Let’s keep food out of identity politics

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Brazen politics Cow slaughter is banned in most parts of India and what is sold as beef is essentially buffalo meat
Brazen politics Cow slaughter is banned in most parts of India and what is sold as beef is essentially buffalo meat. Photo: AFP

The magic words being chanted this election season are development and governance. On display, with numbers, figures and supported by a blitzkrieg advertisement campaign, are: the Gujarat development model, a strong regional leader and good governance. But there is a lurking doubt now. People are realising that the story of Gujarat’s development cannot be defended beyond a point as studies and reports have shown the contrary. An authoritarian and dictatorial leader is not a strong leader. A strong leader is one who is inclusive and takes others along. At a fundamental level, issues related to identity and faith are now being subtly propped up.

Attacking the UPA-2 government for a rise in the export of meat and beef, Narendra Modi mocked the Congress by saying that cattle are being killed for ‘pink revolution’, hinting at the meat business. In our country, consumption of beef is a sensitive issue. It emerges now that despite the social issues surrounding the consumption of beef, India has become the biggest exporter of beef in the world, beating Brazil. This is as per the latest meat export figures from the Ministry of Food Processing. The data shows that India exported 1.89 million tonnes of beef in 2012-13, a 50 percent increase over the past five years. “Officially, the slaughter of cows is banned and beef production is restricted to buffalo meat.

Here too, the slaughter is restricted to males and unproductive females,’’ explains an official from the Department of Animal Husbandry.

As such, beef has been a part of India’s dietary traditions. In Vedic times, the sacrifice of cows in the yagnas (rituals around fire) was a central feature. It is with the rise of agriculture that the restrictions were brought on the sacrifice of cows, as cattle are at the core of agricultural advances. Swami Vivekananda, while speaking to a large gathering in the US, said: “You will be astonished if I tell you that according to old ceremonials, he is not a good Hindu who does not eat beef. On certain occasions, he must sacrifice a bull and eat it.”

This was corroborated by research sponsored by the Ramakrishna Mission, which was established by Swami Vivekananda. One of these reads: “The Vedic Aryans, including the Brahmanas, ate fish, meat and even beef. A distinguished guest was honoured with beef served at a meal. Although the Vedic Aryans ate beef, milch cows were not killed. One of the words used to refer to a cow was aghnya (what shall not be killed). But a guest was a goghna (one for whom a cow is killed). It is only bulls, barren cows and calves that were killed.”

The pioneering research of historian DN Jha also tells us that beef was part of India’s dietary traditions. The same is corroborated by Dr Pandurang Waman Kane in his multi-volume, Bharatiya Dharmgranthon ka Itihas (The history of religious texts from India), where he quotes from the Vedas, “Atho Annam Vya gau (Cow is veritably a food).”

Cows became holy with the rise of agricultural society for obvious reasons. It was later associated with the religious sentiments. Contrary to the propaganda that it was Muslim rulers who brought beef-eating practices in India, the fact is that they, in deference to the feelings of the Hindu majority, went on to put curbs on cow slaughter.

Babar’s will to his son Humayun (exhibited at the National Museum, New Delhi) indicates precisely this point. It says: “Son, this nation, Hindustan, has different religions. Thank Allah for giving us this kingdom. We should remove all the differences from our heart and do justice to each community according to its customs. Avoid cow slaughter to win over the hearts of the people of this land and to incorporate the people in the matters of administration…”

The propaganda that Muslims brought the beef-eating practice to India has no substance at all. As a matter of fact, it was the British who systematised it and appointed Khatiks (butchers) in their barracks for cow slaughter to supply beef for the army. With the rise of politics in the name of religion due to the British policy of ‘divide and rule’, cows and pigs were made instruments of instigating communal violence to polarise the communities along religious lines.

Many a communal riot did break out in the name of cow slaughter. Earlier too, demand for ban on cow slaughter has been raised and now it is banned in most of the states, barring Kerala and West Bengal.

So, currently there are strict rules about cow slaughter and what is called beef is essentially buffalo meat. In recent times, the murder of Dalits in Gohana on the charge that they killed cows for their hide is too fresh in our memory.

As such, beef has been part of Indian dietary practices, especially amongst Dalits and Adivasis, more so in southern India. In the face of rising price of mutton, it is a rich source of protein for the poor. Recently, when I was on a group tour to Eastern Europe, one Hindu family, which was part of our group, by and large was looking for beef as the main dish for their lunch or dinner.

The issue now is that should we have our dietary choices or not? The subtle hint that the UPA-2 is promoting the ‘pink revolution’ is a blatant communal use of the issue. BJP spokespersons on television channels claim that our milk and agricultural production is on the wane because of meat exports. On the contrary, our milk production is on the ascendance and agriculture is suffering but not due to the shortage of cattle. Such claimants need to do their homework and learn that by and large it is the poor and the low caste that rear cattle and they can’t bear the burden of old animals that no more produce milk.

The natural cycle of food and economics is dictating the present scenario, and communalising it is unwarranted. We need to put our agricultural economy on the wheels of progress; rearing animals is an activity that is closely related to agricultural economy. So, blatantly communalising the issue is counterproductive to our values as a democratic society.

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