Not Just the Question of Beef or Pork

Due to its contemporary relevance we are yet again sharing this piece that appeared in The New Leam

We often find ourselves trapped in a nasty conflict caused by the politics of communal divide, and it limits our vision, our ability to raise the issues that really matter.

By Editorial Team

What distinguishes human society is its culture—a domain of symbols, meanings, aspirations and values. And everything we do acquires a cultural connotation. Even a biological/physiological drive is endowed with a cultural significance. No wonder, food, for us, is not just a fulfillment of the biological need to free ourselves from hunger. It is in the domain of culture that we choose what we eat, how we eat , or the way we eat.

Food, social anthropologists would argue, is an integral component of one’s cultural identity. How often we speak of Bengali rasgollas or South Indian idlis, Italian pizza or Afgan kabab. As culturally located actors we are touchy about food. No wonder, in the politics of culture food becomes a contested issue. Even though we live in a hugely interconnected world in which cultures continually overlap, ethnocentrism does not wither away so easily. We tend to impose our own likes and dislikes on others. And in a country like ours wounded by the history of communal/religious divide, food is politicized, and used to establish the hegemony of a certain belief or food culture. It is in this context that in recent times we have witnessed the revival of the old debate on beef eating. Beef eating (the resultant cow slaughter), it is argued, is unethical; it goes against the values of the dominant religious community; it must be prevented!  At a time when a form of militant cultural politics is assertive, violence spreads; Dadri reveals. … No wonder, it further stigmatizes the ‘other’ community; and it is quite natural for them to see it as a threat to their culture and eating practices. And secularists, liberals, pluralists condemn this invasion. Many of them return their awards; furthermore, their protest comes in the form of yet another symbolic act—a reactive act of celebrating  beef eating.

Image source : Kashmirobserver

The ruling forces intensify their surveillance machinery. Newspapers write editorials; television news channels hire experts; rightists and leftists accuse one another; some historians come forward with the evidence that in ancient India even those whom we call ‘Hindus’ used to eat beef, and their opponents argue that cow, for Hindus, is a sacred symbol.

We understand the context and significance of this debate, or the need to oppose the cultural politics of majoritarianism. Because India cannot retain her Indianness without her splendid plurality.  However, we believe that it is possible to take this debate on food to a much higher level of reflection. It is possible to enter the debate from an altogether different vantage point—something that is beyond the nasty politics of communal divide. It is in this context that we wish to raise two critical issues.

 (a) What about the ongoing process of human evolution?

In the post-Darwinian world we know how we have evolved.  We cannot deny our connectedness with the animal world. Yet, we have evolved with our culture, intelligence and reflexivity. In the jungle the lion kills the deer, and enjoys the feast. This is the logic of the survival of the fittest. And possibly we have not yet been able to overcome it. Yet, we try; it is only in human culture that the aspirations like equity, harmony, justice, love exist. Even though there is the reality of war, we have not forgotten the ideal of peace. But then, what about our food culture?  The lion kills the deer, and we too are engaged in killing life forms (it doesn’t matter whether we are killing cow or goat, hen or duck) for our attractive dishes. True, it is possible to legitimate this act of killing. We can always argue that our dietary practices depend on climate, geography  and environment. What can you do if you live in a coastal area except eating fish? Or if the place you live in is extremely cold, how can you  make yourself warm without eating meat? Or, for that matter, what do you do if your doctor asks you to consume a heavy dose of protein for your health? Furthermore, it can also be said that fish/meat eating does by no means diminish one’s psychic/spiritual sensibilities. After all, Jesus ate meat, Vivekananda was fond of fish, and there are many other examples of meat eating spiritual leaders. All these arguments have their legitimacy. Yet, the fact remains that our fascination with flesh and blood (like the lion in the jungle) speaks of our animality. We cannot hide it simply because with our human sophistication we transform raw food into cooked food, and with spices and refined oil we transform flesh into an attractive dish. We admit that some of us in the editorial team eat meat and fish; yet, we cannot escape this disturbing thought. And at this intense moment of reflexivity we begin to feel that possibly our evolution has not yet become complete. Possibly it is feasible as well as desirable to evolve further, minimize our dependence on meat eating, and thereby reduce the need for killing other life forms. In this quest there is nothing about Hinduism or Islam, Buddhism or Christianity; it is about an ongoing movement towards human evolution —a state of civility and culture in which there is peaceful coexistence—a habitat that allows cows and buffalos, hens and goats to exist amongst us without the chronic anxiety of being reduced into tasty items of consumption in our kitchens and restaurants. Should we consider it utopian—an extreme form of obsessive non-violence? Or, should we think and wonder?

(b)  Food and gratitude

Quite often because of this nasty conflict over what one should eat we tend to forget yet another dimension of food. It is about gratitude, offering and deep connectedness. Think of a plate of rice you are eating. In a distant land a farmer has worked, looked at the sky, prayed for the monsoon, and with absolute dedication and care has cultivated it. When you eat a plate of rice, it becomes possible because of that unknown farmer, his labour and prayer, and the blessings of nature—dark clouds in the sky getting transformed into monsoon showers. In other words, a moment of reflection suggests that the act of eating ought to be an act of gratitude; it reminds you of the beauty of inter-connectedness. However, in our utilitarian culture in which we think that money can buy everything, we lose this prayer, this sense of gratitude. With the power of money we accumulate food, waste food, indulge in obsessive display of food. See our lavish wedding parties, special lunch and dinner in corporate meetings and conferences, the packaging of food in our Shatabdi and Rajdhani express trains—there is no gratitude, no humility, no connectedness. There is only the harsh calculation: ‘I have paid…’ Wastage, mindless consumption, obesity, and then the special counseling  for  diet control and reduction of body weight! What does it mean in a country like ours where there is hunger, there is malnutrition, there are people who are not sure of the availability of the next meal? And think how the culture of fast food—Mc. Donald’s burger, KFC  eatables, and innumerable shops for momo, choumin, egg roll, pepsi and coke—has destroyed the aesthetic of food—its prayer, its gratitude, its humility. In the culture of instantaneity everything is a matter of quick consumption. Where is the time or consciousness for recalling the spirit of connectedness—a farmer’s labour, a cook’s patience and delicacy, the clouds that have given us the rains? As we miss gratitude, we become indifferent to others: their hunger, their malnutrition, their misery. How ironic it is that our politicians want us to debate only on the superficial. Is it possible to recover the spirit of sharing and connectedness in our orientation to food—the values we share while we eat? Is religion about beef or pork? Or is it that our true religiosity lies in sharing—in the celebration of equity, balance, harmony and connectedness?

We want our readers to respond to the debate, and share their views with us.



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  1. This article offers a refreshing take on food politics. I find myself in broad agreement with the two questions posed. I would like to discuss a chilling documentary I saw recently titled ‘Food Inc’. On the basis of an undercover investigation, it reveals where most of our fast food ingredients come from and the conditions it is grown in. Food is fashioned along the lines of assembly line production to meet the demands for mass consumption. Poultry that used to be fed on large, open farms are now reared in closed, dark and dingy basements. No wonder diseases among poultry and cattle are at an all time high. Most fast food consists of corn starch, a product that is known to cause obesity. If only governments would look at food through the prism of health and nutrition rather than a way to extract political mileage!

    The problem with the present dispensation is that by linking food choices to nationalism, they have whipped up a frenzied atmosphere in which no rational debate is possible. Beef is declared anti-national and anyone indulging in it can be publically lynched. This fear of the mob has been instilled to such an extent that even dairy farmers carrying cattle for milk are possible suspects. How do we debate and discuss with the lynch mob standing at our doors, waiting for the slightest of provocation?

  2. The article raises crucial questions on the politics of food. The build-up part is substantial enough to capture major debates around the issue of what to eat and what not to. However, I do perceive a slight superfluous conception about the evolution of human theory by the writer. Acknowledging that love, justice, equity are human aspirations lays a good foundation of the propositions of the author. Nevertheless, the “animalistic” nature of human ought not to have perceived as an final appendage to shed in order to attain higher levels of spirituality. After all, it is this “animal instincts” which helps us to understand our limitations as life form and orders us as a synchronous part of ecosystem. Many of life sustaining scientific inventions and innovation which the world has seen are due to the constant reoccurring instincts of animal within human. Fire & Agriculture will be my strong examples to substantiate my point.
    According to me, food is meaning of life. However, I do not intend to seek the meaning in a homogeneous, universal manner but to explore through innumerable possibilities in the world. Poor perceives the meaning of life differently, rich perceives differently, women, person with disability, sick and healthy etc, all perceive the meaning of life differently. The greatest beauty of life is its elusive nature to comprehend structurally and draw patterns out of it. Although science and social science endeavor to study it, it successfully opens itself out into newer and newer streams of possibilities and impossibilities.
    I consume beef and other meat but it is independent of my inner spiritual voice which enlightens my perception of the world. The aspiration of human which the author mentions are in complete sync with my psyche despite being a meat eater which seems to be inevitable marker of “animal instinct”. Famous Tamil Poet Bharathiyar has remarked that if a single person in this world suffer from hunger and starvation, he has a moral right to destroy the world. I wonder how he would respond to tall asks of consumption of “non-violent” food where millions are left with violent food alone to sustain their living against hatred, pessimism, climatic extremism etc. The consciousness of the elite, which probably would not have experience hunger and starvation by default, may endeavor to rise above the “animal instincts” of human and will consume “non-violent” food. The point here is if a poor or marginalized is already subjected to various manifestation of structural and symbolic violence in his/her everyday life, he/she would seldom have time to undo non-violence in food. Because for him food is merely a means to sustain his living to further experience violence in his/her life which is has been conditioned by traditional “non-violent” food eaters. I wonder if Brahmins consider their food habits to be “non-violent” and spiritual, then how would they think about their greatest invention to the world, i.e. Caste discrimination. May be they think that caste system is not an expression of violence and subjugation but an “efficient” organization of society for spiritual living.
    The life of poor or marginalized or disadvantaged person in this world is constantly shaped by the Thucydidian idea that “…. the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must”. The privileged assign newer and newer tasks to the oppressed to update to the higher order thinking of the elites which is well nourished by “non-violent” food. The weak may have to borrow the great “Truth(s)” of the “non-violent” food eaters because they only listen to their “animalistic” truths which automatically less value to the spirituality enlightened world.
    Being a subaltern is very different than perceiving a subaltern. Subaltern is more than a critical theory, it is an experience which the “non-violent” other can only perceive and live it. In the world of “rationality”, the Indian experiment stand tall in terms of plurality of thought on food, life and lifestyle. Embracing differences is of paramount value in “modern” times which is characterized by politics of “ultimate truth”. After all, we are humans with aspirations of equality, equity, justice and development. And food helps us to give meaning to our aspirations of both horizontal and vertical interests.

    Awaiting response from the team. I love and enjoy your service to the society. Congratulations


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