A video posted on social media on Saturday showing Congress leader Rahul Gandhi cooking mutton curry with Rashtriya Janata Dal chief Lalu Prasad Yadav has stirred up the long-simmering debate about vegetarianism in India and the politics around it.
The video shows the Congress leader and Yadav cooking and eating Champaran mutton, a dish that has its origins in Bihar’s Champaran district. Yadav’s children – lawmakers Misa Bharti and Tejashwi Yadav – were also present at the meal. The last part of the video featured Gandhi’s sister Priyanka eating the mutton they cooked.
Many applauded the easy camaraderie on display between the leaders of the political parties and their decision to show themselves cooking meat at a time of aggressive vegetarianism in India.
Not surprisingly, some Bharatiya Janata Party supporters on social media criticised the video. Among them was party spokesperson Sambit Patra, who claimed that the video had been recorded during the Hindu month of Sawan when some Hindus do not eat meat.
Patra claimed that the video had been shot on August 4 but released after Sawan came to a close on August 31, according to the Gregorian calendar.
“...They conveniently waited for Saawan to end before showing us their ‘culinary skills’,” Patra tweeted on Sunday. “How’s that for timing?”
Shehzad Poonawalla, another BJP national spokesperson, had a similar line of attack. “As far as I remember, the Sawan month ended on August 31 and no Sanatani, no Hindu even touches non-veg [during that period],” Poonawala tweeted on Saturday. “But their meeting happened in August, and was reported then. Some people pretend to be such Shiv-bhakt that they oppose the name Shiv Shakti Point on the moon.”
Politics of vegetarianism
Though many Hindutva supporters project the impression that most Indians are vegetarian, the data shows otherwise. For instance, the National Family Health Survey-5 conducted between 2019 and 2021 showed that 83.4% of Indian men and 70.6% of women in the 15-49 age group eat non-vegetarian food. Despite this, Hindutva groups claim that meat eating is an aberration and impure.
The BJP has made vegetarianism a part of its politics. In some states that it governs, it has criminalised the consumption of beef, imposed meat bans during Jain festivals and removed eggs from mid-day meals in schools.
There have also been widely reported instances of people not being allowed to rent homes in some places because they are not vegetarian.
In a climate in which vegetarianism is seen to be pure and morally superior, politicians have often refrained from eating meat in public.
‘Countering the politics of purity’
However, Gandhi and Yadav also found support on social media, with some users applauding them for having publicly cooked and eaten meat on camera amid an “era of forced vegetarianism”.
Amit Julka, an assistant professor at Ashoka University’s international relations department, said that by showing themselves cooking meat in a relatively open setting, there was an attempt at “countering the politics of purity and renunciation, and focusing on joy instead”.
“For the majority in India, this may open the door towards a new kind of affective politics – associated with joy, warmth/relatability – over projections of a cold, unforgiving greatness and purity,” Julka wrote in a series of tweets.