By Kancha Ilaiah
13 May, 2012
After the beef festival in Osmania University, Hyderabad, on April 15 — in which 1,500-2,000 students belonging to SC/ST/OBC communities and some faculty members participated — was attacked by the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) and Rastriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) activists, food culture has become an issue of national debate.
The ABVP and RSS attacked the students who ate beef, burnt media vans covering the festival and a bus on the Osmania campus. Predictably, they used only SC/ST/OBC students to get the job done. Osmania students, leaving behind their image as agitators for a separate Telangana state, became the harbingers of social reform that could protect the Muslims, who often face hostility sparked by the notion that it is ungodly to eat beef, even in this region.
Culture engenders passion and throughout history cultural battles have claimed more lives than wars fought over land. After human society entered the phase of organised religion, each religion formulated its own notion of God and structuralised its relationship with God/ gods/prophets. In this process, many inimical relationships were established between religions, based often on the food habits of people and the theological definitions that had been worked out around them.
What is not so well known is that the Arya dharma was constructed around full-scale beef-eating in ancient India and the early opposition to that came from Jain Vardhaman Mahavir and the spiritual theory that required total abstinence from all forms of meat. Since it was not possible to sustain large human existence around only vegetarianism (at that time all plants were treated as lifeless), Jainism could not expand. The beef-eating Arya dharma continued to hold sway, perhaps till such time as Gautam Buddha’s Buddhism gained in strength.
Buddha discovered the middle path between the Vedic multi-fold, violent spiritual dharma and the extreme non-violent Jain philosophy, and abolished all forms of animal sacrifices (within the Sangha), but allowed eating of meat, beef, pork and fish as purely need-based food items.
We do not have exact evidence when the Arya Brahmins became vegetarians. One theory is that they adopted the pure vegetarian food culture during Adi Shankara’s anti-Buddhist Advaita campaigns. Though there are Brahmins who ritually eat meat and fish in several parts of western and eastern India, beef, somehow, has become a spiritual untouchable, maybe because of cow worship of Brahminism.
Beef may have gone out of Hindu food culture, but it has survived among SC/STs and some OBC communities.
In evolving vegetarianism, the influence of Jainism worked more than any other factor. During the phase of Islam’s expansion and British colonialism, Brahmins not only became rigid vegetarians but established a cow-worshipping culture and came to label Muslims and Christians as “cow eaters”.
They also re-worked their literary texts to say that vegetarians are sacred (pure) people and meat, beef and fish-eaters are chandaals. During this entire period they never cared to examine what the Sudras, Ati Sudras (Dalits) and Adivasis, who had nothing to do with Islam and Christianity, were eating. The preferred food of the vast masses continued to be meat, fish and beef.
During the freedom struggle, Brahminic vegetarianism got a further fillip with Mahatma Gandhi joining the bandwagon.
Gandhi, in fact, politicised food culture in a significant way. The RSS and its political wing, Jana Sangh, also adopted vegetarianism and cow protection (not buffalo and bull protection) as their post-Independence, nationalist, cultural ideology, without any regard for the democratic principle that what one eats must be left to the individual.
Till the days of the Mandal movement, the Bharatiya Janata Party (the new name of the Jana Sangh), remained weak because the Dalit-Bahujan masses suspected that its leaders wouldn’t eat “people’s food”. It remained by and large a Brahmin-Baniya party. Till then, in fact, all parties were headed by Brahminic forces who took for granted that Gandhian Hinduism had acquired legitimacy. The communists never engaged with cultural issues, thinking that the masses would not like such an engagement. But they did not talk against any food culture.
After Independence, even academic institutions turned Brahminic vegetarian; several sociologists wrote what could be called “Hindu sociology”, dividing society into pure (vegetarian) and impure (meat, fish and beef-eating) castes.
Modern sociological theories, instead of suggesting methods of abolishing graded caste-based inequalities, added the new spiritual fascist language of “social purity” of vegetarianism and “social impurity” of non-vegetarianism. They, too, forgot that Indian Muslims and Christians would be bracketed as impure people. But the Indian Christians and Muslims know that their God created animals to provide food for humans. The Bible, for example, says, “You may eat any animal that has completely split hooves and that chews the cud.” It further says that the camel, though it chews the cud, does not have a split hoof; the pig, though, has a split hoof but does not chew the cud; therefore “you must not eat their meat.”
The Quran’s prescriptions are on the same lines. But the Western Christian menu includes pork and the Muslim menu includes camel meat. It was the non-cow and non-pig-eating food culture that caused the Sepoy mutiny in India in 1857.
To overcome all these problems of food culture that India as a modern nation has inherited, we should adopt a democratic plural and individualist food culture without validating anything in spiritual terms. Universities ought to be agents of transformation.
SC/ST/OBC students come from uninhibited food cultural backgrounds and they think that the mess menu should be multi-cultural and not affect the individual’s democratic right to eat any item. No religious culture (Hindu, Muslim, Christian) should control the food habits of people. In this respect, states must follow the Kerala model of keeping an all-inclusive menu in public spaces, and not the Gujarat model, where one religious culture rules the roost.
Kancha Ilaiah is director, Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy, Maulana Azad National Urdu University, Hyderabad.