A man named Brother Ummer serves a beef dish to a line of hungry people at Kozhikode’s beach. (Vidhi Doshi/The Washington Post)

As soon as the evening call to prayer sounded over Kozhikode, a line formed along the esplanade. Volunteers started heaping food onto plates, cautious to keep the beef-to-rice ratio low, making sure there was enough to go around.

One man took out his smartphone to film the action; videos of beef-eating have been doing well on Facebook recently. News cameras from local stations zoomed in on the slogans plastered on a nearby screen that read: “Our food our choice.”

In this sleepy, palm-fringed city in southern India, eating beef has become a political act. On May 23, the Indian government introduced new anti-animal-cruelty rules, restricting the sale of cattle in markets. The move was widely interpreted as an attempt to close in on the country’s thriving beef industry, in line with right-wing Hindu ideology, according to which the cow is considered holy. 

Some think the new rules are too draconian. For the past week here in the southern state of Kerala, people have gathered with pots and pans and firewood to cook beef and share it with strangers in the streets, a convivial form of protest. Many Hindus, who usually avoid cooking or eating beef, have joined the feasts.

At stake is the country’s $4.3 billion beef industry, which provides 23 percent of the world’s beef exports. Since the government’s new rules were introduced, global beef prices have shot up, and major brands such as Prada and Armani, which source leather from India, are concerned about the stability of their supply chains. 

Small-time beef and leather traders will bear the brunt in India. Most of them are Muslims and lowest-caste Dalits — the people once called “untouchables” — since Hindus historically considered these jobs “unclean.” According to Jayakumari Devika, associate professor and historian at the Center for Development Studies in Kerala, the rules will allow large supermarket chains to control supply. 

“Beef will become scarce,” she said, “at least for the time being.”

But for many in Kerala, the rules are more than an economic blunder. To them, they epitomize the arrogance of Hindu politicians in faraway New Delhi.

“For you in the north, beef may be food,” said Muhais Mohammed, one of those at a protest feast on Kozhikode’s beach. “For us, it is a deep-seated emotion.”

Since the election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, cow ambulances, cow hostels and even a system of ID cards for tracking cows have been introduced in veneration of the sacred animal. This bovine obsession hints at a bigger lurch toward the right in the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Protecting the “gau mata” — the cow mother — has long been on the agendas of Hindu supremacist groups such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which has close links to the BJP and its ruling elite. In Hindu tradition, eating beef is considered unscrupulous, to be left to the morally inferior. 

Many say that the Modi government’s anti-beef rhetoric has gone too far. Some argue it is emboldening bands of cow protectors, known to maul and even kill people suspected of carrying beef. In 2015, a mob dragged a man named Mohammad Akhlaq out of bed and beat him to death because they suspected he had slaughtered a calf. In recent months, a man was harassed because he was suspected of carrying a bag made of cowhide. In another case, a dairy farmer transporting cattle from a market to his village was killed.

For Keralans, the Hinduism of the north is unrecognizable. Hindus here coexist peacefully with sizable Muslim and Christian minorities. They consider themselves ethnically and culturally different from those in the north. Beef is a staple of the local cuisine and culture. Even the state BJP here breaks with its northern allies on the issue; the state party promised better-quality beef in a recent election campaign.

“Public education in Kerala plays a big role in creating harmony,” said Biju Lal, a legal clerk and a Hindu who joined Muslims on the beach. Kerala’s ruling Communist Party has championed state education for decades, and government schools are attended by children from all social strata, encouraging communal mixing from an early age.

“There are historical reasons, too,” Lal added. “Partition probably left a bigger mark in the north,” referring to the separation of India and Pakistan in 1947 and the subsequent sectarian violence between Hindus and Muslims.

Since the ban, the hashtag #dravidanadu has trended on Twitter, calling for south India to break off from the north. In the neighboring state of Tamil Nadu, students at the elite Indian Institute of Technology Madras wore black and ate meat in front of news cameras.

At one beef party, an ox was slaughtered, and the video was shared online. Right-wing parties retaliated, throwing milk parties of their own and carrying out vigilante attacks against protesters.

On Kozhikode’s beach, the feast lasted less than an hour, long enough to scrape a large pot of curry bare.

Danish Subair was traveling with his cousin through the city when he came across the celebration. “We also brought beef with us in our bag,” he said. “Everyone in Kerala is eating beef now. I have a friend who is a big BJP supporter. Even he posted on Facebook yesterday about how much he loves beef.”

Taking cues from the south, states in eastern India are crying foul, too. In West Bengal, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, a fierce critic of Modi, said that the government’s passage of the rules using anti-animal-cruelty laws was underhanded and amounted to federal interference in state decisions. In Arunachal Pradesh, where the vast majority of people eat beef, Padi Richo, leader of the opposition Congress party, said the move was “dictatorial.” “Even China doesn’t do that,” he said.

Modi, a strict vegetarian, spoke often about cow protection during his election campaign in 2014. One of his slogans was “Vote Modi, give life to the cow.” 

In office, Modi has attempted to distance himself from the party’s far right and position himself as a modern, business-friendly statesman who can open India up to the world. In 2016, he condemned overzealous cow protectors as “anti-social elements.”

But spurred by a recent electoral triumph in state elections, the BJP has become increasingly nationalistic.

In Uttar Pradesh, a hard-line Hindu cleric named Yogi Adityanath was appointed as chief minister and immediately launched a crackdown on illegal slaughterhouses, strangling the state’s booming beef industry.
He also initiated “anti-Romeo” squads to crack down on ­Western-style public displays of affection.

Arun Jaitley, the national minister of finance, suggested the beef protests were an overreaction to the government’s rules. He said state laws would remain in effect.

The BJP, already weak in the south, is showing signs that it is alarmed by Kerala’s reaction. Party President Amit Shah swooped in over the weekend to do damage control, meeting with church leaders and party loyalists. 

But for some, the government’s efforts to restrict access to beef are a sign of darker things to come. Referring to the largest ethnic group in Kerala, Devika said, “Beef has been a part of Malayali culture for many centuries. If there was a move to deny something very normal to you, wouldn’t you protest?”