Wednesday, March 18, 2015


What we eat and what we do not is simply not a question of satiating hunger. Dietary preferences provide us with vital cultural markers of identity. This column would like to explore how dietary preferences are used to subjugate, oppress and systematically minoritize certain groups over a period of time and keep them away from the portals of power and privilege.

About two weeks ago news broke out that the Maharashtra government had banned cow slaughter, and whoever sold, or was found in possession of beef would be penalized with five years’ imprisonment as well as a fine of Rs. 10,000. Thus, consumption and sale of beef now became – as in many other states like Madhya Pradesh and Delhi – a legal and punishable offence. While the case of banning the consumption of beef is extreme, what one often misses is the subtle ways in which the dietary preferences of a large number of people are being manipulated. For instance, responding to a query on twitter, the current Railways Minister, Suresh Prabhu said, “I am a vegetarian myself, and I understand vegetarians may face problems since the food they eat on trains and other railways facilities is cooked in the same kitchens as non-vegetarian food”. Prabhu further said that “[w]hile it would be good if everyone takes up vegetarianism” his ministry would make attempts to provide separate kitchens for vegetarian and non-vegetarian food on trains.

While the connection between the ban on the consumption of beef and the comments of the Railways Minister might not be obvious, what one can clearly see is the discomfort with the consumption of meat and meat products. The subtext to these comments and events is that one should not indulge in the consumption of foods that have meat and meat products in them. While separate kitchens have not yet been, thankfully, enforced in the trains, the ban on the consumption of beef has already caused severe problems for those Muslim communities that are engaged in the trade to supply beef. It is estimated that the “Maharashtra government’s decision to ban beef is likely to affect nearly 20 lakh people of [the] Quresh community, whose livelihoods depend on this business. Apart from them, the leather industry, farmers, middlemen, workers at slaughterhouses and retailers associated with the business have also been affected”. What is also important to note is that not only is the beef industry a source of livelihood to a large number of people, but it also provides a cheap and additional source of protein to the poor, especially those poor who belong to the scheduled castes and tribes.

Days after the ban was imposed on cow slaughter and the consumption of beef, the Maharashtra government withdrew 5 percent reservations for Muslims in educational institutions. This policy of allowing 5 percent reservations for Muslims was introduced by the previous government in Maharashtra on the basis of the report of the Mehmood ur-Rehman Committee. The Committee was set up to assess the socio-economic conditions of Muslims in Maharashtra – which one can presume without doubt, was lacking in several areas. What we can clearly observe is how governmental policies seem to be systematically snatching away from a beleaguered community food, livelihood, and its right to education.
Angela Ferrao

One of the immediate responses to the ban on beef, and indeed all such attempts to ban beef in the past has been to point out that one should not have a problem with the consumption of beef as even in Vedic times the brahmins ate beef. While this is true, and no less a scholar than Dr. B. R. Ambedkar has written a detailed study on this topic, one should be slightly wary of framing a response in such a manner. What such a response suggests is that the benchmark of proper behavior is that of the high caste Hindu and everything else should be accommodated within these norms. This can also be seen in the manner in which consumption of meat, termed as ‘non-vegetarian’, is defined as a negative image of vegetarian dietary preferences. Such a response would only reinforce the current norms of Indian political life that privilege upper caste Hindu cultures. To this extent, one acknowledges that certain communities are excluded from active and mainstream political representation, but one does not create a discourse that would allow these same excluded groups any space in political life.

The effect of de-legitimizing dietary and other cultures of minoritized groups, and the framing of the protests against such acts from the reference point of high caste Hindu subjectivity, obscures the fact of the systematic de-legitimization being carried out as well as not recognize the assertions and claims of minoritized groups in mainstream political life. Atul Anand of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences views the demand of beef being consumed publicly as a political assertion from the “marginalised sections” or the groups that are being minoritized. He further argues that the ban on beef consumption is about maintaining upper caste hegemony in mainstream politics.

What we have seen in the foregoing is how certain events, comments, and policy decisions create conditions that facilitate the suppression of non-dominant cultures, leading them to be eventually minoritized. Thus, it can be suggested that groups are de facto not minorities, but are made so through a slow and insidious process. The snatching away of livelihood and educational opportunities from the Muslim communities in Maharashtra, is a case in point. The issue on the ban of beef cannot be confined solely to an issue that affects the Muslim community alone. Neither should it be seen only in terms of an issue that impinges on our political freedoms. As many of my previous columns on the increasing instances of communalization and anti-minority violence have stressed, what we are witnessing today is not a problem of these last few months, but the culmination of a history of almost a hundred years.

In order to imagine and create a democratic, egalitarian, and a just society, the path ahead is not to delegitimize the cultural practices of minoritized groups, but to actively support and encourage them.

Thanks to Angela Ferrao for permitting me to use her illustration on my blog.

(First published in  O Heraldo, dt: 18 March, 2015)

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