A year ago, Kafila, a popular online left-leaning magazine, posted an article about the students of Jawaharlal Nehru University debating the ban on beef and pork products in the canteens and mess of the university. In spite of being a supposed bastion of left-wing liberalism in India, it appears that the Brahmanical elite weilded enough influence to shut down canteens serving beef curry or pork products.
This reminds me of my own experience with food fascism during my college days. Because of the myriad number of restrictions on the movements and dress codes at the college hostel (no shorts, curfew after 10 pm, etc.), I and a friend chose to rent an off campus house instead. We found a suite and pretty soon, settled down at the place. One day, while I was cooking meat, the said friend – a vegetarian Hindu, raised an issue about meat being cooked in the house. He claimed that our landlord banned the cooking of meat in the premises, which was a lie. When I refused to fall for it and asserted my rights to cook what I want in a house that is as much mine as it is his, he threw a fit – throwing me an ‘ultimatum’ to stop cooking meat in the future or vacate the house (which he intended to share with a friend of his, which I found later).
Refusing to be bullied, I continued cooking meat as usual. Some days later, some thugs from the local housing society turned up, saying that they received complaints that I am a ‘radical’. They threatened to throw me out of the house, if I didn’t vacate the place in two days. It didn’t take me long to put two and two together, so I called up couple of my friends from college, who turned up with Student Union activists and the local police. The police, in my defence, clarified that I had no charges of radicalism either in Kolkata or back in my homeland. After placating the goons, it was clear that my so called ‘friend’ – my flatmate, levelled this allegation and soon, he was summoned by the police and threatened with charges under the Scheduled Tribes Act if he continued the harassment any longer (a maximum penalty of five years imprisonment, if convicted).
We eventually found a middle ground (by keeping a seperate set of utensils). However the incident didn’t go without leaving a mark and a curiousity to find out what provokes such pseudo-facist attitude towards food in a vegetarian Indian’s psyche. I did a part of my school in New Delhi, so I was familiar with the Hindi chauvinism in North Indian cultures, as well as the pretence that India is a monolithic nation of a single ‘Hindu culture’ (one that is often advertised to foreigners, and clueless Indian nationalists alike). However, trying to impose their food preferences in such a bullying manner was a new experience to me.
As I read up more about the issue, I discovered that there were multiple attempts by the Sangh Parivar to have a blanket ban on cow slaughter all over India. The rampant beef consumption in parts of India, such as the North East, was converted into a contentious political issue by the Hindutvaswadis (Hindu nationalists) – as a symbol of mainland Indians’ inability to dominate the Tibeto-Burman ethnic groups of the region. In six states of India, cow slaughter is a cognizable offence, punishable with an imprisonment that can extend up to seven years; which is ironic, considering that the Indian police is already overburdened with murders, rapes, robberies and other such violent crimes against human beings. While normal non-veg* food does not evoke as much outrage as beef consumption – it becomes a bone of contention when a vegetarian feels offended by such a taboo food choice.
Some of my vegetarian friends, in order to defend their food facism, came up with kooky theories – that it is a retaliatory response to counter the Muslim and Christian conspiracy to feed beef and pork products to the chaste, vegetarian people of India. Contrary to their paranoia, no such conspiracies than been unearthed so far, nor is there any isolated incident that points to the possible existence of such a conspiracy. Meat is relatively expensive and scarce in the country, and given that most non-vegetarian Atheists, Hindus, Muslims or Christians aren’t as obsessed with the dietary taboos and practices of the vegetarian people – there is no good reason to waste good meat on an unwilling victim. However the facism of vegetarian Indians against the non-vegetarian people still remains a major bone of contention for a lot of Indians, one that seems to create as much of a debate in college campuses, at it did in my shared flat in Kolkata.
*short for non-vegetarian, the desi euphemism for edible meat