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.