Opinion

Us versus them: Like India, meat divides people even in the US

There is a need to delink vegetarianism from an intrinsic morality. Failing to do so could be dangerous, as the multiple bans in India show.

Last week, Mumbai woke up to some startling news: the sale of meat would be banned for four days in the city out of respect for Paryushan Parva, a Jain festival marked by fasting and abstinence. The announcement put Mumbai’s famously tortured relationship with animal protein squarely at the centre of public debate.

Political activists reacted to the news by declaring that they would take a fattened goat to the chief minister’s house as a protest. On Friday, the Times of India carried a photograph of opposition party workers selling chicken on the street in defiance of the ban. On social media, people vented about the increasing limits on personal liberties and the creeping majoritarianism that the ban seemed to reflect. Liberals linked the Mumbai ban with a larger pattern: a week earlier, an eight-day ban on the sale of meat was declared in Mira-Bhayander, an extended suburb in the north of Mumbai. In March this year, a beef ban was widened in Maharashtra, and in 2004 city slaughterhouses were ordered shut briefly in order to protect “religious sentiments”.

A marker of social class

Like in India, dietary habits also serve as a differentiator in the United States.

In the US, people are vegetarian for a variety of reasons, most often unrelated to religious or community affiliation. For many, being vegetarian stems from a commitment to the surrounding world, to caring about where your food comes from and its effect on the surrounding societies. Vegetarianism makes sense if you are considering the health effects of eating meat produced on factory farms, their destructive impact on the environment, and the potential to inculcate an ethic of non-violence in a violent world.

But vegetarianism, like all dietary restrictions, also functions as a symbolic act. It is not only about what you eat, but about what those restrictions mean in a larger context. Food choices in the US are not often framed explicitly in terms of community belonging, but as individual choice (often with deeply personal reasons – growing up in a meat-loving family with a history of obesity being a common one). As such, these choices become associated with specific politics, geographies and class positions.

Vegetarianism is more commonly found in the US where there is wealth, higher education and political liberalism – in places such as Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Berkeley, California. In these places, food restrictions have become a sign of status. Generally speaking, the more educated and wealthy you are, the longer your list of what you cannot eat. Being vegetarian, pescatarian or vegan, like being gluten or dairy free, is interpreted as a sign of taking care of yourself, of being a responsible and thoughtful citizen, of taking a moral stance toward the world and its future.

The problem is that when vegetarianism – and what you eat in general – is associated with morality, it serves to strengthen distinctions, marking class, education and other indicators of status.

Vegetarianism and morality

In Mumbai, and in India generally, what you eat is often shaped by your religion, ethnicity or caste (although there are also environmental vegetarians in India, as elsewhere). It is common for some vegetarians to not eat in a restaurant that also serves meat or not eat at a house where non-vegetarian food is cooked. In a national landscape moving towards a narrow definition of what it means to be Indian – specifically, Hindu and high caste, and specifically not Muslim – such distinctions have potentially serious consequences.

We can already see its effects in cities such as Mumbai, where the discourse of purity and pollution around what you eat is so powerful that certain groups are denied access to the housing market on account of their dietary choices. If you belong to the “non-vegetarian” groups – including anyone from Muslims to Christians to Maharashtrians to Dalits – it can be difficult to purchase or rent an apartment. Potential buyers are turned away, presumably, because smells from their kitchen might pollute a neighbour’s flat. With vegetarianism used as a distinguisher between “us” and “them”, Mumbai is becoming an increasingly hostile place for religious minorities.

In this context, choosing not to be vegetarian in India, like its opposite in the US, can actually be a political choice. Eating meat can be a principled refusal of the distinctions among castes, religions and ethnicities: a powerful statement that you will eat with anyone, whatever food they give you. It can be a sign of progressivism and solidarity, a refusal of the narrow politics of Hindu chauvinism.

Despite the good intentions behind the new consciousness around food, new lines of distinction have begun to appear in the American food landscape as well. Do you eat processed food or fresh vegetables? Do you shop at the big grocery chain or the local farmer’s market? Do you drink Coke or Kambucha? Do your kids eat Fruit Loops or chia seeds for breakfast? And what kind of person does that make you? Given the devastating effects of such distinctions in Mumbai, what do they foretell about their consequences elsewhere?

This is not to say that vegetarians should rethink their food choices. Rather it is a challenge to delink vegetarianism from an intrinsic morality and to recognise that distinctions (between “us” and “them”, “insider” and “outsider”, “friend” and “enemy”) are established through dietary restrictions everywhere. In the US, and much of the West, vegetarians see the refusal to eat meat as an inherently ethical and progressive choice. The current situation in Mumbai is a reminder that all political choices are context-specific. Being morally opposed to the killing of animals can contain a violence of its own.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content  BY 

As India turns 70, London School of Economics asks some provocative questions

Is India ready to become a global superpower?

Meaningful changes have always been driven by the right, but inconvenient questions. As India completes 70 years of its sovereign journey, we could do two things – celebrate, pay our token tributes and move on, or take the time to reflect and assess if our course needs correction. The ‘India @ 70: LSE India Summit’, the annual flagship summit of the LSE (London School of Economics) South Asia Centre, is posing some fundamental but complex questions that define our future direction as a nation. Through an honest debate – built on new research, applied knowledge and ground realities – with an eclectic mix of thought leaders and industry stalwarts, this summit hopes to create a thought-provoking discourse.

From how relevant (or irrelevant) is our constitutional framework, to how we can beat the global one-upmanship games, from how sincere are business houses in their social responsibility endeavours to why water is so crucial to our very existence as a strong nation, these are some crucial questions that the event will throw up and face head-on, even as it commemorates the 70th anniversary of India’s independence.

Is it time to re-look at constitution and citizenship in India?

The Constitution of India is fundamental to the country’s identity as a democratic power. But notwithstanding its historical authority, is it perhaps time to examine its relevance? The Constitution was drafted at a time when independent India was still a young entity. So granting overwhelming powers to the government may have helped during the early years. But in the current times, they may prove to be more discriminatory than egalitarian. Our constitution borrowed laws from other countries and continues to retain them, while the origin countries have updated them since then. So, do we need a complete overhaul of the constitution? An expert panel led by Dr Mukulika Banerjee of LSE, including political and economic commentator S Gurumurthy, Madhav Khosla of Columbia University, Niraja Gopal Jayal of JNU, Chintan Chandrachud the author of the book Balanced Constitutionalism and sociologist, legal researcher and Director of Council for Social Development Kalpana Kannabiran will seek answers to this.

Is CSR simply forced philanthropy?

While India pioneered the mandatory minimum CSR spend, has it succeeded in driving impact? Corporate social responsibility has many dynamics at play. Are CSR initiatives mere tokenism for compliance? Despite government guidelines and directives, are CSR activities well-thought out initiatives, which are monitored and measured for impact? The CSR stipulations have also spawned the proliferation of ambiguous NGOs. The session, ‘Does forced philanthropy work – CSR in India?” will raise these questions of intent, ethics and integrity. It will be moderated by Professor Harry Barkema and have industry veterans such as Mukund Rajan (Chairman, Tata Council for Community Initiatives), Onkar S Kanwar (Chairman and CEO, Apollo Tyres), Anu Aga (former Chairman, Thermax) and Rahul Bajaj (Chairman, Bajaj Group) on the panel.

Can India punch above its weight to be considered on par with other super-powers?

At 70, can India mobilize its strengths and galvanize into the role of a serious power player on the global stage? The question is related to the whole new perception of India as a dominant power in South Asia rather than as a Third World country, enabled by our foreign policies, defense strategies and a buoyant economy. The country’s status abroad is key in its emergence as a heavyweight but the foreign service officers’ cadre no longer draws top talent. Is India equipped right for its aspirations? The ‘India Abroad: From Third World to Regional Power’ panel will explore India’s foreign policy with Ashley Tellis, Meera Shankar (Former Foreign Secretary), Kanwal Sibal (Former Foreign Secretary), Jayant Prasad and Rakesh Sood.

Are we under-estimating how critical water is in India’s race ahead?

At no other time has water as a natural resource assumed such a big significance. Studies estimate that by 2025 the country will become ‘water–stressed’. While water has been the bone of contention between states and controlling access to water, a source for political power, has water security received the due attention in economic policies and development plans? Relevant to the central issue of water security is also the issue of ‘virtual water’. Virtual water corresponds to the water content (used) in goods and services, bulk of which is in food grains. Through food grain exports, India is a large virtual net exporter of water. In 2014-15, just through export of rice, India exported 10 trillion litres of virtual water. With India’s water security looking grim, are we making the right economic choices? Acclaimed author and academic from the Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi, Amita Bavisar will moderate the session ‘Does India need virtual water?’

Delve into this rich confluence of ideas and more at the ‘India @ 70: LSE India Summit’, presented by Apollo Tyres in association with the British Council and organized by Teamworks Arts during March 29-31, 2017 at the India Habitat Centre, New Delhi. To catch ‘India @ 70’ live online, register here.

At the venue, you could also visit the Partition Museum. Dedicated to the memory of one of the most conflict-ridden chapters in our country’s history, the museum will exhibit a unique archive of rare photographs, letters, press reports and audio recordings from The Partition Museum, Amritsar.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Teamwork Arts and not by the Scroll editorial team.