Diet and diktat

Print edition : November 27, 2015

In a school in Kancheepuram, Tamil Nadu, a 2011 photograph. BJP-ruled State governments have stopped eggs in their midday meal programmes in schools. Photo: B. Jothi Ramalingam

At a leather fashion show in Chennai. Even as the Sangh Parivar's vigilantism has grown over the dietary practices of communities, there is hardly any campaign from it against using leather and dairy products. Photo: Bijoy Ghosh

Extremist and ill-informed political positions of the Sangh Parivar with regard to cow slaughter and extreme vegetarianism not only alienate the minorities and meat-eating Hindus but restrict individual liberties even at the dietary level.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a strict vegetarian. Everyone knows it by now. His public relations machinery carefully leaks out images of him eating a sattvik (vegetarian) lunch during Navaratri. He is shown as a proud Hindu leader who painstakingly observes a fast on religious occasions when he survives on fruits and a modest vegetarian meal. He has offered his state guests, including United States President Barack Obama, and leaders of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) nations, and even his Pakistani counterpart, only an elaborate five-star vegetarian meal. Perhaps, for the first time in Indian history, the Prime Minister’s Office diligently releases to the media the menu, a vegetarian one, whenever the Prime Minister is on an official visit to foreign countries. During the SAARC conference in November 2014, the Ministry of External Affairs even tweeted a picture of the menu with pride: “All vegetarian fare. For those asking here is what the SAARC leaders are having for lunch at the retreat.”

Modi’s vegetarian diet is supposed to reassert his Hindu identity, an already known fact. Vegetarianism in popular Hindu perception has come to be associated with austerity in the past two centuries. In his fight against the British, Mahatma Gandhi conflated vegetarianism with his philosophy of non-violence (ahimsa) to mobilise people in the nationalist movement. Political observers believe that by such ostentatious display of his dietary preferences in public, the Prime Minister strives to project himself as an austere leader who walks the talk.

The ideological inclination towards vegetarianism that Modi espouses is practised on the ground by his colleagues in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the larger Sangh Parivar. BJP-ruled State governments have stopped eggs in their midday meal programmes in schools. Those governments have outsourced the midday meal programme to non-governmental organisations such as the Akshaya Patra Foundation which has strong links to the ISKCON International, a proponent of vegetarianism. At the same time, the benefits of a vegetarian diet are taught in school textbooks of BJP-run States such as Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Gujarat.

However, the state espousal of vegetarianism in a secular democracy like India, where the majority of people across all communities survive on a mixed diet of vegetables and meat, ends up alienating almost 70 per cent of the Indian population, say most population surveys. This alienation of particularly Dalits and the backward classes from among the Hindus and of minority communities such as Sikhs, Muslims and Christians who prefer a non-vegetarian meal is stark in this environment.

The vegetarianism of the government, unlike Gandhian ahimsa, is located within its ideology of Hindu nationalism, which has historically been inimical towards the minorities in India. Thus, the advocacy of vegetarianism under the National Democratic Alliance government has taken a propagandist and extremist shape. The benefits of a vegetarian diet are introduced in school textbooks while unscientifically highlighting the ill effects of a non-vegetarian diet. The government’s advocacy of vegetarianism is carried out with a louder campaign against the practice of meat-eating. Violent campaigns against cow slaughter, meat bans during Hindu and Jain festivals and other such measures against the practice of meat-eating have dealt a huge blow to livestock farming, largely dominated by Muslims. At the same time, the campaign for vegetarianism has systematically targeted the minorities, especially Muslims and Christians. The recent killings of Muslims by Hindutva activists in the name of cow protection and the defence of such heinous crimes by prominent BJP leaders like Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar reveal the darker side of the politics of vegetarianism.

In the theoretical underpinnings of vegetarianism, the Sangh Parivar has revived its historical anti-cow slaughter agenda. Gau Raksha Abhiyans have mushroomed all over under the patronage of the Sangh Parivar even as BJP-run State governments are pressing for making anti-cow slaughter laws more stringent, with States like Haryana and Madhya Pradesh allowing for harsh punishments even for consuming beef. “These abhiyans, which got a renewed boost in the aftermath of the Muzaffarnagar riots in 2013, have been forming colony-level associations to check cow slaughter. In the process, they have emerged as vigilante groups to target dietary habits of the minorities in India, a reflection of which we saw in the murder of Mohammad Akhlaq in Dadri recently,” a Delhi University professor who has been following the resurgent cow-protection programmes closely told Frontline.

In the Western world, while progressive discourses about vegetarianism are directed against the inhuman practices in organised livestock farming and animal husbandry, in India the campaigns against vegetarianism have come to be associated with Brahminical/Hindu nationalism. India is perhaps the only country where meat-based diets are referred to as “non-vegetarian” diets. It operates mostly as a cultural phenomenon, a political tool to alienate Muslims and Christians from the mainstream discourse at one level and foregrounding a monolithic, homogeneous, Brahminical notion of Hinduism at the other.

“Indian vegetarianism is seen as a marker of upper-caste Hindu culture. In (Kancha) Ilaiah’s words, ‘vegetarian’ is synonymous with ‘Brahmin’. The recurrent Hindutva deployment of food politics, especially revolving around the cow, against minority caste and religious groups has only served to strengthen this association,” write Krithika Srinivasan and Smitha Rao in “Will Eat Anything That Moves: Meat Cultures in Globalising India”, published in Economic & Political Weekly ( EPW).

The Sangh Parivar has thrown its weight behind this politics of selective vegetarianism. While it promotes a vegetarian diet, it hardly raises its voice against the leather and dairy industry where livestock is slaughtered and exploited under industrial conditions. And even as the Sangh Parivar’s vigilantism has grown over the dietary practices of communities, there is hardly any campaign from it against using leather and dairy products. In fact, Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) members openly display their brown leather belts in their uniforms.

Therefore, many believe that the politics of vegetarianism only solidifies the regressive caste hierarchies and traditions in India. Many scholars believe that apart from fulfilling the Hindutva goal of alienating the minorities from mainstream political discourse, the politics of extremist vegetarianism also restricts the philosophy and history of Hindu practices within the narrow confines of Hindutva.

Ayurveda texts and meat-eating

The historian Anirudh Deshpande, who teaches at Delhi University, writes in his article “Veggie Myths”, published in EPW, thus: “The conflation of Ayurveda (as affordable and alternative medicine as propagated by the BJP) and vegetarianism reinforces the non-violent self-image of Hindus and magnifies the ‘vegetarian-yoga’ spiritual image of the country abroad. This is necessary for Hindu nationalism but does not square up with the historical and contemporary realities of Indian life. The nomadic Aryans of the early Vedic period, to whom the savarna Hindus trace their origins, were non-vegetarian. Elaborate animal sacrifice in the yajnas, and consumption of meat in great quantities, were the hallmarks of the Vedic times.”

Deshpande says that in their pursuit of vegetarianism, the government and the Sangh Parivar have promoted a false understanding of alternative medical systems such as Ayurveda and naturopathy. Ayurveda and other alternative medical systems are now governed for the first time through a separate ministry and their association with a vegetarian dietary culture is something that the government uses to promote vegetarianism. However, Deshpande says that the two most important historical texts on Ayurveda, Charaka Samhita and Sushruta Samhita, never denounced meat-eating and, in fact, prescribed meat for various illnesses. He says that most Ayurvedic practitioners today subscribe to vegetarianism only to stay in tune with the popular mood, falsely projected by Hindutva activists.

Deshpande writes: “Charaka Samhita, in laying down an elaborate regime for the management of a mother after delivery, prescribes to the weakened female ghee, oil, vasaa (muscle fat) and majja (bone-marrow). Sushruta Samhita contains a description of food and drinks and divides the ‘group of meat’ into six groups that range from venison to a variety of freshwater and sea fish. The meat of sick animals, poisoned animals, putrefying dead animals, old and emaciated animals and too young animals is labelled harmful, but ‘meat of other than these is edible’. The meat of black deer ‘promotes relish and strength and removes fever’. Deer meat also ‘checks intrinsic haemorrhage and alleviates sannipaata, wasting, dyspnoea, cough, hiccough and anorexia.”

He further writes: “The meat of partridge ‘promotes intellect and digestive power’, whereas peacock flesh promotes ‘voice, intellect, digestive power, vision and hearing’. The sparrow ‘is sweet, unctuous, increases kapha and semen. House sparrow checks haemorrhage and increases semen excessively.’ The flesh of cave-dwellers like the lions and the crow (kaaka) is ‘beneficial for one suffering from consumption’. The flesh of tree-dwellers, including monkeys, squirrels and civet cats, is ‘sweet, heavy, aphrodisiac, wholesome for eyes, beneficial in consumption, diuretic, laxative, alleviate cough, piles and dyspnoea’,” he adds.

“The ancient texts of Ayurveda, like Charaka Samhita and Sushruta Samhita, comprise the ‘intimate part of the Atharva Veda’ and were produced by a society which was agrarian, meat-eating and had developed in close proximity to the forests. Ancient Indians ate and experimented with the meat of numerous animals found in abundance in India—and archaeological evidence supports this. The Ayurvedic texts also define the qualities of various kinds of intoxicants and prescribe them for specific illnesses,” he says.

He says that these aspects of Ayurveda were lost because of persistent efforts by the British regime to “semitise” Hinduism as the “other” of Islam, a politics that the proponents of Hindutva have inculcated.

Such politics has a contemporary appeal in north India, where the revivalist movement Arya Samaj in the late 19th century and early 20th century took shape. The Arya Samaj inculcated the British understanding of the Indian subcontinent which pitched Hindu and Islamic cultures as opposites and mobilised their support bases through the cultural politics of vegetarianism, especially Gau Rakshini Sabhas (cow-protection associations), in order to target Muslims. Mahatma Gandhi, despite promoting vegetarianism, strongly objected to the initiatives of the Arya Samaj. Many historians such as D.N. Jha and Christophe Jaffrelot have written extensively about how the cultural politics of meat-eating in India was appropriated by Hindu nationalists in the colonial period to alienate Muslims.

The Arya Samaj’s call “Go Back to the Vedas” and its appropriation by the Sangh Parivar is seen as the ideological foundation of the politics of vegetarian extremism today. According to the Sangh Parivar’s understanding, meat-eating, though an ancient practice, is seen as antithetical to Hindu culture. Extremist, ill-informed political positions of the Sangh Parivar not only alienate the minorities and meat-eating Hindus but restrict individual liberties even at the dietary level. “What an individual can eat or not eat may be something that the ruling government can dictate in future. This violates the basic principles of our Constitution,” said the Delhi University professor.

Historically, the cultural politics of meat that the Sangh Parivar advocates is at best closest to the idea of the Hindu culture propagated by an Oriental vision of the colonial rulers, says Deshpande. It seems ironical that Sangh Parivar activists have been acting as the moral police of the nation and have been opposing and attacking everything that they perceive as an influence of Western culture. While the Prime Minister shows the supposedly “Gandhian” mirror of vegetarianism to the nation, his colleagues impose dietary restrictions on individuals and communities through brutal force. In a country where only around 30 per cent of the people are vegetarians, the state’s militant espousal of vegetarianism can only be destructive rather than constructive.