The virtues of vegetarianism/veganism depend on how one locates it. There is a growing realisation that consuming less meat is healthy and has positive impact on climate change. But, in India, this phenomenon is always coloured by caste prejudices
Vegetarianism minus the vegetarians
Upper caste-linked food impositions undermine food plurality or food democracy. Any genuine freedom of food choice for an individual or community is possible only if food habits are delinked from skewed history
There are no vegetarians in India. Or, everyone is a vegetarian, including the so-called non-vegetarians. Then can we call these non-non-vegetarians ‘vegetarian only’ people? No. They eat more milk/dairy products than the meat-eaters. Indian vegetarianism is pseudo-vegetarianism. It only means not eating meat. To talk about vegetarianism/veganism in India honestly is almost impossible. As impossible as maintaining true vegetarianism. This is vegetarianism without any vegetarians at all.
No wonder that any debate about this issue can happen only in bad faith. Both defenders and opponents of compulsory vegetarianism talk in bad faith. It cannot be otherwise. So the facts and reality do not count in the debates about this issue. They cannot. Probably, they need not. It is about a recommended reality, not a really existing one. The only way is to settle for food plurality or food democracy, ensuring each person and community has the food of their choice.
Supporters of banning meat-eating from some occasions and turning meat-less meals into a default food even at public eateries, is increasingly becoming the norm and even a formal law. Since reality or even logical coherence, beginning with the names themselves, are really not the point, what is the reality? Caste is the reality. The relevance of this topic at the moment is Muslim or Dalit lynchings, misnamed ‘cow vigilantism’ or ‘cow terrorism’.
The machine of Hinduism, having fixed once and for all the status of each person at birth into castes, themselves organised into a notionally unalterable hierarchy, sustained by prohibiting inter-caste marriage, requires the supply of fuel of mundane and everyday practices that affirm and continue the birthmarks with conspicuous markers, demarcations and distinctions. Hierarchy of food, again on the ascending/descending scale of purity is supposed to match the graded pureness of foods corresponding castes should consume. The ascribed purity ratio of the foods must correspond to the assigned status in the caste hierarchy. Eating of cow meat, most prominent among Muslims and Dalits, one outside Hinduism and another outside the caste system, gets the most impure status.
Due to a complex historical process of roughly more than a century, a lot of it by design, Hinduism reached its Hindu Nazi phase. It is a paradigm shift. Uniformity, not hierarchy, is the favoured mode in Hindu Nazism. Like it is now in every other conceivable field of ideas or practices, uniformity is the watchword now. So the move is dramatic, from the insistence on differences, to the imposition of uniformity is Hindu Nazi innovation. So the food habits of a small fraction of an already minuscule percentage of the population the observant Brahmanical elites must now become the food for everyone everywhere. Imposition of a uniform practice on a reflectively hierarchical society is itself riddled with contradictions but then the choice of the Hindu Nazis’ attempt to do so in the most resilient and resistant part of it — the food habits of an entire nation — further exacerbates the troubles and achieves contradictory results. While food habits cannot be changed overnight or even in the long run by decree, imposing on an entire society the preferences of a small Brahminical and Brahminised upper caste that they themselves don’t uniformly observe, paradoxically reinforces the hierarchies of value in food choices. In addition to this is the fact that cutting down on meat consumption is against the repeatedly observed global trend of growth of the middle classes in developing countries, which only increases meat-eating.
The veganism or vegetarianism we know in India, or that India is known for abroad, is largely false. This false image abroad has serious consequences for us.
A bizarre case of reversal is involved here. First, the peculiar food superstitions of a small fraction of elites has been presented across the world for centuries as the specialty of the Hindus. Then, the Hindu Nazis in power and their paramilitaries are actually trying to turn that false picture into reality. In the recent spate of lynchings of Muslims and Dalits, every single western newspaper or TV channel that mentioned these atrocities made it a point to add that “Hindus consider cows are sacred” without anyone objecting to it. They did not ask themselves that if the belief in the sacredness of the cow was the reason for lynching, why had it not happened for thousands of years, but only now? The problem with this attempt at coercion is that it is not possible. Obdurate and violent efforts to achieve the impossible typically employ drastic measures and expend excessive energies, thus causing more suffering and violence but not the desired end.
From the stupidity of laws controlling meat-eating, particularly beef-eating, to lynching, proves the fervency of the Hindu Nazis, as well as their futility. The closest parallel to this obsessive and oppressive vegetarianism is equally absurd: the claim that Indians are less sexual in practice, thoughts and permissiveness. Contrary evidence to false ideas like these cannot be suppressed, it can only be denied and the disavowal can become policy, with sporadic cases of inflicting excessive suffering without being able to implement or establish such claimed falsity as truth.
The second biggest meat-eating population in the world are Indians. It is almost impossible that global patterns of food consumption and production, as part of the global food chain/system, could be much tampered with by this or that ideological force, even by governments and the paramilitaries at their disposal, even if they can make binding laws, impose them strictly, and have them murderously monitored by the vigilantes. Essential features of trends are determined by the larger global processes and possibilities and not by ideological or superstitious legislation. The obsessive and murderous determination to achieve the impossible is sure to fail, but that is no consolation. Such misguided attempts are sure to cause immeasurable suffering and bloodshed. So, vegetarianism is as much about caste as its recasting into something else in Hindu Nazi times. Its impracticality turns us a nation of imposters.
(The author is a Dalit sociologist currently pursuing doctoral research at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT-Bombay)...