Out of India: Hindu right-wing takes tough line in beef about meat

NEW DELHI - It won't be long now, a few days, a month maybe, before the Indian police catch up with me. I'm worried. I've broken the law, and I need help in destroying some evidence. There's only one man who can help me. They call him the 'Wonder Glutton'.

He seems like a hard man to do business with, but I'm desperate. I'm staring at, what, a stretch of up to five years in a Delhi jail? Maybe you've never heard of the Wonder Glutton, but he once was in the Guinness Book of Records. His real name is Jagir Singh, 68, and he ATE a lorry in nine months. He was bumped out of the record book, though, by a Frenchman who chewed his way through an entire plane. When he wasn't chomping on an exhaust pipe or tucking into an engine block in its own juices, Mr Singh whet his appetite on razor blades and light bulbs.

It's a small job I have for the Wonder Glutton. I need him to devour a tin of corned beef, tin and all.

That's right, a tin of corned beef. I have it hidden in my kitchen cupboard under bags of lentils and rice. When the police raid the house, I can always plead ignorance (it's an excuse most people are ready to believe for journalists). Incredulity is more apt in this case. Who would think that beef-eaters would be hunted down in Delhi like pimps and thieves, but that is exactly what has happened.

The Delhi local assembly is ruled by the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, who are Hindus and strident vegetarians to the very core. Two weeks ago they passed a law making it a criminal, non-bailable offence to possess the meat of cows, calves, bullocks or bulls. The maximum five-year jail sentence, along with a 10,000-rupee fine ( pounds 215), is as harsh as the punishment for being caught with drugs or firearms.

The cow is sacred to Hindus, and the thought of eating, say, a hamburger fills them with a revulsion akin to what we might feel if offered a plate of roast human leg. Many Hindus suspect that a few of the thousands of cows roaming free around Delhi were captured late at night and chopped into steaks by Muslim butchers. It was a source of deep, though unproven, suspicion that many Hindus held against the Muslims - but no more.

Now it is impossible to find meat of any kind, except chicken, in Delhi. A high court ruled that the city's main Idgah abattoir was killing too many animals. More than 12,500 sheep, goats and buffaloes a day were slaughtered there under infernal conditions. Health inspection was non-existent, and the ghastly sludge of blood and offal was being dumped in Delhi's Yamuna river.

When the court tried to limit the number of carcasses to 2,500 a day, all of Delhi's butchers, who are mainly Muslims, went on strike. They bring their animals to the abattoir, and the long queues of beasts would bring even greater havoc to Delhi. There were mutterings of 'vegetarian fundamentalism' in the press, and Muslims complained that it was all a Hindu plot to deprive them of jobs and mutton tandoori.

The Jains, a rich yet ascetic community who take non-violence to such extremes that their monks sweep their paths free of insects so they don't accidentally squash them, think that the slaughterhouse should be shut down for good. They would like to see Delhi's 10 million citizens become vegetarians. The Jains have even offered to find new jobs for the abattoir's butchers.

Acharya Sushi Muni, a Jain spiritual leader, said: 'Provided they give up their profession and convert to vegetarianism, we will ensure that they take up other jobs as vegetable vendors and taxi drivers.' It could be argued, though, that if the repentant butchers are like Delhi's other taxi drivers, the carnage they create on the roads will be far worse than in the abattoir.

Naturally, a black market for meat now thrives. The price of chicken has gone up a tenfold, and the juiciest, most sought after birds are those raised in a leper colony. There is, however, meat to be had in the city. Several meat-starved Saudi Arabian diplomats have been spotted slaughtering goats and even a deer in their back gardens. And out by Indira Gandhi International Airport, so many illegal slaughterhouses have sprung up in the last month that the circling vultures are now a hazard for planes.

In the meantime, I wonder what to do with my tin of beef. After reading the Indian press's horrible accounts of the Delhi abattoir (try to imagine killing enough animals every day to fill an Olympic-size swimming pool with blood and them dumping all this mess into the city's river), I confess that I don't find my tinned beef that tempting anymore. And, perhaps, neither would the Wonder Glutton. He is, after all, a man of discerning taste: the last lorry he ate was a Mercedes Benz.