If anybody said that I should die if I did not take beef tea or mutton, even on medical advice, I would prefer death. That is the basis of my vegetarianism.

— Mahatma Gandhi to the London Vegetarian Society on November 20, 1931.

An increase in meat consumption, intensive animal farming and growing cruelty against animals have given rise to compassion movements across the world. It should be a matter of pride, therefore, that India is among the most vegetarian countries in the world. The Sample Registration System Baseline Survey 2014 notes that close to 30% in India are vegetarians. And that the number of non-vegetarians in India has decreased from 75% in 2004 to 71% in 2014. The rate of vegetarianism is more in northwestern states as compared to the rest of India. And, urban areas are more vegetarian than their rural counterparts. Increased urbanisation could possibly mean further dwindling of non-vegetarianism, particularly in Northwest India.

Pure vegetarian – all good?

Some questions linger, however. For instance, how does meat become a source of contention, violence and even governmental repression in India? Is our vegetarianism based on compassion for animals? If yes, why does this lead to disgust, social distance and even violence against humans?

Indian vegetarianism is not veganism (vegans, in addition to being vegetarians, also abstain from animal products), it does not necessarily involve care for animals. Instead, non-vegetarian food (and non-vegetarian people) generates disgust among vegetarians in India – a peculiar feeling that calls for distance, both social and physical, both from non-vegetarian food and non-vegetarian people. The idea of purity attached with vegetarian food tells us about the ideology of caste and its influence on food preferences in India.

Why do vegetarians in India prefer social distance from non-vegetarians? A look at caste-wise food preferences could provide some insights. As is common knowledge, the ranking of castes is mostly influenced by purity of occupation and diet. In caste-society, to achieve purity of body and spirit, it is necessary to be a vegetarian and religious simultaneously – something best embodied by a Brahmin.

The percentage of non-vegetarians among Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, both for men and women, is much higher than among those who are not from these communities. And in the latter group, the highest incidence of vegetarianism is found among Brahmins at almost over 50%. The higher the caste, the greater the possibility of them being pure vegetarians.

In present times, higher status attached to purity is not rigidly limited to Brahmins, though. Such an assumption would only put the dynamism of caste practice and morals in poor light. It is through change in dietary and ritual practices that the mobility of castes (considered lower) in the higher and pure culture becomes possible. MN Srinivas calls this process Sanskritisation, where a caste or sub-caste (non-Brahmin) strictly follows marriage rules, food habits and other scriptural procedures in the hope of achieving higher social status. Sanskritisation has had a cohesive role of forming unity across castes – such unity is not conjugal or genuinely intimate but a constructed form of society where etiquette of tolerance towards castes-lower could be worked out for their accommodation. The cohesive role of Sanskritisation is not merely limited to social relations across castes, it also helps create a broader Hindu identity with new etiquette and politeness.

Besides the Sanskritised variety, there is also a group of reluctant vegetarians who either purify themselves by not eating meat on certain days and occasions, or eat certain kinds of meat while deploring beef.

One would assume that urbanisation can bring down the hierarchies related to food and caste. One critical aspect of urbanisation in India is the role food preference continues to play in constructing urban neighbourhoods. Compared to rural areas, in Northwest India we notice lower non-vegetarianism in urban spaces. In urban schools, it is not uncommon for parents of non-vegetarian children to be advised to pack appropriate (vegetarian) food for children. Even in institutes of repute, we see non-vegetarian food kept at a healthy distance from vegetarian food. Worse, sitting areas may be marked separately too. This tells us about a specific form of urbanisation and modernity where being vegetarian could possibly ensure accommodation in higher culture.

The burden of diet-purity and vegetarianism is, however, more on women than men.

Vegetarian hegemony

Generally, the Bharatiya Janata Party is framed as an upper-caste party obsessed with vegetarianism and cow protection. However, the BJP draws on the reservoirs of popular vegetarian morals of Northwest India (the cow belt). One should not ignore that the party has not banned beef in Goa and Assam, where it is in power. On the other hand, non-BJP parties have equally promoted the hegemony of vegetarianism.

In October, the Samajwadi Party government in Uttar Pradesh backed spiritual leader Ramaraju Mahanthi’s vegetarian campaign. For Mahanthi, those who consume non-vegetarian food are demons. He hopes to make such people shed their demon values.

While most Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes are non-vegetarians, state governments find it difficult to even provide eggs for the school mid-day meal scheme for deprived children. The Karnataka government is currently facing opposition from vegetarian communities over its plan to introduce eggs in mid-day meals, based on choice. The plan has been in the works for a few years now but could not be implemented because of the resistance.

Given that the majority of Hindus are not vegetarian, how and why is the democratic state anxious over a non-vegetarian diet, even eggs?

Broadly, present-day vegetarianism in India constitutes a form of moral power of minority within Hindus, with such a power being forced on the non-vegetarian majority – with their consent. This new sociality is a sign of progress in modern caste belief where the seductive power of vegetarianism and its associated purity travels seamlessly across bodies and spaces without dissent.

How fragile must the morals of the vegetarian castes be if they feel threatened by the introduction of eggs for poor children in schools? The morals of Indian vegetarians continue to be based less on compassion for humans and animals, and more driven by ideas of hierarchy and purity. In this scheme of hierarchy, one who eats beef is placed at the lowest rung. Like humans of caste, not all animals carry equal sympathy: there exists some hierarchy where the cow (indigenous, not jersey) takes the highest sacral form compared to the rest. Gandhi improvised his vegetarianism through inflicting violence and control on the self. Present-day caste-subjects and their vegetarianism, however, thrive on violence, both on the self and others. The state across India through various governments has mostly been party to this process, promoting the hegemony of misguided vegetarianism.

Suryakant Waghmore is a sociologist and author of Civility against Caste.

Corrections and clarifications: The figures for men and women in the chart “Percentage of Non-Vegetarians 2014” were erroneously switched in an earlier version of this article.