Platter Politics

A pork and beef festival most emphatically did not happen at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) on September 28, 2012. Such a festival was being planned by a student group called the New Materialists, until just about everyone in Delhi stepped in to stop them. Right-wing Hindu groups led the charge (predictably), claiming it would hurt their religious sentiments. They got support from the Delhi High Court, which ordered JNU to ensure that no such festival happened. The university administration was happy to oblige, and even went above and beyond their court-ordered duties by suspending one of the organisers.

“Here, non-vegetarians were the progressive ones, fighting against casteist dietary restrictions that inserted insidious norms of ‘purity’ and ‘pollution’ into food practices. The one who made leather from the holy cow or ate its flesh was, supposedly, impure. Proudly eating beef was defying this logic.”

This JNU non-event prompted a furious debate on an email forum I belong to, pitting anti-caste activists against environmentalists. Of course, the battle lines were not so clear, with many trying to bridge the gap between the sides (and, of course, no one identifying themselves as ‘pro-caste’ or ‘anti-environment’). But, to vastly oversimplify: the anti-caste camp was arguing that restrictions on eating meat— especially beef and pork— are essential means of maintaining Brahmin hegemony. To that, the environmentalists said: well yes, casteism is bad, but does that really excuse butchering animals?

Food culture in India, especially the veg/non-veg divide, has always fascinated me, especially because it’s so starkly different from food culture in the United States. In my home country, it’s the vegetarians who are progressive. They are the ones fighting hegemony and questioning cultural norms. And on the cutting-edge of this movement are the vegans, who abstain from all animal products, including dairy. In its stereotypical guise, there is a punk rebel aspect to veganism; no wonder there’s even a movement called veganarchism (yes, you guessed it: anarchists who bloody hate the meat and dairy industries).

When I first came to India in 2008, my immediate impression was that everything was upside-down, food-wise. Here, non-vegetarians were the progressive ones, fighting against casteist dietary restrictions that inserted insidious norms of ‘purity’ and ‘pollution’ into food practices. The one who made leather from the holy cow or ate its flesh was, supposedly, impure. Proudly eating beef was defying this logic.

While beef was the strongest symbol, all meat was somehow co-opted into this culture war: the ‘purest’ Hindus were the pure veg ones. Non-veg, even if not strictly prohibited, seemed frowned upon, put into the same vaguely immoral category as alcohol. (I very soon noticed that it was quite difficult to get a beer at ‘pure veg’ restaurants.)

Even the nomenclature of Indian meat-eating suggested something markedly different from the United States. Growing up, I would never have thought to use the term ‘non-vegetarian.’ Everyone eats meat; that’s the default! Only if you’re strange and different do you need a label for your food preferences: vegetarian, vegan. In India, on the other hand, vegetarian was the default; if one wanted to serve a “safe” meal to a group of guests, it would definitely be veg. Here, the non-veg folks were the ones needing to label themselves.

And many of my Indian friends were happy to embrace this label. For them, vegetarianism was a tired old orthodoxy, with little relevance to their lives as postgraduate students or young professionals. But I slowly started to notice that more and more of my friends were declaring their allegiance to the veg camp. Not for reasons of purity or anything so old-fashioned; rather, they were motivated by concerns for animal rights and ecological conservation. Ah, here were forms of vegetarianism I could relate to!

And that brings us back to the email forum flame war. Here, the old caste-activism of the non-veg did battle with the new eco-activism of the veg. This reminded me of my heady days as an undergraduate studying ecological philosophy, and of a blistering critique of vegans and animal rights activists by an eco-philosopher who claimed that these folks did not go far enough. (FYI: the philosopher is J. Baird Callicott; the article, Animal Liberation: A Triangular Affair.) Animal rights proponents claimed that they went far beyond anthropocentrism, but Callicott said they were still stuck in the realm of individualistic, not systematic (and thus truly ecological) thinking. Vegans may abstain from dairy, but what if the soy they are eating comes from plantations that were established by cutting down rainforests? I may choose not to eat deer, but what if those deer are actually ecological pests, decimating my local ecosystem? Wouldn’t I be doing Mother Nature a service by eating them?

Calicott may be setting up the animal rights activist as a straw man. Surely plenty of sensitive vegans are aware of these issues and try to be mindful of even what veg food they choose. But then come deeper issues: aren’t plants also autonomous beings? What about their right to live?

Vegans aren’t the only ones to grapple with such issues. Jain philosophers realised long ago that any kind of eating, indeed any kind of living, will inevitably harm others. The logical end of Jainism – and veganism for that matter – is santhara, or the Jain practice of voluntary death by fasting. There is something admirably bold aboutsanthara: it shows that some Jains are willing to follow their philosophy to its logical conclusion.

But this way of thinking – shared by Jains and vegans (not to mention the folks behind the “Voluntary Human Extinction Movement”) – assumes that humans inevitably have an overall negative impact on the animate world; with this assumption, santhara is indeed the noblest path. But what of societies that actually increase the biodiversity and eco-systemic health of their homelands? Yes, these are hard to find in the capitalist era, but some still exist on the fringes. Like the Jains, these societies recognize the necessity of taking life in order to live, but they also see the vast power of nature to regenerate and create life, and they see themselves as part of this process. So they may hunt and eat meat, but they do so with respect, and perhaps even ritual celebration.

And if we’re celebrating, why not have a pork and beef festival? I doubt the New Materialists had any eco-rituals in mind, but if they ever escape the wrath of the JNU administration, they can use their festival for an even more radical critique of contemporary food culture.

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