Vegetarianism: A New Tool for India’s Radicals?

Food is almost always a politically fraught topic, but in India of late that politics is beginning to assume some truly distasteful flavors.

I ran into this blog post in the London Independent today about a Dalit fest at an Indian university celebrating beef as a way to assert “their culinary rights in public”. This is because Dalits, as lower caste Indians are collectively called, have traditionally eaten meat unlike the upper castes, or Brahmins, who were usually vegetarian. I used the past tense there because that is not necessarily true in these changing times when a number of young people from Brahmin families, dazzled by westernization and the influx of international food chains like McDonald’s, do eat meats like chicken and mutton outside their homes. Many, though, would probably still not eat beef because their religion deems the cow sacred.

The beef festival, I gather, was meant as a way for the Dalits to assert their right to eat what they want, even the holy cow (although it’s usually buffalo meat that’s sold as beef in India), without fear of suppression and objection by the upper castes.

While the idea of killing innocent animals — cows or buffaloes– as a political statement sounded tragic enough to this Indian vegan, here’s what was more shocking: according to the blogger who wrote this post, a group of right-wing Hindu radicals disrupted the festival, threatening some of the women participating in the festival with acid attacks and gang rape.

When did vegetarianism in India turn into a preserve of the radicals?

Granted, vegetarianism has always been a political tool in India used tacitly by the Brahmins to assert their superiority, but it was also a very natural part of the Indian tradition. I grew up in a family staunchly divided into veggies and non-veggies: those of us who ate meat and fish, and those of us who wouldn’t want to eat off a clean plate if someone else had, even years ago, served meat on it.

This is perhaps the only country in the world where you can find as many vegetarian restaurants as ones that serve meat. Where no one will raise an eyebrow if you tell them you are a vegetarian or badger you with questions about your health, or gush, how do you ever do it? After all, we’ve been doing it for centuries.

But there has always been one deep flaw in India’s vegetarian tradition: it is strongly religion-based. While some Indians might argue that religion and ethics go hand in hand, it is a tough argument to buy when you find so many Indians today discarding their families’ vegetarian traditions because of the easy availability of meat. In fact, for these individuals meat seems to have the allure of the forbidden fruit: something that definitely does not go with an ethical understanding of vegetarianism.

Indian vegetarians’ arguments about not wanting to hurt animals also does not gel with the fact that India’s animals, including the millions of stray dogs, cats, cows and other animals that dot its landscapes, are horrendously treated by both vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike. Also one look at India’s sickening dairy farms, where cows are treated just as terribly as they are on any crowded dairy feedlot in the United States, puts to rest any illusions about Indian vegetarians’ love for the cow because all this abuse does not stop them from guzzling milk, curd and ghee by the gallon.

Today, the tacit discrimination against those who eat meat is becoming disturbingly overt, not because the Hindu radicals objecting to the meat-eating have any empathy for animals or, for that matter, for other humans, but because it is a way to put certain groups “in their place.” The Dalit fest was a reaction to exactly this kind of discrimination, although in my opinion they should have chosen an avenue of protest that did not involve hurting sentient creatures.

Just weeks ago, I read a story about vegetarian-only apartment buildings and blocks becoming all the rage in some Indian cities. While many vegetarians would innocently assume that this is a good thing (and it would be so if the only motivation was not hurting animals), the true reason is a desire to create enclaves meant for certain castes that have traditionally not eaten meat: the Brahmins, of course. Hindus not wanting to buy homes next door to people of other religions, even in a cosmopolitan city like Bombay, is by no means a new development– it happened even 15 years ago, when I still lived in India. But what is disturbing is that it has become more mainstream and widely accepted now.

Not long ago, I wrote on my other blog about a group of Hindu radicals responsible for the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi announcing that they would no longer use leather belts for members’ uniforms. While dropping leather would have been a good thing in itself, it was a decision motivated no doubt by the fact that Muslims dominate India’s leather industry.

As an ethical vegan, I am all for stopping the use of leather and in my ideal world no one would ever hurt an animal for any reason whatsoever. But in my ideal world — and, I daresay, in the real world– people arrive at vegetarianism not because they are forced to and threatened by radical groups. Or because religion tells them it’s the right thing to do (although one could argue it helps).

Vegetarianism should always be a conclusion individuals reach because they understand what is wrong with the use of animals for food: the terrible conditions that animals raised for food live in, the horrible deaths they die, and the needlessness of using animal skin or fur for comfort when there are better synthetic alternatives available.

On a more intellectual level, a vegan, plant-based diet free of all animal products is also the healthiest one and can guarantee protection against a slate of lifestyle diseases, including some types of cancer, diabetes, and obesity.

The Hindu radicals who are using vegetarianism as a political tool have just one goal: dividing and ruling an India where rapid shifts in society and the economy over the past two decades have left many floundering to find their identity. Those who seek to fight their oppression couldn’t do worse than assert themselves by promoting violence against animals. And those who support vegetarianism couldn’t do worse than aligning themselves with groups that have nobody’s interests at heart, human or animal.

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  1. says

    Thanks for posting this. Friends on another blog had linked to a different blog about this story. Personally, I think you have done a much better and more balanced discussion of what & why. The violent protesters were called radical vegetarian fascists. I commented that they were religious extremists who happened to be vegetarian. Sadly, few religions are exempt from violent extremists. Not exactly a good recruiting tool.

  2. Anonymous says

    Thanks for this honest post about vegetarianism in India and true religion based motivation behind it. I am Indian too but raised non-veg. I am trying to move more towards vegan options and love your blog for Indian vegan recipes. I could never tolerate how religion was used to justify food choices. When I first came to US as a student, I particularly tried beef just to defy the whole religious restrictions around it. At least in the US I have seen people being more rational about food choices where as in India it is always “this is what my family eats, hence I must follow the same, eg. no onions or garlic for jains”. My mom was shocked and angry at me for either ends of my food choices (beef or vegan). I have also seen women are the ones expected to modify their diet – turn veg or non-veg after marriage. I think diet choices in India are all about controlling individual freedom similar to many other aspects of life.

  3. Amrita says

    Thanks Vaishali for this post. It is much needed and I absolutely get your point. As long as religious extremism exists, they will use some tool or the other to whip up public passion and misdirect it towards something destructive and divisive. The “beef festival” (note, the “festival” is in reality a celebration of death, the fact is carefully hidden from the collective consciousness of the society) will have an opposite reaction from the other community. I fear we are sitting on an active volcano at this point, ready to erupt. However, all said and done, I a vegan, yearn to live in an all-vegan commune if I get the opportunity. I will probably not think about how my action will affect the political dynamics of the nation as I consider it my basic right to life. I think the all-vegetarian communities are not political moves to form ghettos, it is just an expression by a section of the people in a country where people have indeed become extreme in their eating habits. You will just have to come to India to see it. I myself avoid all lanes with “shops” that have birds crammed in cages waiting for their turn to die or corpses of animals hanging upside down. It is quite horrible and nothing nice comes out for the people who are behind such violence.

  4. says

    It is terrible all this and very it’s a pity: a real mortar while everything could be so simple if each respected the natural order of the planet and his(her) inhabitants that frightens!!! Where goes – tone?

  5. says

    Very well-written and informative post – thanks so much. It is interesting for me to find out more about religious vegetarians – so much of the ‘bad’ stuff that happens in our world appears to be related in some way to religion. So sad. Keep up the great work in keeping us informed (as well as the great recipes!)

  6. says

    This is a wonderful post!

    I am so glad that you discussed the “religious-ness” behind their choices. I know what it means to grow up with a diet based on religion. I was raised in a Christian family and it was all about “domination and control.” The same people that were trying to save unborn children were all for the military “nuking the whales.” It is so disgusting, their are hypocrites in every bunch.

    Thank you for writing this, I feel very informed and am a new follower. :)

  7. says

    I am especially disgusted by the religiously pious threatening gang rape and disfigurement of women. Your arguement is spot on Vaishy and well thought out. It is not easy to be vegan-I have slipped time and again–but I keep coming back to the simplest precent of all “First, do no harm.” Note to the gentlemen who threatened the women at the festival–women are sacred too.

  8. says

    Thank you for taking the time to write this, I feel I learned something today!
    Very articulate and logical piece of writing.

  9. Anonymous says

    It’s not my place to criticize Indian society especially since we have lots of problems of our own here in the USA, but It’s too bad the Dalits equate eating meat with liberation from their oppression. I stopped eating meat for the animals in the mid seventies and the first place I turned to was the only nearby Indian restaurant for something delicious and vegetarian.

  10. says

    Wow. Truly reflective of how diverse India is. So many beautiful parts but then like everything, everyhwere, there are extremists…..and like you say, things are not done for the benefit of “the animal” but for spiritual/religious gain. The whole “caste” thing always surprises me……..and that it is alive and well even in the States today. There will always be people doing crazy things in the name of religion and for what they see as “their own gain” instead of perhaps truly wanting to reduce suffering in the world and/or get closer to a higher being/God.

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