Do you think a ban on beef is a cultural imposition on certain sections of Hindus, Muslims and Christians?
It is definitely a cultural imposition, more particularly on indigenous groups – tribals and Dalits. The question of cultural imposition on Muslims and Christians comes later.
Why do you say that?
Historically, all Indian masses, including the Brahmins, used to eat beef, both in what is called the Vedic and the post-Vedic period. Gautam Buddha rebelled against this tradition because during his time there was a huge consumption of beef by the priestly class. Buddha asked people not to kill cows for sacrifice, not to kill beyond what they needed for consumption. From that stage to the modern period, most of the untouchables, for instance, the Dalits in south India, sustained themselves on beef in summer, when there used to be massive food scarcity. They would eat even dead or diseased cattle.
In my own village, when I was a child, there were about 70 to 80 Dalit families. I remember they used to have full-stomach food in summer only when they were given cattle either sick or dead. They never received rice, millet or any regular food. This situation continues even now.
As for Muslims, meat has been a historical and religiously accepted food. Again, all Muslims were and are not as poverty-stricken as Dalits were. They have other food resources.
So Muslims and Christians are not the only consumers of beef in India, as is often made out?
Yes, and this can be seen even today. In the city of Hyderabad, during the month of Ramzan, Muslims eat haleem, whether of lamb or beef or chicken, only after they break their fast at sunset and after the evening prayers. But the other communities, including the Brahmin youths, start eating haleem at 4.30 pm. A major portion of beef-haleem in restaurants popular for this savoury dish is consumed by non-Muslims even before the iftaar time. In essence, beef is consumed in much higher quantities by non-Muslims than Muslims. The consumption of beef by Christians in India is very little.
Culturally, what is being attempted is to use the state – that too, a democratic state – to destroy their food culture, their protein availability and food choice. “Their” stands for Dalits, Muslims, Christians and all those whose food habit included beef or who want to eat it. Choice is very important in a modern democracy.
I respect those who don’t want to eat beef or mutton. There are two communities who definitely don’t eat meat – Brahmins, particularly South Indian Brahmins, and Banias. They have become vegetarians over a period of time. What do you think will happen if tomorrow a dictator thinks that even plants have life and concludes that killing plants is worse than slaughtering one animal? After all, to feed a family you need to kill several lady’s fingers, several brinjals, several tomatoes. But if you kill a bull, an entire family can survive on it for a week.
What are the ideas driving this cultural imposition?
These ideas were generated from the later Shaivite tradition with Shankaracharya. This was in response to Buddhists being beef-eaters and practising certain food restraints. Buddhists were never vegetarians. The real vegetarians were the Jains. But to counter the so-called theory of violence of Buddhists, Shankaracharya started a vegetarian campaign among Brahmins and upper castes. It was this campaign of Shankaracharya that turned the Brahmins of South India, much before those of North India, into vegetarians.
But that was in the past. What is the idea driving this cultural imposition today?
Today, South Indian Brahmins, even those educated in modern institutions, remain culturally embedded in their families. Their mindset operates as negatively on food culture as it does on the practice of untouchability. Even the best of the educated Brahmins or Banias practise untouchability, so deeply ingrained is the idea in them. This idea constitutes the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh] ideological agenda for establishing cultural hegemony. To achieve this goal, the RSS has, among other things, turned beef into a Muslim-Hindu issue.
So the ban on beef is a device to create a monolithic Hindu community?
Yes. You also have to ask the question: when did the idea of not eating beef and meat become strong? Gandhi was essentially a Jain; he campaigned for cow protection as well as vegetarianism. It was Gandhi’s campaign that took vegetarianism to non-Brahmin social groups that were meat-arian. The only people who were not really influenced by Gandhi’s cow protection campaign and vegetarianism were Muslims, Christians and Dalits. If the Dalits were not affected, it was because Ambedkar immediately started a counter-campaign.
When Gandhi began to work around the concept of Harijan and mobilising people around it, he had put in some conditions. One, they shouldn’t eat meat. Two, they should pray in praise of Ram. Ambedkar realised that what Gandhi was doing was literally converting the Dalits to Hinduism. Ambedkar, therefore, started a campaign arguing that the Gandhian campaign was not going to help the Dalits. Ambedkar said the Dalits had to be respected along with their cultural roots. He said, you can’t ask them to give up their culture of food, their culture of leather technology.
Ambedkar went on to debate the food issues. He said, all right, Dalits should give up eating dead cattle, but they shouldn’t give up beef. He said this because Buddhists have a culture of eating beef. For instance, Buddhism in China, Japan and Korea allows multicultural food. They eat pork, beef, and don’t consider any food culture taboo. Ambedkar was trying to impart a multicultural dimension to food practices in India, as against Gandhian vegetarianism. Ambedkar wrote at length on the evolution of people’s food culture.
Why did the RSS adopt cow protection as one of the principal items on its agenda?
The RSS’s logic is that the cow has to be given protection because it gives Indians milk, the reason why it has been historically treated as a divine animal. My point is that India does not live on cow milk; India lives on buffalo milk. Now why doesn’t the RSS ask for buffalo protection?
If you look at the law in Gujarat, it has extended the ban on cow slaughter to include the bull and the bullock as well, but it is silent on buffalo meat. During Modi’s period, more and more buffaloes started getting killed even as more and more cows began getting reared around milk-production factories. They started exporting buffalo meat.
This is absolute racism. Seventy five percent of milk in India is buffalo milk. Yet you kill the buffalo because it is a black animal. American racism once upon a time destroyed the buffalo population there. RSS racism will lead to the killing of buffaloes. You see, the buffalo has always been present in India. But the cow came to India with the Aryans. The RSS wants to protect the Aryan animal. This casteist and racist approach has been extended to food culture. This is dangerous.
Are you saying that in order to establish the cultural hegemony of upper castes, the RSS seeks to project the Muslims as the only consumers of beef?
The internal discourse of the RSS, as evident from its publications, states that. But empirically, they are wrong. They claim that the only consumers of beef in India are Muslims and, therefore, they should give up eating it. That the Muslims are cow-killers and we the Hindus should fight them. This argument worked very well with the upper-caste Hindus.
But what is dangerous is this idea that the RSS has taken to the OBCs, who are more and more rallying around it. The RSS’s recruitment of OBCs has undeniably increased after the Babri Masjid demolition, and it is doing so by creating a theoretical framework. The RSS says that not eating beef is Hindu culture and, therefore, Indian culture. The obverse is that consuming beef is alien culture ‒ Muslim and Christian.
They are trying to argue two things theoretically, in a very funny way. One, they are saying that there was no culture of eating beef before the advent of Muslims. This is absolutely false. Of late, they have started saying that even untouchability was created by the Muslims. It is through this theoretical framework that they are trying to reach out to the Dalits and also convert them to Hinduism and vegetarianism.
They are extending the argument among the OBCs that eating meat is not Hindu culture. This is wrong. Meat has always been part of marriage feasts of OBCs and feasts hosted during death rituals. But the OBCs in south India are giving up these cultural practices. I challenge the RSS to prove which of the Hindu gods and which of the Hindu scriptures mandated that beef should not be eaten. Which Hindu god has said he won’t accept beef or pork as a spiritual offering? They have the Vedas, the Upanishads, Bhgavad Gita, etc. The RSS has now synthesised a spiritual sanctity around the Bhagvad Gita. Let them show me one line that says that beef should not be eaten.
But what you have said is also proof that the RSS has been successful in popularising its ideas.
Earlier, the RSS used to propagate vegetarianism among Brahmin-Jain-Bania families. They then took this idea to the RSS shakhas. Now the VHP and the Bajrang Dal are spreading it. They say they are doing it as part of their attempt to popularise the non-violent theory. There couldn’t be a bigger joke than that. If non-violence is your divine theory, why do you have idols and images representing violence in divine form? Was Ram non-violent? Was Krishna non-violent? Did they not kill enemies? How can they, therefore, argue that the killing of birds or bulls is violence?
Secondly, my most important issue is that if you ban killing of animals and leave them to die a natural death, would the agrarian economy survive? Who would rear the cattle then? Why do people rear chickens? Not to put in a museum, right? You breed, say, 100 chickens and you kill 10 of them at the end of the month. You rear them more and only to eat them at some point.
Why do people rear cattle in rural India? Because cows give birth to calves, and calves become bulls. Before the mechanisation of agriculture, bulls tilled the land and provided agrarian labour, so to speak. Tractors have now taken over the role of bullocks. It must be remembered that India doesn’t depend on cow milk. The cattle have other economic benefits – manure is used for fertiliser and fuel, and once it dies or is killed, its skin is sent to the tannery and bones are used for making items such as combs.
But when the economic benefits of the cattle diminish, it is better to kill them for food, and sell its skins and bones. A dead cow isn’t buried because its bones and skin can’t be utilised then. So who is going to bear the expenses of an ageing or sick cow? The RSS is destroying the Indian agrarian economy. In the future the agrarian economy will not have the cow and the bull – and the benefits arising from them will be denied to villagers. Instead, you will have a few gaushalas, built and looked after by the RSS, the VHP and the Brahmins.
Will the cattle slaughter go underground?
Illicit consumption will take place, particularly among Dalits and tribals, because they don’t live in the vicinity of law-enforcing agencies. But the consumption of beef by Muslims will be curtailed. This is because the Muslim community is urbanised and is not as widely dispersed as other social groups. Apart from a reduction in consumption, the ban in the city of Mumbai will adversely affect traders who became rich because of beef, bone and leather exports.
What do you think about the quantum of punishment – a person violating the ban can get five years of imprisonment in Maharashtra and 10 years in Haryana?
The problem is that the central government can’t make a law because agriculture is a state subject. It says it will make a model law and circulate it among the states. This is a very dangerous development as it tacitly encourages states to ban cow slaughter.
As for the quantum of punishment, I think cattle seem to enjoy greater privileges than some sections of society. There should have been protests – Muslims and Christians should have come out on the streets. For one reason or another, Muslims are scared. Mayawati and other Dalit leaders should join hands with Muslims and Christians to oppose this dangerous move of the state to determine people's food habits and challenge their cultural roots and their right to choose.
(Professor Kancha Ilaiah wishes to clarify that the views expressed in this interview are his own and not of Maulana Azad National Urdu University’s.)
Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist from Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, published by HarperCollins, is available in bookstores.