai town, very close to Jamshedpur. “The whole village, though, stood as one for their religion and we sacrificed the animal anyway. Murmu had to relent.”

The red-and-white flag of the Sarna religion, an animist faith followed by a large number of Adivasis in Jharkhand.
The red-and-white flag of the Sarna religion, an animist faith followed by a large number of Adivasis in Jharkhand.

Attacking livelihood

Adivasis are also being disadvantaged in their work places on the question of beef. On June 25, a principal of a school in Jharkhand’s Pakur district was arrested for allegedly cooking beef at the institute on the accusation of her own students.

Jeetrai Hansda is also under investigation by his college for posting the beef status on Facebook, facing a show cause notice from the administration. “This is unfair. How can the college penalise me for what I eat as part of my traditional diet,” he argued. “I fear there may be disciplinary action against me for my post. The entire university has been coloured saffron.”

In Ranchi, Asha Sanga, a Munda, complained that the beef hysteria is hitting the Adivasi livelihood. “My brother, Durga Munda is scared to come to Ranchi’s markets from our village and sell his goats,” Sanga complained. “He has heard instances of Bajrang Dal members beating up people and stealing their animals. He will not be able to bear the loss.” Like Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand had also cracked down hard on the selling of meat without a license, hurting Adivasis who sell chickens and goats to butchers.

Creating divisions

Bineet Mundu, who works with a Ranchi-based nongovernmental organisation that lobbies for Adivasi land rights, explained that the BJP has long tried to play the religion card to enter Adivasis areas. “The BJP exploited and even encouraged tensions between converted [Christian] and non-converted Adivasis,” explained Mundu. “The BJP uses these division to enter villages. Today beef is yet another way to achieve that objective.” The entry of Hindutva into Adivasi villages means the BJP can woo non-Christian Adivasis with much more ease. The taboo on beef, in turn, help strengthen this polarisation.

Explains Gopi Ghosh, a human rights activist with the Bindra Institute for Research Study and Action: “Given the BJP’s emphasis on it, some Adivasi communities are now getting Hinduised and have stopped eating beef.”

The impact of Hindutva on the Adivasis of Jharkhand is helped by the fact that the BJP has enjoyed state power in Jharkhand. Out of the 16 years that have elapsed since the state was formed, BJP leaders have been chief ministers for more than 10.

Elite capture

Jharkhand’s inordinate emphasis on the cow and various forms of meat is yet another example of how elite interests have taken control of Jharkhand – a state created explicitly in order to protect the rights of Adivasis.

“Jharkhand is an Adivasi state,” explained KC Mardi, a local leader in the Karandi neighbourhood of Jamshedpur town. “Our culture, food and festivals are different from the Hindus. Thus, to force us to follow the Hindu taboo on beef is outrageous. They are forcing us to become Hindu.”

Dasmath Hansda also questioned the legal validity of the cow slaughter law. “How can this law be implemented in a Fifth Schedule area such as this when it clashes with Adivasis practises?” he asked rhetorically. Under the Fifth Schedule of the Indian constitution, Union and state laws, which conflict with traditional practises have to be amended when being applied to Adivasis areas.

“At the end of the day, beef is just one example of this. Look at how the CNT [Chotanagpur Tenancy] Act is being amended to help outsiders to grab our [Adivasi] land,” remarked KC Mardi with a wry smile. “We are being attacked by outsiders in our own state.”