Mumbai: News sometimes creates strange possibilities. A simple event suddenly creates so many possibilities that they become a ganglion of competing narratives. What began like a simple civil war between the vegetarian and the non-vegetarian, a little brahminic broadside of a new, aspiring Modi-cloned chief minister, is now a Rashoman-like narrative linking pollution, power, politics of food, caste and the political economy of unemployment to the ways in which we articulate change and reform in a democracy.
Before I unravel the narrative, let me state my bias. I do not consume beef, but not because of any primordial objection or brahminic bias. I felt no need to. Yet I feel that it does touch my sense of democracy and, therefore, I am uncomfortable with the way this debate has proceeded. Liberal democracy needs a liberal idea of diet, a commitment to one’s way of life and an openness to other cultures and cuisine.
The beef story is actually several stories in one. When Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis launched the beef ban, he was only completing the efforts of the earlier attempts to ban it. Mr Fadnavis’ move has to be seen within a wide range of perspectives. Let us begin with the conspiratorial one. It is seen as a political move, more Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh than the Shiv Sena, to enforce a brahminic order. There could be truth in it. One can see it as a part of an imperial Brahmin move to enforce pollution rituals and extend the sacredness of the cow to other animals. It is a symbolic token playing out as power.
Unfortunately or expectedly, many people have read it as a brahminic casteist move, adding that Other Backward Class, Dalits and Muslims prefer beef as part of their diet. B.R. Ambedkar is summoned to counter Manu and the recent attempts of Dalits to demand beef in student hostels is cited as an expression of this. The attempt of the upper caste to foil this move is again read politically. In fact, beef is now part of the symbolic politics of aspiration and identity.
Of course, I could argue like an expert on TV, that the ban on beef is not like other bans. This ban also expresses a philosophy of non-violence, a totemic love for animals, not just the cow. There is an attempt to project vegetarianism as going beyond casteist roots to a new culture of diet. Many dalits respond to this by calling it hypocrisy and contending that the violence and hegemony of caste, with its long history of atrocities, cannot be washed away with its alleged piety of non-violence. Brahminism cannot be redeemed by vegetarianism. Such moves are power games, where Sanskritisation hides deeper tactics of upper caste power. In fact, Mr Fadnavis as a Brahmin among the Marathas illustrates this.
Secularists and Muslims claim that this is a livelihood question; that the political economy of livelihood dissolves any brahminic move to Sanskritisation. When livelihood is an issue, the ban on beef is seen as a move to displace a people. As the beef traders of Maharashtra go on an indefinite strike, their association argues that their daily losses are over Rs 1.2 crore.They also argue that the ban on beef affects hundreds of marginal workers. More poignantly, it is connected to the trade in slippers and to the chemical industry. Banning beef does not merely prohibit the preferred food of a whole array of people, it also bans employment and destroys a way of life.
The contrast becomes more vivid when one looks at Kolhapur in contrast to the beef trade. The Kolhapuri slipper, a legendary brand name, is now fighting for survival. Already, the trade has been desperately trying to modernise by redesigning its footwear. A ban on beef makes the travails of the industry more difficult. Unlike the flourishing Qureshi butchers, who are confident of exports and their growing power within Muslim society, the slipper trade is still family-based, not subject to change and not easy to organise. The beef sellers’ association might register a noisy protest, appeal to the minority commission and write to President Pranab Mukherjee against the Bill. But the trade in Kolhapur will simply fade away quietly. There is a vulnerability here that needs to be emphasised.
Sociologists and political activists add other dimensions to the debate. Many speaking from a nutritional point of view, argue that beef is the poor man’s protein and, in fact, is also popular amongst other classes. Advocates emphasise the growing popularity of beef especially among Hindu clientele, adding that beef is not associated only with Muslim consumption. The brahminic or vegetarian answer is that milk could be a substitute and that milk provides a continuity of relationship with the animal, while beef terminates such a relationship violently. Vegetarians might also add that there is considerable sentiment among the majoritarian community against beef, and then ask why it cannot be respected. Opponents argue that this is an effete way of stating a majoritarian bias. A majoritarian democracy, opponents argue, must respect the livelihood of minorities — also, in fact, the preferences of other Hindus. Many may not cook beef at home, but often visit restaurants to indulge their passion for beef. It could also be argued that the abattoirs that dot the city create pollution.
As one watches the debate, one realises the deep sentiments it generates. And as sociology, ecology, religion and economics blend and collude, one senses that the beef ban will not be easy to live with. The beef ban has got mixed up with the epidemic of other bans on style, dress, books and sexuality. But, banning beef is not like banning a particular book or a text. Dalits and Muslims see the move either as a threat to identity and a threat to livelihood. Banning food is banning a way of life, of simultaneously touching several issues food, caste, religion, work, aspiration, identity and law. It makes one think twice that possessing or owning beef might demand jail for five years and a fine of Rs 10,000, sexual excess might be dealt with less severity.
The beef ban reminds us that food is a serious issue, it needs to be thought through. I demand a withdrawal of the ban not only for reasons of livelihood and identity, but because it violates freedom as a value. Respect for values and sentiment is created through reciprocity and this is what India needs to achieve in the long run, a set of cultures that understand and co-exist with each other.