During the Motion of Thanks to the Governor’s speech at the recently concluded budget session, Caitu Silva, the MLA from Benaulim, made a shocking statement in the Goa Legislative Assembly on 25 March, 2015. As reported in the national press, Silva was commenting on the state of the health-services in Goa when he said, “And some government officials in the hospital speak in such a despicable manner. I feel ashamed to say that some officers have said that the hospital in South (south Goa district) is to only save pig-eaters”. Asserting rightly that Christians in Goa need not be referred to pejoratively as “pig-eaters”, Silva also said, “[t]hese are the words used by a government officer. These words have been used because Christians eat pork? Officers should not do this. I know who the officer is”. Silva’s comments, yet again, reveal how food habits that are seen as non-Hindu are coming under repeated attacks and discrimination.
The ‘shocking’ nature of the comments naturally made it to the ‘national’ press. Many national newspaper and web portals carried the news from the stories filed by such syndicated news agencies like Agencies, PTI, and IANS. While there was some space given in the ‘national’ media for Silva’s statement, there was an almost deafening silence in Goa. Only a paragraph-long notice was published in the Goa edition of the Times of India. The first question that needs to be asked is why was there a deafening silence in the Goan press? Isn’t the shocking nature of the statement enough of a qualification for being newsworthy?
It needs to be borne in mind that this statement from Silva came at a time when the ban on beef in Maharashtra is generating a heated debate. Despite the fact that features and op-eds regularly appeared about the impact of the ban on beef on the Goan population, Silva’s revelations were not seen as part of the same casteist and communal politics that is behind the beef ban. There is a conceptual problem in the manner in which the discourse about food practices and habits are framed in the media. These issues relating to food habits and practices are solely seen through the lens of consumption. This, I would argue, is the root of the conceptual flaw. The ban on beef is not simply a matter of prohibition on consumption, but also about snatching livelihoods, denying fundamental rights in relation to food and livelihoods, and de-legitimizing food cultures of minoritized groups.
The issue of the discriminatory, casteist, and communal attitude of the government official, as revealed through Silva’s statement, also needs to be understood. Silva is right in asking whether Christians are referred to in a derogatory manner because they consume pork. But what is also chilling to note is implicit biases in the comment of the government official about people who consume pork. It is clear that the government official in question thinks that governmental resources are going to waste, since it is of no use to treat or provide health services to people who consume pork.
I am not making the claim that the said government official has actively denied Christians health services, because they consume pork. Indeed, there is insufficient evidence in this regard. But one can see how such contempt can create conditions to discriminate Christians and deny them governmental services and benefits. We are confronted with a process of creating minoritized groups, wherein conditions are created for denying communities access to such resources like health services. Such comments cannot be considered to create better living conditions and democratic participation in politics for Christians, or for that matter other minorititized groups in Goa.
The casteist and communal nature of the comments by the government official also needs to be linked with the uneasy history of relations between the so-called ‘majority’ and ‘minority’ cultures in Goa. Such an attitude is not simply confined to this particular government official. Indeed, the derogatory term ‘dukor khaire’ or ‘pig-eaters’ is quite common in Goa. One wonders how many such government servants, who are hired to promote the welfare of the citizens of Goa, hold such casteist and communal views. If one looks at the very delicately-poised relations that Goan Hindus (the ‘majority’) and the Christians (the ‘minority’) seem to have shared over the last few decades and the current communal polarization in India, one begins to understand that this discrimination has a longer history. One also needs to see how the hierarchy of the caste system operates through a hierarchization of food: with fish being the most acceptable (remember fish-eating brahmins are progressive, according to Rajdeep Sardesai), followed by chicken, mutton, pork, and finally beef. Consumption of pork perhaps can be used to single out Catholics from other minoritized groups in Goa. What the recent comments by the government official make us confront is that this discrimination is happening through governmental institutions – it is structural. Indeed, institutional discrimination against Christians in Goa was always present, now none can deny that it happens.
Matters of dietary preferences and taste are not simple and mundane choices that individuals make. In fact, there is always a deeper politics behind them, as is amply proven by the ban on beef, which not only dictates what persons should eat, but has also snatched away the livelihood from many engaged in the meat industry. Entire communities are implicated in this politics of minoritizing, leading to their eventual disenfranchisement. That the abovementioned comment was hardly debated in the Goan press only indicates to us that we need to urgently re-think about how we relate to our food and food cultures. We need to start thinking of food practices as not just embodying the cultural life of a community, but also impacting its economic and political spheres as well.
(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 15 April, 2015)