Between September 30 and October 1, BBC News and Al-Jazeera Asia ran headlines such as “Indian man lynched over beef rumors” and “Indian mob kills man over beef eating rumors.” While the headiness may seem absurd, in the Indian context of right-wing Hindu nationalism and politics, the connection is plausible. What does eating beef in India have to do with the hegemonic rule of Hindu nationalism in India? The answer lies with India’s Hindu nationalist leaders such as Manohar Lal Khattar of Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) who insists simply that Indians should not eat beef, as cows are sacred to Hindus. Never mind the fact that apart from 80% of the population who are Hindus, the nation also has the other 20% comprised of various religious minority groups including Christians, and Muslims for whom beef consumption is not a religious issue. For beef consumers in India (Hindus and non-Hindus alike), eating beef has become a problematic choice, both politically and financially. IBTimes reported that 24 out of 29 states have banned both beef slaughter and consumption, and slapped on penalties including jail time and fines.
Governmental interference in personal food choices erupted violently in a recent Dadri lynching where a Muslim man, Mohammed Akhlaq, became a victim of a Hindu mob. Al-Jazeera reported that the mob had been egged on by announcements from their local temple stating a false rumor that a cow had been slaughtered. This incident is not an isolated event of mob violence but rather a reflection of hegemonic right wing Hindu nationalist agenda which seeks to homogenize the entire nation into their version of “Hinduness.” Tensions continue to simmer precisely because political leaders such as Manohar Lal Khattar, a BJP member and current Chief Minister of the state of Haryana, preach that “Muslims can continue to live in [India] but they will have to give up eating beef.” His statement raises the question of the “rightful” place for Muslims, which according to him is somewhere outside of India if they persist in beef consumption. Similar discourse followed from Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, who stated that people who desire to consume beef should go to “Pakistan or Arab countries or any other part of world where it is available.” It seems that politicians in favor of the beef ban have forgotten that as citizens of a democratic and secular nation, Indians need not refrain from certain dietary behaviors in order to guarantee the continuity of their citizenship, neither do they need to travel outside of the nation to consume meat which already is exported by the nation.
The oppressive food politics has given way to beef related violence by BJP members in other parts of India. MLA (Member of Legislative Assembly) engineer Rashid was beaten up by other BJP MLA’s for having hosted a beef party in the MLA hostel. In another instance in the southern state of Kerala, around 20 BJP members wrecked havoc at a beef festival hosted by students by throwing the food and setting the containers on fire. Violent incidents aside, beef had become a polarizing aspect in the recent elections held in the state of Bihar, as BJP leader Sushil Kumar Modi asked voters to choose between leaders who support beef consumption and leaders who would ban beef slaughter and consumption. This statement came after political rival Lalu Yadav stated the simple truth that there are Hindus who consume beef. Yadav’s statement drew heavy criticism and he was forced to retract his statement.
The politics of beef extends to forced religious conversions as well. There is the deplorable case of the ghar wapsi (homecoming) movements hosted by Hindu nationalist and fundamentalist groups such as the RSS (Rashtriya Samaj Seva), a sister branch of the political party BJP, who are forcibly converting Muslims and Christians “back” to Hinduism. The goals of these groups are quite simple; they want to bring back their fellow “wayward” Muslim and Christian citizens by returning them to the “rightful” practices of Hinduism. The dream of a homogenized Hindu nation of non-beef eating citizens is being realized partially by Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), who promised Hindu converts that they would be free to choose their caste after conversion. While VHP may consider their offer generous, the irony remains that Hinduism’s traditional stance on caste is that a person does not choose but is born into their caste, thereby limiting fluidity of movement in the caste hierarchy. The caste system has been used as a social hierarchy to determine who is entailed what benefits in society and will only lead to further divisions in an already divided nation.
Unnecessary and undemocratic governmental interference in a citizen’s private choice of religion and food reveals a problematic discourse of “us vs. them” rhetoric, pitting the nation’s minority population as outliers. The oppressive governmental rule also points to the subjugation of basic rights that every Indian citizen should be able to exercise freely, namely freedom to eat the food they want and to practice the religion of their choice. The paradox remains that despite India’s rich diversity in language, religions, customs, and cultures, there is an oppressive hand of Hindu fundamentalist rule that seeks to create a homogenized culture. The unfortunate truth remains that the leaders who should be leading a unified country are doing their best to divide its people.
Image via Shiju Sugunan.
Arpita Mandal is a PhD candidate in English at the University of Connecticut with an interest in human rights, post colonial studies, and Arabic and Anglophone literature.