Politics of meat-eating

Messing with food habits

Print edition : December 26, 2014

A demonstration organised by the Gau Raksha Samiti demanding cow protection, at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi on May 31. Photo: Shanker Chakravarty

Members of various Dalit organisations eating beef as a protest in Bangalore on February 23, 2010, against the Karnataka government's decision to ban cow slaughter. Photo: K. Bhagya Prakash

The Sangh Parivar’s food prescriptions perpetuate an uncomplicated upper-caste notion of Hinduism and alienate Muslims, Christians, Dalits and other large sections of Hindus who have a tradition of non-vegetarian food being part of their diets.

A RECENT circular from the Union Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) to the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) asking them to explore the possibility of having separate canteens for vegetarians and non-vegetarians has invoked sharp reactions from various quarters. While the Sangh Parivar sees it as a positive move that will counter “Western influence” on Indian culture—meat-eating is regarded as one of the most important aspects of Pashchatya Sanskriti (Western culture) in the Hindutva doctrine—a significant section of the intelligentsia views the Union government’s decision as one that institutionalises Brahminical hegemony in public institutions, given the fact that more than 80 per cent of Indian people have been eating non-vegetarian food since ancient times and that culinary habits have been one of the most important points of debate in contemporary caste- and religion-based identity politics.

The MHRD claims to have acted on complaints of anguished parents of students who join the IITs, Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) and medical colleges. The immediate provocation was a letter written by one S.S.K. Jain, a trader from Madhya Pradesh, who claims that non-vegetarian food is responsible for tamasic (dark) thoughts in the human mind, which in turn lead to increased violence and “anti-social activities” in society, including “inter-religious and inter-caste marriages”. Jain, who is also a self-proclaimed supporter of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), has, however, no relatives studying in any of the IITs. He expressed gratitude to the present ruling dispensation as he told the media that his requests had met with only apathetic responses from the previous government.

The revival of culinary segregation in terms of vegetarians and non-vegetarians is not new in the Indian political discourse. The Sangh Parivar, especially the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of the RSS, has frequently tried to stir up debates and campaigns against non-vegetarian and fast foods in Indian universities. Campaigns against non-vegetarianism seek to achieve two goals for the Sangh Parivar: one, to perpetuate an uncomplicated Brahminical notion of Hinduism and, two, to alienate Muslims, Christians, Dalits and other Hindus who have a tradition of consuming non-vegetarian food. These two goals, which are integral to the Hindutva doctrine, have often created chaotic situations in Indian public institutions.

Vegetarian morality

That the Sangh Parivar has been furthering its communal-patriarchal agenda through aggressive campaigns promoting vegetarianism is reflected in a spate of public statements in the last few years linking food practices and human morality. In western Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, khap panchayats have often blamed non-vegetarian and fast foods for inter-caste marriages and cited culinary habits as one of the main reasons for gender violence. In a prominent instance, in 2012, a khap panchayat leader in Haryana, responding to the rising number of rape cases in the State, proclaimed that the habit of eating fast food, especially chow mein, led to hormonal imbalances which created an urge among the Indian male to rape women. The statement may look oversimplistic, but it was an ideal case where a crime as grave as rape was justified using a sense of rationality that is typically Indian. The statement carried the stamp of “science” and was articulated as a truism.

Similarly, the aggressive Goraksha Abhiyaans (cow protection campaigns) in north India initiated by the Sangh Parivar in the past two years, framed around vegetarianism, seem to have become the breeding ground of communal and xenophobic sentiments among Hindus against the minorities. In every site of communal riot, this correspondent observed that food habits of Muslims were used by the Sangh Parivar to stereotype Muslims as a violent community.

Two years ago, a Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) textbook for Class 6, New Healthway: Health, Hygiene, Physiology, Safety, Sex Education, Games, and Exercises, gained notoriety for its dubious pronouncements, following which the book was withdrawn. The book encouraged children to go vegetarian on a false and unscientific pretext. “They [non-vegetarians] easily cheat, tell lies, they forget promises, they are dishonest and tell bad words, steal, fight and turn to violence and sex crimes,” the book stated on page 56.

The chapter, titled “Do we need flesh food?”, went on to elaborate on the “benefits” of a vegetarian diet while also pronouncing in detail what immoral behaviour a non-vegetarian foodie is prone to. “The strongest argument that meat is not essential food is the fact that the Creator of this Universe did not include meat in the original diet for Adam and Eve. He gave them fruits, nuts and vegetables,” read the chapter. It referred to Eskimos as “lazy, sluggish and short-lived”, because they live on “a diet largely of meat”. It added: “The Arabs who helped in constructing the Suez Canal lived on wheat and dates and were superior to the beef-fed Englishmen engaged in the same work.”

It claimed that the flavour of meat was the result of “waste products” and said that the Japanese lived longer because they were vegetarians, completely ignoring the fact that fish formed part of the daily diets of people in Japan. It claimed that the Japanese survived on “generous use of green leafy vegetables, soya beans and grams” which “has helped [them] to maintain vigour, strength and endurance throughout the centuries”.

The traditional food habits the Sangh Parivar advances are characteristically upper caste and upper class, bound by feudal ethics. Many political observers have pointed out that the cult of a fantastical ideal world in a Brahminical past has always been vegetarian despite the fact that professional historians have pointed out through painstaking research that eating non-vegetarian food was a part of subcontinental culture even in the ancient past. However, non-vegetarian food practices in the Sangh Parivar campaigns have always been linked to the advent of Muslim rule in the Indian subcontinent. A campaign against non-vegetarianism within a cloak of Brahminical morality, then, automatically, becomes a way to stereotype the Muslim community as barbarians.

Conservative Protestantism

The implications of such trends are huge for India’s multicultural social fabric. Historians have pointed out that social conservatism and religious fanaticism of any kind have not just created communal tensions the world over, but the cultural shifts induced by these tensions have historically benefited the big corporates. The textbook mentioned above was made popular by the Sangh Parivar in India, but it was authored by a Seventh Day Adventist Church member, David S. Poddar. Poddar has served as the education director of this little-known Church, the headquarters of which is in Hosur, Tamil Nadu.

Since its advent in the 1860s, the Church is known for its minimalism and conservatism. A small sect with a presence across the world, it is known for its militant scrutiny of the habits of its members. Its emphasis on vegetarianism, unostentatious dressing and sexual morality and its unwavering practice of these principles make the Church unique and also one of the most conservative Protestant groups. The theories on vegetarianism mentioned in the textbook are derived straight from the fundamental beliefs of the Church.

The Adventist Church advocated consumption of cereals and beans to such an extent that its members took it upon themselves to promote this culture in the United States. The contribution of this Church in making breakfast cereals commonplace in Western diet is immense and so is its involvement in commercial production of cereals. John Harvey Kellogg, one of the early founders of Adventist health work, started the world’s leading cereal manufacturing company and, along with his brother William Kellogg, made Kellogg’s a household name. In Australia and New Zealand, the Church started the Sanitarium Health Food Company, which has become the top manufacturer of health and vegan products under the brand name Weet-Bix.

Correlation between food, tradition, religion, capital and politics is not new in this world. The eminent German sociologist Max Weber has elaborated on how Protestantism (especially the Calvinist stream) had direct linkages to the rise of capitalism in northern Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. In his famous work The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Weber shows how the Protestant ethic encouraged the capitalist work ethic of mass accumulation and investment in countries such as the Netherlands, England and Germany, which were moving away from Catholicism during the Reformation period.

Aryama, a political scientist based in New Delhi, said: “Anthropologists conceptualise food as something that is environmentally provided, culturally processed and meets the biological and nutritional requirements of a human populace. In the age of global existence, however, all these facets get interlinked and threaten to disrupt and reconstitute the real and imagined boundaries of a populace. The political dimension of food enters into the dynamics of food and tends to regulate and patrol the constitution of the subjects. The recent spate of events, incidents, and episodes related to food politics are attempts to challenge and reconfigure such boundary constitution and they beckon us to rethink and negotiate. The linkage that this textbook or the government’s circular or some public statements brought into being should be seen in this context.”

Politics of meat-eating

The cultural processing of food practices through tools of education and religious scriptures needs to be understood in various socio-economic contexts. In the Western discourse, apart from some conservative Churches, many progressive vegan and feminist movements advocate vegetarianism.

Many left-wing vegans in the West have given up meat-eating to resist exploitative industrial meat production. Similarly, a stream of the feminist movement in the West canvasses against meat-eating because of the widespread association of meat-eating and virility in popular thinking.

The masculinity attached to the meaning and sense of meat-eating is elaborated by the U.S.-based feminist Carole J. Adams in her books The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory and The Pornography of Meat, in which she mentions how the meat-eating culture in the West has given rise to a phenomenon that she calls “sexualisation of meat and animalisation of animals”. She proves how commercial selling of meat continually objectifies a woman’s body in terms of consumption. She explains that a woman’s thigh is compared to a fried chicken leg or a woman is always shown to be sitting in a chicken’s posture, something that needs to be eaten with a masculine relish.

However, in India, much of the vegetarian culture is propagated by the Sangh Parivar, largely with intentions of assault against minority communities and to perpetuate Brahminical hegemony. It is for this reason that even symbolic meat-eating has become an assertive tool against Brahminism in Indian politics. It is because of this that the recent proposals of beef festivals by Dalit and backward caste students in institutions such as Osmania University in Hyderabad and Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi became much-talked-about controversies and remained in the media limelight for an unusually long time.

In all cultural contexts around the world, food practices cannot be articulated as a matter of just an individual choice anymore, considering their political implications. For instance, a textbook addresses a universal readership and is considered sacred and that is why such partisan viewpoints created a furore. “Purity and pollution have been historically linked in the Indian setting to configure social relationship since time immemorial, wherein moral and ethical connections that have been forged exhibit a universal orientation. In that sense, traditional understanding unites both vegetarians and non-vegetarians in terms of determining moral values,” said Aryama.

It is, therefore, all the more important for our education system to filter what is being taught or practised in schools and colleges and remain aware of the fact that mainstream traditions are prone to utter “noble” lies and fallacious reasoning in order to enjoy the benefits of power. The MHRD’s attempts to promote vegetarianism, in practice and in text, not only offend diverse cultural groups but also set an irrational precedent in India’s education system. Not surprisingly, such food prescriptions are being seen as the Sangh Parivar’s attempts to keep discriminatory caste practices alive.