Butcher shops razed amid crackdown on beef in India

Indian Muslim butchers and traders gather outside a shuttered illegal slaughterhouse in the Naini neighborhood of Allahabad on March 21, 2017 (AFP Photo/SANJAY KANOJIA)

Indian police said Wednesday they were not ruling out arson after fire gutted three butcher shops in Uttar Pradesh state, where a firebrand Hindu leader has taken office promising a crackdown on slaughterhouses.

The meat industry is a magnet for religious violence in India, where Hindus consider cows sacred and accusations of beef being sold by Muslims can trigger violent mob reprisals.

Police were investigating the "mysterious" overnight blaze that reduced the three butcher shops to ashes in Hathras district, local police chief Dilip Kumar told AFP.

"We are not ruling out anything," he said.

The fire comes just days after a hardline Hindu priest-turned-politician took control of Uttar Pradesh, India's largest state with a bloody history of violence between Hindus and Muslims.

Yogi Adityanath is known for his polarising and inflammatory speeches against Muslims, and has called for harsher penalties for the slaughter of cows, which is already illegal in most Indian states.

He was chosen to lead Uttar Pradesh after Prime Minister Narendra Modi's right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party swept state polls earlier this month, in part on a pledge to close unlicensed traders and illegal beef outlets.

India is a significant global exporter of meat from buffalos, which are not seen as sacred beasts, with Uttar Pradesh housing half the country's abattoirs.

But most butcher shops in the powder-keg state are run by Muslims, and Hindu hardliners have alleged that beef is being passed off as buffalo.

- Sense of fear -

Since the BJP's thumping election victory less than a fortnight ago, dozens of butcher shops have been sealed off across the state in what authorities say is a crackdown on unlicensed vendors.

Meat traders fear legitimate businesses could be swept up in the hysteria.

"The way the entire issue is being twisted is hurting our business. There is fear in the minds of the public," said Imran Qureshi, whose abattoir in Uttar Pradesh exports buffalo meat to Europe and the Middle East.

Only eight of India's 29 states allow cow slaughter. The rest have slowly stiffened penalties, including life imprisonment, as Hindu hardliners agitate for a total bans.

Modi's home state of Gujarat Wednesday proposed raising the penalty for cow slaughter to ten years prison.

Millions from India's huge minority populations -- including Muslims, Christians and lower-caste Hindus -- eat beef, although it is not widely available.

India has witnessed a rise in vigilantism by Hindu extremists since Modi -- whose right-wing party is strongly aligned to Hindu nationalist groups -- was voted to power in 2014.

Armed gangs have been known to enforce an unofficial beef ban in some parts, forcibly inspecting trucks for any sign of livestock or carcasses. Drivers accused of transporting cows to slaughterhouses have been lynched.

Even rumours of transgression can spar deadly violence. In 2015 a 50-year-old Muslim man accused of eating beef was dragged from his home in 2015 and beaten to death by a mob. Police later said it was mutton.

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