No Beef For You!

"What is food to one man may be fierce poison to others."


Food habits are bound to differ in a country as multicultural as India. In light of the recent Beef ban in Maharashtra, the discourse on food rights becomes a very sensitive topic. There exists a food hierarchy in India that gives vegetarians superiority over their meat eating counterparts. This is largely because there exists a taboo on eating meat; particularly of the cow, an animal revered by the majority Hindu demographic as a sacred symbol. However one needs to keep in mind that food rights are part of a larger conflict that impacts the basic ethos of humanity.

The conflict of animal rights over human rights is real and the humane treatment of animals is at the core of animal rights. However proponents of the beef ban having vested political interests, are concerned about the animal rights of only one animal- the cow. This gentle bovine creature is thus being used as a political vehicle to manipulate the food habits and intimidate the minority. The discourse on beef eating consequently becomes very complex in the Indian context.  And therefore makes it all the more important to accept an ethnocentric view while discussing bovine consumption. The dominant caste Hindu majority regard the killing of cattle with abhorrence and their meat eating brethren with repugnance. Further, these views are often imposed by the dominant castes who belong to a higher socio-economic status and sadly have more power to decide laws that govern cultures. This is reflected in the draconian bills enacted by them that hide behind the façade of animal rights but which only seek to protect animals which this majority considers ‘sacred’. However, the failure to include other animals that are normally consumed to this bill further propagates the notion that the bill seeks to harass and subjugate the minorities to the will of the ruling majority.  

Conversely, Hindus that are a part of India’s largely agrarian economy are much more accepting of selling their cattle to slaughter houses. They represent a remarkably modern outlook. They view the cow as sacred in that it is part of their economic sustainability and viability. Yet they are more attuned to the reality that the lifespan of these animals (that often become akin to family members in the course of their servitude to the farmer) often exceeds their usefulness. Rather than cruelly starve them or leave them as accident risks at the side of busy highways they sell them off to butchers, using the sale money to purchase new cows. It is unfortunate that the butcher community largely consists of the Muslim minority. This serves as fodder to the Hindu majority who believe that minority religions convey unequivocally that God created animals, plants, flowers for the pleasures of man. In doing so, it inevitably flames the fires of communal discord. The economic ramifications of not accepting an ethnocentric view are proving to be very costly. Accounts from many different sources maintain that the largely useless cattle that exist in India today have become more of a liability that an asset in view of our land resources. The beef ban thus puts pressure on an economy that is already struggling to feed its millions who are dying from malnutrition. Beef then manages to serve two purposes, in that it provides a much needed cheap source of protein while simultaneously taking care of our very expensive cattle upkeep. The ban thus appears to be unsympathetic to the plight of the agrarian community and insensitive to the multicultural practices of various communities. The lack of provisions to make up for the loss of livelihood for the communities that are entirely dependent on beef (slaughter, tanning, etc) and the fact that the animal chosen to be the beneficiary of human ‘kindness’ happens to be the symbol of sacredness for the majority culture makes the ban appear politically motivated.

Food is an important part of India’s cultural plurality. It is therefore necessary to remember that meat eating can be considered rational or irrational like any other practice or belief but must be viewed in the context of a culture’s adaptability. The failure to do so might result in the extinction of that culture. Moreover, in an era of advanced capitalism and universalization of democracy, a homogenization of people’s cultural practices would have disastrous consequences and would set up a foundation for communal intolerance. Thus policy makers by adopting ethnocentric views would be able to protect and preserve the animals they so claim to care for while preserving the multicultural heritage that is part of one of the greatest civilizations to exist!

Kimberly Rodrigues