Politics through Food Habits

Politics through Food Habits

Ram Puniyani
In the middle of April 2012 Osmania University (OU) witnessed an unusual violence on the issue of eating beef. A section of dalit students’ were demanding that University Hostels should have beef on the menu. They also organized a beef festival in which a large number of students ate beef biryani. The festivity was not to last long as the ABVP, the student wing of RSS, created rampage, a student was knifed, a bus was torched and ruckus was created in the university. The Vice Chancellor of OU knelt to the aggressive cow protectors and said that beef will not be introduced in the menu.
Just a month ago the in the Kurmaguda area of Hyderabad a group of youth associated with Hindu communal group were arrested for throwing beef inside a Hanuman temple, who later spread the word that Muslims have defiled our temple and turned their guns against the hapless minority, torched few buses. A little while ago the ruling BJP government in Madhya Pradesh had introduced a bill prohibiting the consumption of beef in the state. Other BJP ruled states in one form or the other are introducing legislations, which prohibit the slaughter of cow.
The place where Muslims were butchered mercilessly under the Chief mastership of Modi the ‘care of cow’ has gone one step up and state has opened centers for cataract and dental surgery of the Mother Cow. The goal of the Hindu state of Gujarat under Modi is to open more such centers so that Mother cow does not have to travel more than three kilometers for accessing these services, this while innumerable victims of Gujarat carnage, are yet to recover from the trauma of the carnage, aided by the apathy of state.
So far most of these legislations and the accompanying propaganda have been directed primarily against Muslim minority, which is demonized as the butchers and eaters of ‘our holy cow’. The OU episode shows the other side of the agenda of cow politics. While there had been cases of murders of dalits on the pretext of skinning a dead cow (Jhajjar, Haryana) and VHP defending the act saying that cow is too holy to spare the dalits. Still primarily it is the Muslim community which has been the target of propaganda emanating from RSS- Combine stable.
With dalits, the other target of RSS combine, the issue is not just of identity. It is related to the livelihood and food habits of dalits-Adivasis. The cow as a symbol of RSS combine has been in the fore since the rise of communal politics during the British rule. As such the cow has been in the forefront of communal battles of upper castes in India earlier also. The Brahmanical reaction to rise of Buddhism was countered by putting forward the symbol of cow. Some Dalit scholars hold that cow was cleverly chosen and one of the reasons cow stole a march over the equally useful buffalo was its color. It is not a coincidence that the dark skinned people have faced the wrath of the elite in one form or the other.
The scholars of Vedic India Prof D.N.Jha, Dr. Pandurang Vaman Kane and champion of social justice Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, all have pointed out that cow was verily eaten during Vedic period. With the rise of agricultural society, and need for preserving cattle wealth; the religions-ideologies promoting non-violence in the form of Jainism and Buddhism came up and campaigned against senseless sacrifice of cow in Vedic yagnas (sacrificial ritual).
The current communal politics has twin agenda. At surface it wants to subjugate the minorities and is using the emotive issues to create a mass hysteria against minorities. Lord Ram and Cow are the major tools of communal political mobilization. While the supporters of RSS combine generously donate for the welfare of cow, it is the dalits who practically take care of the grazing and other needs of Holy mother. Last some time a pressure is being built up culturally and politically that beef eating communities give up this integral part of their habit.
The food patterns are changing under intense propaganda still as of now the consumption of beef in India is higher than that of mutton and chicken put together. Its export is also a major business. The RSS combine on one side aims to subjugate the Minorities and on the other wants to maintain the status quo of social relationship of caste and gender. These are subtle and overt maneuvers implemented through political and cultural conduits. Attitude of communal politics to dalits has been a complex one. The anti dalit violence of 1980 against reservation, the anti OBC violence of 1986 against promotion of OBCs in jobs, and its strengthening of Kamandal politics (Rath Yatra and the Babri demolition) in response to Mandal were a part of this.
At another level the strategy is to co-opt dalits into Hindutva fold. From middle of decades of 1980s RSS has activated Samajik Samrasta Manch (Social Harmony Forum) which has been mobilizing dalits around that. The Gurus like Sri Sri Ravishanker have been saying that there should be harmony between upper and lower caste, while he keeps quiet about the prevalent social injustice in various forms. The aim of the communal politics is to maintain the status quo of caste and gender.
Through Samajik Samrasta Manch the message of undermining caste atrocities and social injustice is actively propagated. Supplementing this is the cultural assertion and imposition of elite norms on the whole society. Food habits are a part of culture and for large sections of dalits and Adiviasis beef had been an integral part of their food. Incidentally there is a vigorous campaign to promote vegetarianism and denigrate non vegetarian food practices.
While the large section of dalits is struggling for social and economic justice, a section of dalits is undergoing the process of sanskritization as well. It is in this light that the symbols of dalit assertion in the matters of food habits and cultural expressions are being attacked openly. The compromised state apparatus is not able to stand up to this onslaught of communal politics to preserve the social and democratic rights of dalits and other marginalized sections of society, be it the matters of their physical security, questions of equity and food habits. It is a blatant attempt to manipulate culture, to impose elite norms, through influencing the food habits, which are so much cultural in their nature.
It seems Mother Cow may be the major emotive weapon to be used for the politics deriving its legitimacy from Hindu religions’ identity. Interestingly it reveals the twin goals of this politics. At surface it is to reduce the minorities to a status of second class citizen and at deeper level to subjugate dalits at social, political and cultural level.
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