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India: Virulent vegetarians | Manini Chatterjee

29 May 2017

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The Telegraph, 3 April 2017

First they went after slaughterhouses. Then they turned to meat shops. Next they will invade our kitchens. That is not all. Yesterday beef was taboo. Today it is mutton. Tomorrow it will be fish and fowl, and eggs too. Let us be warned. The vigilantes are on the rampage and Uttar Pradesh is only their latest stomping ground.

Within 24 hours of being sworn in as chief minister of India’s most populous state, Yogi Adityanath ordered a state-wide crackdown on slaughterhouses. Officially, the drive is targeting "illegal" abattoirs and meat shops, but hundreds of legal slaughterhouses too have been sealed by the administration for violating some rule or other. Since slaughterhouses have to comply with a complex maze of over two dozen rules, it is easy to find some minor infraction to justify a shut down.

As for the plethora of unlicensed operations, ground reports from UP indicate that one key reason for these is that no new licences were issued for the last 15 years, thanks largely to the aggressive movement launched by Adityanath and his Hindu Yuva Vahini musclemen. Afraid to frontally take on the Hindutva brigades, and yet mindful that a significant section of the state’s Muslim populace was directly dependent on the meat trade, the previous state governments allowed the businesses to continue without any official licence.

In any case, abattoirs and meat shops are certainly not the only businesses that operate without a licence. Thousands of small and micro enterprises in India’s teeming informal sector - from vegetable vendors to pan sellers, barber shops to roadside dhabas - thrive in a grey zone that is not strictly legal but far from being criminal.

But then the Adityanath government’s drive has little to do with what is legal or illegal. It stems, on the surface, from a deep-seated hatred towards the Muslim minority and is aimed at crippling them both economically and culturally. In this, Adityanath is not alone. In state after Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled state, the drive against meat shops and abattoirs is gaining ground: authorities in Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh have also been instructed to ’lay down the law’ and shut down enterprises that have been quietly doing business for years.

And where the law is not on their side, ’persuasion’ in the name of ’sentiment’ is the new tactic. Last week, for instance, a vigilante outfit by the name of Shiv Sena (which Uddhav Thackeray has since disowned) went around shutting hundreds of meat and chicken shops in Gurgaon on the outskirts of the national capital since "Navratri" was on. The group issued notices warning the owners not to open their shops on Tuesdays and during the nine-day festival. A spokesman of the outfit told reporters, "A number of Hindus keep fast during Navratri and every Tuesday. It does not feel good to see meat being sold and served on this day..." Most of the shopkeepers - belonging largely to the minority community - complied with the ’request’, he added.

Hindu Yuva Vahini, Bajrang Dal, Shiv Sena, Bharatiya Gau Raksha Dal - these groups go by many names, their activities seemingly uncoordinated, their organizations apparently autonomous. That is just a façade. In truth, they have all been spawned and nurtured by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s ideology that its practitioners proudly label "cultural nationalism".

The goal of "cultural nationalism" is the creation of a Hindu rashtra whose primary enemies, on the face of it, are the beef-eating Muslims and Christians. But the real intent of cultural nationalism goes much deeper: it aims at creating a monolithic "Hindu" identity and abhors the bewildering diversity of cultural practices that make up the tapestry of Hinduism.

Food is central to culture, to identity, to community and is not just something we put into our mouths for bodily sustenance. Whether consciously or subliminally, the Hindu Right is deeply aware of this subversive power of taste and tradition and that explains its obsession with the eating habits of people, its aggressive efforts to impose a ’Hindu’ diet that goes well beyond the taboo against cow meat - which itself is far from universal even among practising Hindus in India.

Although individuals in the BJP or even the RSS may be non-vegetarian, the dominant impulse of the sangh parivar is a virulent vegetarianism - signs of which have become much more evident in recent years. BJP-ruled states such as Madhya Pradesh have doggedly refused to supply eggs under the school mid-day meal scheme in spite of its proven nutritional value for growing children; vegetarian fare - particularly Gujarati snacks - has become de rigueur at official functions in Delhi; and bans on the selling of mutton, chicken, eggs and fish on Hindu festival days is becoming more frequent.

While vegetarianism is a growing fad in the West too, in India it has a much longer and complex history - deeply entwined with the notions of ’purity’ and ’pollution’ that underlie the caste system. Ages before the famous French anthropologist, Claude Lévi-Strauss, produced his path-breaking work, The Raw and the Cooked, to explore culture in culinary terms and offered the raw-cooked-rotten food triad, ayurveda divided foods as tamasic (stale or rotten), rajasic (stimulating) and sattvic (pure and calming). Tamasic foods that include all meats were regarded the most inferior and fostered tamas (darkness, sloth, lethargy) while rajasic evoked excitement and passion. A sattvic diet - strictly vegetarian that eschews garlic, onion and spices too - was considered the best, and said to promote calmness and equanimity, the prescribed diet of sages and priests.

Over the centuries, the subtler essence of this classification got vulgarized and food rigidities came to mirror social inequities. The upper castes, in particular the Brahmins, used their vegetarian diet to buttress claims of sattvic superiority over flesh-eating lower castes. Movements like the Arya Samaj also added to the cult of vegetarianism. With Nagpur Brahmins dominating the RSS leadership, the orthodox upper caste Hindu’s visceral revulsion to meat - coupled with fear and loathing for the meat-eating Muslim - became embedded in the sangh’s psyche; as did the myth of the spiritually elevated vegetarian Hindu. Never mind that serenity and equanimity are the last qualities that come to mind when we witness the vitriolic outpourings of the saffron-robed political " yogis" and "sadhvis" in our midst.

What the RSS-inspired vigilantes deliberately overlook is that a vast majority of Hindus are non-vegetarian. According to the Baseline Survey of 2014 by the Census of India, 71.6 per cent of Indian males and 70.6 per cent of Indian females are non-vegetarian. In Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Bengal, the figure crosses 98 per cent. Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Jharkhand and Odisha closely follow, with over 97 per cent non-vegetarians, while the figure is 93 per cent in Bihar. And, as is well known, Brahmins, too, are traditionally and determinedly non-vegetarian in states such as Kashmir, Bengal, Bihar, Assam, Odisha and along the western coast.

Yet, there is a concerted effort to push vegetarianism as quintessentially Hindu - and imposing this stealthily through a combination of coercion and persuasion, fear and shaming. Non-vegetarians, rarely, if ever, force anyone to eat meat - respecting the tenets of dietary freedom that militant vegetarians increasingly refuse to reciprocate. Sadly, meat-eating Hindus have not come out in protest against "Navratri" fiats that are slowly becoming the norm. Nor have they shown any solidarity so far with the hapless butchers and cooks who dish out delicious kababs and biryanis that millions of Hindus consume with gusto. The saffron mobs, backed by State power, may be targeting the visible "Other" today. Tomorrow it will be the rest of us, our choice of cuisine, our way of life...

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BJP’s new-found food fundamentalism by Rahul Singh

Cartoon by Morparia (August 2016)



The above article from The Telegraph is reproduced here in public interest and is for educational and non commercial use