Dietary Politics in Modi’s India

The beef taboo is modern and has little to do with Vedic or ancient times

Dadri lynching

A nation, deeply regressing into superstition and irrationality, seething in a cultivated environment of fear, where baseless rumours manifest into whispers of the meat that must not be named. Where disagreement on the basis of dietary preferences incites violence of unspeakable kinds against those suspected of deviance. On September 28. 2015, Mohammed Akhlaq was stabbed and murdered by a frenzied mob in Dadri, UP on the suspicion that he had slaughtered a cow for subsequent consumption. Mohammed Majloom and his 12 year old nephew, Imtiyaz Ansari were victims of a similar fate, their bodies were found hanging from a tree in a village in Jharkhand. Their lynching was garbed as a cattle loot, only to later find a link between one of the accused and a local gauraksha outfit. Pehlu Khan was attacked and succumbed to injuries in the Alwar district of Rajasthan in April of 2017 in the wake of heightened cow vigilante activity across the country, tightening vehicle checks for the transport of cattle. In Maharashtra, two meat traders from Malegaon were thrashed and in Jharkhand, a Muslim man was attacked by a mob on the suspicion that he was carrying meat for an Iftar party. Most recently, 16-year old Hafiz Junaid was lynched on his way back to Ballabhgarh, Haryana after Eid shopping. Not even a week later, Alimuddin Ansari was lynched by a mob of ten, who set his vehicle ablaze and killed him on the pretext that he was carrying “cattle meat” in his vehicle.
The Prime Minister’s half hearted call against the lynching violence, is strikingly clear in the prolonged delay of comment which was then followed by a speech on the protection of cows. Amit Shah, the BJP President played the blame game by callously stating, “I do not want to undermine lynching incidents, by presenting a comparison.” His comment does exactly what he initially claims to not do. It undermines the irreversible loss and grief that has been unfairly meted out to an oppressed minority, all in the name of beef.

Without doubt, these lynchings are communally motivated and rooted in the strongly held fanatical belief that the consumption of beef in Hindu society is a taboo. The glorification of the cow, its attributed sanctity and presumed symbolism in Hindu culture are the pillars on which the cow vigilantes stand, if at all. The project must then be to investigate into the legitimacy of claims of the intrinsically sacrosanct nature of cows in Hindu culture vis-à-vis historical evidence and whether the collective conscience that is invoked in conversations surrounding beef are truly ingrained in religious scriptures and texts as they so often claim to be.

The renowned historian, DN. Jha provides a detailed account on the historical consumption of beef in various pockets of Hindu society in his book ‘The Myth of the Holy Cow’ and makes compelling arguments in support of a dietary culture inclusive of beef. He relies on an irrefutable range of textual and religious sources ranging from the Rgveda and Dharamsatras to the historic accounts of travellers in the Mughal period to support his claims.
The animated misconceptions regarding the sacredness of the cow that have persisted since the times of the Vedic Aryans are particularly dangerous not only for their lack of historicity but more importantly because they have routinely been used as a political tool to propagate the otherness of Muslims and as B.R. Ambedkar suggests, the “untouchables” in the form of mob madness and lynchings.

Historical Evidence
The practice of sacrificing cattle was common and emphasized in the Aryan period. The Vedic Aryans imported the practice of animal sacrifice from their Indo-European origins. The Rgveda suggests that the divine dietary preferences especially of the Vedic god, Indira, required the cooking of cattle flesh.

The later Vedic texts include detailed descriptions of public sacrifice, especially of cows, knows as ‘gosava’. Subsequent to the sacrifice, humans consumed the flesh of the cattle. Jha argues that the consumption of the sacrifice is evidenced in the Atharvaveda according to which the carcass of the kill was to be divided into thirty-six shares.

Even civil community traditions and ceremonies like marriage and ‘sraddha’, a ritual to please the ancestors, required sacrifice of the cow. There is a plethora of evidence to support the conclusion that at least in the north-western part of the Indian subcontinent animals including the cow were slaughtered for their flesh.

These Vedic references coupled with archaeological evidence of charred bones in various northern states like Haryana and Punjab support the claim that the cow was not sacred in the Vedic and post Vedic centuries. The constructed holiness of the cow manifests into an intersectional intermingling of religion and caste based power structures that pervaded society then and continue to do the same now.

A transition in ideology was witnessed with the advent of Buddhism and Jainism, which preached the tenets of Ahimsa. The ‘tenet of right action’ professed the “abstinence from conscious destruction of any sentiment being human to smallest animalcule.”  Asoka personally practiced veneration of animals. The change in dietary preferences reflected in Asoka’s time did not discriminate between different animals.

In neighbouring countries of Burma and Tibet, Buddhists ate beef. There are contradicting accounts of dietary preferences amongst Buddhists, implying that meat continued to please their palates. While there are considerable ideological departures from the Vedic times, there was no evidence of special treatment of cows; the sanctity that came to be attached to the cow in later times was non-existent in the time of Asoka.

There have also been references in literature to beef consumption. Kalidasa’s‘ Meghadutta’ is symbolic because Rantideva who had sacrificed several cows whose blood flew in the form of a river was supposed to be revered. Marvin Harris, an anthropologist, in his work titled, “The cultural ecology of India’s sacred cattle”, suggests that the religious texts were altered by the priesthood and codified in order to legitimize the sanctions on beef eating. A typical case of evoking religious sentiments to meet the sociopolitical needs of a society that had come to realize the ecological importance of the cow.

The overt disapproval surrounding cow slaughter was first witnessed in the Kali age around the 1st millennium AD that was reflected in the Dharmasastras. The practice of Kalivarjya as described in the religious texts reserved a premium status for the cow and beef was excluded at least from the menus of the Brahmins.  The remodeling of rural society had seen an unprecedented agrarian expansion. Around this time, the law digests saw an amendment to the socially acceptable dietary practices. Since the Vedas, Brahmanas and the Upanishads did not list killing of the cow in the list of moral transgressions, it can be inferred that the priests who authored the texts in Kalyug intended to discourage the practice of beef eating by inscribing it into the texts.

Ecological Importance of the Cow
Marvin Harris’s anthropological account attempts to reconcile the discrepancies and contradictions evident in the religious texts. His argument is that there was a need in the agriculturally dependent subcontinent to protect the cow for its multipurpose usefulness. The basic premise being that the sacredness of the cow was socially constructed for the purpose of promoting ecological ends that the cow provided in terms of traction for agriculture, milk, dung, hides, etc. Additionally, the cultural adaptation of the cow is strategically effective owing to its multipurpose nature. He states, “prohibition of beef consumption is a form of disaster insurance in all of India.”

There are benefits to crusading the cause of cow protection and prohibition of slaughter. However, the benefits are solely ecological and thus, distanced from cultural and religious calls for protection made by cow vigilantes. The cow produces the oxen that are the backbone on which farmers carry out their everyday work like harvests, ploughs, etc. Additionally, the dietary demands of cows aren’t heavy on the pockets of the farmers. More than half of the manure produced by cows is used as energy fuel for cooking in rural India. Dried dung is a very good substitute for coal and is a much more economical option. Essentially, cows convert things that have little value into products that are optimally utilized by humans. Harris’s trajectory of the Indian agricultural scenario and statistics prove the utility of the cow but not its sacredness.

Upper Caste Propaganda
B.R. Ambedkar’s account on the cause-effect relationship between untouchability and beef consumption is immensely important to understand caste oppression. Since untouchables hold the lowest ranks in the caste power structures, they are summoned to dispose of the carcass of cows that are considered polluting and impure by the upper castes. The untouchables then eat the meat of the dead cows that is their only form of nutrition. Ambedkar argues that the reason that Brahmins gave up beef eating was because of their desire to usurp the status of supremacy that the Buddhist Bhikshus had acquired by opposing cow slaughter for sacrificial purposes. The Buddhists had displaced the Brahmins that were once considered the purest Hindus and in order to take back their position, not only did the Brahmins give up beef eating but they also became vegetarians and started worshiping the cow. The non-Brahmins gave up beef eating in order to imitate the Brahmins, as the law of fashion now required Hindus to be vegetarian. For the question as to why the ‘Broken Men’ did not give up beef eating after the various religious sanctions and taboos against it, Ambedkar bluntly states, “imitation was too costly. They could not afford it.”

The beef taboo is more modern than we are led to believe, decimating the ideological beliefs on the basis of which cow vigilantes commit lynchings and cold blooded murder. Textual evidence proves that consumption of beef amongst Hindus was not alien. In fact, it was very much existent before the socio-politically constructed notions of the cow pervaded the Indian subcontinent. 

The overemphasized sacredness of the cow has been conveniently used as a ploy in Indian politics. Jingoistic nationalism is sold daily, under the garb of bruised religious sentiment. India has become a nation usurped by unchecked frenzied mobs whose dangerously problematic sense of retribution is manifested in lynchings and whose impoverished morality fails to comprehend the balance between crime and punishment.

This is Modi’s India and you are living in it.




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