Beef and Intolerance in India

Writing this, I recall my many late night dietary indulgences, chowing down on a Big Mac. An absurd start indeed. In my home country of India, McDonald’s occupies the imagined trendiness of globalization. A hang out spot for the burgeoning middle class, that functions within the limits of regulation. Beef consumption and sale is banned in 24 of the 29 Indian states. The Big Mac does not exist.

Under the current political climate, conversing about any beef related food or simply “beef” is divisive. Recently, I came across several tweets/articles/posts that outright shun the current ruling political party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, for creating a theocracy. Rightly so, since several other incidents have shed light on the intolerance towards challenges against the right-wing Hindu nationalist party. The “beef” issue particularly highlights this tension. Under a federal structure, the states decide on whether beef is allowed or not. The central government steers far away but condemns the communal militancy and violence associated with the “beef issue.” Most recently, a man was lynched to death, another was burnt alive and a lawmaker was harassed by his colleagues, all cases with Muslim victims. Seemingly, laws/policies are out of the debate in all these cases. Economic disparity fueled with communal hate traces a bigger clash of cultures.

As India formed its own post-colonial nationhood, Beef remained a potent challenge. Beef can be masked as a symbol of the communal hatred already ingrained in this volatile new country. The colonial policy to “divide and rule” echoed a traumatic reality, that Muslims and Hindus couldn’t live in one country. Hence, Pakistan and India. For India, a socialist secular vision seemed progressive. But this very mission proved counter-productive, since all that happened was a re-enforced mimicry of the colonial era. Pluralism was a blasé ideal, economic disparity dwelt and widened, corruption sustained it. Progress marginalized those outside the dominant Hindu narrative. Fast forward to now, the repercussions are evidently tearing a country apart. Beef still remains an issue burdened with violence. The history of India, before this, shows a different case.

History trails an engagement with changes, beef consumption in Ancient India highlights the change in religious dogma. Indian Historian Dwivendra Narayan Jha received threats when he published his book, The Myth of the Holy Cow in 2009. Expanding on his research, Holy Cow: Beef in Indian Dietary Traditions, Professor Jha explains that beef consumption was part of ancient Hindus life. Until 500 A.D—the cow got its revered status coinciding with an agricultural boom on the subcontinent. Jha’s research offers copious evidence that ancient Hindu kings regularly sacrificed and ate animals including cattle. As cattle became a key element of the new agrarian economy, animal killing was rejected and everyone gravitated towards vegetarianism. This coincided with a change in religious doctrine as well.

Hinduism’s anthropomorphic idolatry ties into the issue of cattle slaughter as well. Kamadhenu, a divine-bovine goddess, is believed to be the mother of all cows, and also a nurturer of all other religious deities. The “devout” Hindu then not only worships the cow for having religious ancestry, but also for having a direct association with the Gods themselves. For many who have traveled to India, this would explain the sight of cows walking carelessly down motorways, even during rush-hour traffic.

Eating beef, however, is not uncommon among Hindus. In addition to the rare upper-class cosmopolitan who does have the means for an American steak, the lower caste-class demographic also consumes beef. Due to lack in demand, beef is cheaper than any other meat. All this seems to imply that there is some correlation between beef consumption and those who are already marginalized by the dominant majority.

The complications of these post-colonial/religious influences are more fragmented when mob violence aims to enact justice. The sensationalized media aesthetic of news in India has covered this issue many times but to no effect in actual judicial practice. Bulgarian writer Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Powers elaborates the process of the mob, in particular the crowd. The delusion that power lies in the hands of the crowd, comes from a fear of the unknown. The unknown here is enabled by the ineffectiveness of the ruling power structure. Structure feels imbalanced, justice is not achieved. At this point, the crowds takes over power and the inclination towards chaos seems to be a repercussion.

The recent incidents in India have been scandalous for their violent nature and that the “lynchings” involved mobs of close to a thousand people. As Canetti states, the delusional belief that only a mob can bring liberation or justice, highlights the ineffectiveness of governing legal structures. In a country like India, secular governance means that religious practice is allowed freely as a fundamental right to express faith. However, the reality of divided and oppressed groups are less exposed as here in the US. The dominance of the ideology of the upper-caste Hindu majority, means a negation to the point of dehumanization of the marginalized groups. With a Hindu nationalist right-leaning party in power, the ideology is hegemonic and dangerous.

In turn, secularism is deduced as a sentiment that is anti-Hindu, to some extent, even anti-nationalist. But not that the government is effectively enacting its ideology. What seems to be evident is that the ideology feeds the mob in a different way. The mob feels it is the solution rather than the cause for a problem that could have been effectively addressed in policy. Unfortunately, the ruling BJP party’s ideology does not entirely condemn such activity. Its focus is on developing a rising GDP, and the numbers prove its success, even when it comes to beef.

India has become one of the top exporters of beef after Brazil? The complexities of such a diverse country are hard to simplify. In an economically progressive society where traditional values (imagined or otherwise) create schisms, politics takes advantage of the polarities. Bring in propaganda, a disillusioned civil society and vigilante mob justice; what remains is discourse fearing the downfall of India’s secular democratic foundations.

-Fileona 

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