Indian politicians have blamed Saturday’s earthquake in Nepal, which has killed nearly 4,000 so far, on the Hindu religious offense of eating beef.
Sakshi Maharaj, a member of parliament from the ruling Bharatiya Janatiya Party (BJP), was quoted by The Times of India saying “the earthquake was bound to happen” because Rahul Gandhi, a leader of the rival Congress party, “eats beef, and goes to the holy shrine without purifying himself.”
Gandhi recently visited the Kedarnath temple, a prominent Hindu shrine and site of pilgrimage. The trip may have been a response to his public image: the BJP, which espouses religiously Hindu-inflected Indian nationalism, has long criticized Gandhi for his perceived secularity, wealth and membership in an elite political family.
Rahul Gandhi is the grandson of former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi; her son Rajiv Gandhi, who succeeded her after her 1984 assassination, was Rahul’s father. (The Gandhi political family is not related to “father of the nation” Mohandas Gandhi, known as “Mahatma.”)
It is unclear whether Rahul Gandhi, a Hindu with a Roman Catholic mother, eats beef himself. But the legal and economic status of eating meet, and beef in particular, is a source of lively political debate in India, stemming from many Hindus’ religious reverence for cows. Laws in many of India’s states restrict or forbid the slaughter of cows, though India is still the world’s top exporter of the meat — primarily from the slaughter of buffalo, not cattle.
The widely recognized Hindu ban on eating beef is a relatively recent innovation. Kancha Ilaiah, an Indian professor of social history, said in a recent interview that “historically, all Indian masses … used to eat beef” and that despite some Hindu activists’ attempt to promote vegetarianism for all Indians, “meat has always been part” of society in a country of immense religious and cultural diversity. A “cow protection movement” arose during British colonial control of India, partly to increase Hindus’ solidarity in contrast to Muslims.
Nepal, which is majority-Hindu, prohibits the slaughter of cows entirely.
Maharaj, the politician who blamed the unspeakable human loss in Nepal on Gandhi eating beef, has attracted controversy before. Earlier this year, he urged Hindu women in India to have “at least four children to protect the Hindu religion.” He also advocates the death penalty for those who convert to other religions from Hinduism.
His remarks were echoed by Sadhvi Prachi, a leader in a BJP-aligned group, the Vishva Hindu Parishad. She has previously said that people who slaughter cows “have no right to live in India.”
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