The recent violence in Dadri, a village in an already lawless Uttar Pradesh, has seen an incredible outpouring of self-righteous indignation in India’s editorial columns. Typical of India – and elsewhere, in all likelihood – facts followed outrage and the picture as it stands now is a lot murkier. Nonetheless, violence was done, blood was shed, and food – specifically beef – was an ingredient in the story. The disproportionate response to a relatively minor issue – even the residents of Dadri have grown tired of the media circus – is telling of the complete disconnect between English language columnists and reality. If one were to go by the editorials, the temporary ban on beef during an important Hindu festival is an infringement of civil liberties and the violence in Dadri is the direct consequence of a rising tide of Hindutva politics led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi – never mind the centuries of cultural sensitivities or local traditions.
This argumentation reveals a fundamental flaw in the Liberal enterprise – the assumption that society, each generation, begins tabula rasa, with no history, background, or tradition. Upon this blank slate, intellectuals and activists can fashion their dystopias. Yet reality cannot be further from this scenario: each community does have its own customs and ties that bind, society does find value in things extra-rational. If history is any indication, legislation that goes against the values of the majority will undoubtedly fail; worse, it may even create resentment against the group whom the legislation is supposed to benefit.
It takes brazen blindness to believe that food is not political, particularly beef and pork. In Spain, after the Reconquista, pork emerged as the primary marker of Christianity even ahead of partaking of the Eucharist at Mass. As Christian armies swept south and forcibly converted thousands in their path, they soon began to fear that the new converts might be reverting to their old faith in private. As a result, conversion ceremonies did not simply involve a profession of faith but were done over the consumption of the meat the convert’s former coreligionists found offensive to their sensibilities. Avoidance of pork was serious enough an offence to send people before the Inquisition as plenty of records attest even to the torture and imprisonment of the accused. In El primer rey de Castilla, a play during the Siglo de Oro by the famous author Lopa de Vega, a character explains that he hung a side of bacon on his wall “so that the King will know that I am neither a Moor nor a Jew.” The same custom of conversion over pork was carried to India by the Portuguese.
Similarly, in India, the consumption of beef has been a sensitive issue in recent years not for dietary reasons but for religious and political ones. As has been pointed out by umpteen people, there is clear evidence of the consumption of meat – including beef and pork – and alcohol, perhaps even ephedra and marijuana, in ancient Hindu texts. What all those people have missed is that the Hindu way, unlike other religions, is not doctrinaire – Hindus are not averse to changing their ways depending on circumstances. Otherwise, it would be difficult to fathom several habits of the modern Hindu. Hindu culture has constantly evolved over the years and somewhere along the way, for whatever reason, it became taboo to consume certain items.
Despite the spiritual taboo, many Hindus today, including brahmins, do consume beef. The problem arises, however, when a great show is made of doing so; the only purpose of organising beef festivals is to provoke Hindus. Unfortunately, the response to provocations can be quite unpredictable and tragic. Legal recourse can certainly punish those who forgot themselves in a moment of anger but the damage would have been done and in cases like Dadri, are irreversible. Given India’s massive beef exports and thriving leather industry, most Hindus have clearly made peace with the entire industry. What causes a few to react violently under specific circumstances is worth investigating.
India’s liberals bemoan the ban of beef as a violation of their liberty, but their opportunistic whine deserves little attention. As Bangladeshi authress Taslima Nasrin recently noted, liberalism in India is highly selective and is essentially an anti-Hindu posture. The furore over the temporary curtailment of the availability of beef during a major Hindu holiday is ample demonstration that there is no basic decency left in India. Just as it would be rude to eat in public during the day in a Muslim country during Ramadan, or for that matter, insisting on consuming alcohol during dinner with a teetotaler friend who is uncomfortable with the consumption of liquor, it would simply be the civilised thing to do to abstain from beef publically at least during certain days of the year. Of course, the use of state machinery to enforce manners is as worrying as the need to remind people of their manners.
To repeat a point that has often been made, restrictions exist all over the world for certain kinds of food. If we debate why beef should be banned, should we also consider why horse meat is banned in some places? Dog meat? Cats? Does liberalism necessarily have to have only a provocative face and not a pragmatic one? For all the talk of secularism, it is interesting to note how many countries restrict the sale of alcohol on Sunday, the Christian holy day.
One of the smartest things Mohandas Gandhi did when he returned to India was to take a trip around around the country. He saw and understood the pulse of real India, not of the salons of London-educated lawyers of the Congress party who had still not been able to successfully win the hearts and minds of Indians. Gandhi did not support President Rajendra Prasad’s drive to ban beef but it is equally unlikely that he would have hosted or promoted a beef festival. It would behoove many social commentators today to follow in Gandhi’s footsteps – it is all well and good to sit and discuss beef-eating in the abstract in Colaba or Hauz Khas, feeling urbane and sophisticated, but the same issue has a very different and very potent valence in Mandoli or Udupi.
If the alleged opinion shapers of the country are so disconnected – disregarding? – from the majority of the country, it must be asked what role they play in the public sphere. Perhaps we will read about how there should be no crime, hunger, or disease next. And yes, the irony of criticising op-eds in an op-ed has not escaped unnoticed!
This post appeared on FirstPost on October 20, 2015.