Saturday, May 5, 2012

Holy cow! Not beef again - By Sunanda K. Datta-Ray - The Free Press Journal - Mumbai, India


Holy cow! Not beef again
  • India

  • May 05, 2012
By Sunanda K. Datta-Ray

A more rational attitude to livestock would be welcome than entwine social life and politics with religion
The beef controversy underlines how closely the subcontinents social life and politics are entwined with religion. Given that nexus, it isn't difficult to see that the organizers of " beef fests" who denounce student hostels that don't serve beef as " fascist" are really tilting at the windmills of yesterdays elite.

Lunching in a Chinese restaurant in Dhaka once as guest of a distinguished Bangladeshi bureaucrat, I wondered at my hosts hesitation over the menu. Realisation dawned on me as he murmured " What can we order for you …" Beef posed no problem, I explained.

" Oh, very good!" exclaimed another guest, also Bangladeshi. I was about to retort " But I prefer pork" when my host intervened gently, " There's nothing good or bad about it. Its a question of personal sensitivity that others should respect." I was told of a young Bangladeshi Marxist whose socially prominent milieu found him an embarrassment not because of ideology but because he had become averse to beef. His family and friends blamed it on the Hindu comrades with whom he associated.

None of this should cause surprise if its remembered that in 1857 the Emperor Bahadur Shah, reluctant titular head of the rising, did not seek loyalty to his dynasty.
Instead, his proclamations proposed a moral compact between Hindus and Muslims: " The slaughter of kine is regarded by the Hindus as a great insult to their religion.

To prevent this, a solemn compact or agreement has been entered into by all the Mahommedan chiefs of Hindustan, binding themselves that if the Hindus will come forward to slay the English, the Mahommedans will from that very day put a stop to the slaughter of cows, and those of them who will not do so, will be considered to have abjured the Kuran, and such of them as will eat beef will be regarded as though they had eaten pork: but if the Hindus will not gird their loins to kill the English, but will try to save them, they will be as guilty in the sight of God as though they had committed the sins of killing cows and eating flesh." One wishes more people were as astute as Bahadur Shah or as understanding as my Dhaka host. Living in a world where lifestyle determined identity, Vivian Derozio and his Young Bengal peers exulted in guzzling beef in the face of others to demonstrate their freedom from the fetters of prejudice. Similarly, the " reformed Hindu" ( mocked in D L Roys well- known satirical song) who refused to join the Brahmo Samaj also made a point of eating beef to repudiate orthodoxy.

Such defiant gestures belong to another age. But the Jawaharlal Nehru University group calling itself the New Materialists is bent on fighting yesterdays battles.

It would have been acceptable if their March 20 discussion of the " Politics of Food Culture: The Holy Cow and Unholy Swine" had been an academic exercise.

But the organizers sound evangelical, saying they " felt there were a lot of wrong notions and misunderstanding associated with the concept of beef and pork, and ( that) educating people around it should be the first step to start". Start what? Another religious movement? No, its hostel catering they want changed. It must be stressed that twinning pork with beef is only a diversionary strategy. While some Hindus may identify eating beef with social emancipation, pork has no symbolic significance.

Its a religious taboo for Muslims and just food for others. The former external affairs minister, M C Chagla, had no inhibitions about pork because he wasn't a practising Muslim.

" JNU is a residential campus that sees an influx of students from every religion including Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Christians" say the New Materialists.

" The food habits of each sect vary widely.

When it comes to 'beef'in particular, students from Kerala, Tamil Nadu and North- East India eat both beef and pork.

In addition, there is a sizeable number of students from foreign nations such as Germany, France, Italy, Africa, Korea, China, Japan, Afghanistan, America and Russia who come to study in JNU … " For many of them beef is a basic food item. All of them believe they live and come to a country that is democratic and secular ( and not a Hindu nation) … 

Then why should there be any limitation on what one wants to eat?" There isn't. The charge is as fallacious as the accusation that Mamata Banerjee has " banned" newspapers. 

West Bengals 2,500 state libraries subscribe to only eight dailies but other papers print, publish and circulate freely. No one cares who reads what. Similarly, students are at liberty to eat whatever they like even if the college dining hall doesn't provide it.

In my teens I lived in a hostel that served only beef because it was the cheapest meat.

JNU is not obliged to cater to the culinary tastes of visiting students from Germany, France, Italy, Africa, Korea, China, Japan, Afghanistan, America and Russia.
Nor does India have to prove its secular credentials to foreigners. The " students from Kerala, Tamil Nadu and North- East India" can stuff themselves with beef in the kebab stalls around Jama Masjid.

Indians posture too much about food.

The Young Bengal leaders and " reformed Hindus" didn't start it. They followed tradition. Nirad C Chaudhuri, whose brilliance didn't save him from sometimes sounding stupid, told me Indians couldn't speak English because they weren't brought up on beef. After settling down in England, he argued that Westernization meant savouring ripe cheese.

Our butcher was amused by the Union governments March 16 notification that beef would not be exported which Organiser hailed as " Victory for Hindus". Beef was exported, the butcher says, even when the Bharatiya Janata Party ruled in New Delhi. Its like the hypocrisy of swearing by prohibition and disguising drinks exports as " Potable Alcohol". As Raja Rajendralala Mitras Beef in Ancient India shows, not only is there no scriptural prohibition, but venerable authorities can be cited to prove beef was both a desirable and an essential food in the past. The present prohibition came about because economic necessity needed religious sanction. It also owed something to the Buddhist ethic. But thats no reason why beef should be forced down the gullets of people who have for generations regarded cows as sacred. A more rational attitude to livestock would be welcome but that isn't the campaigns purpose. The newly- empowered at one end of the spectrum are up in arms against the traditional leaders at the other.

They were more open about it in Hyderabad earlier this month when the Dalit and leftist organizers of a beef festival clashed with Vishwa Hindu Parishad activists with Akhil Bharatiya Vidya Parishad members lurking in the background. I suspect the true purpose is casteist. Thats why theres no similarly defiant pork festival. Though the two are linked to create a universalist impression, beef is the only target. Its prohibition is seen as a relic of the Brahmanical leadership of Hindu society and, therefore, a challenge to be overcome.

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