Food, Faith and Fascism in New India

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Food, Faith and Fascism in New India

| Updated: April 17, 2024 19:26

Food fascism, which was earlier a characteristic only of the Gujarat Model, has, under Prime Minister Modi, become a national phenomenon.

Because it is Gujarat, the latest comment by Prime Minister Narendra Modi that flaunting and eating meat during the Hindu holy month of sawan (called chaitra in Gujarati) is being lapped up as a yet another bold stand by the unstoppable prime minister.

Food fascism in Gujarat is not new. Gujaratis are absolutely okay doing business and selling or renting their properties to those who consume non-vegetarian food. People belonging to the Muslim and Dalit communities are excluded. There is no quantifiable statistics but there are clear demarcations in Gujarat for Muslim and Dalit house ownership and residence. Sikhs, Jains, Parsis, and to some extent, Christians are okay but most savarna societies have invisible bans to keep away Muslim and Dalit occupancy. However, food fascism, earlier a Gujarat Model, has now sadly become a new normal nationally.

Food fascism, which was earlier a characteristic only of the Gujarat Model, has, under Prime Minister Modi, become a national phenomenon.

That the prime minister chose Jammu and Kashmir, a region with a Muslim majority, to ridicule Tejashwi Yadav’s fish video is being translated as Prime Minister Modi’s guts in speaking out his mind. “This is also an example of ghar mein ghus ke maarunga,” a Gujarati professor bragged saying how Modi is not scared to protest Hindutva at all costs.

Gujarat ingeniously chooses to forget that India with over 1.428 billion people has widely diverse food habits that are distinguished by region, religion, caste, class, age, and surprisingly also gender. Forget the state’s nearly 10% Muslim population, Gujarat wants to turn a blind eye to India’s  211 million Muslims and 28 million Christians.

Besides this, India houses approximately 21 million Dalits who are branded as the lowest in the Hindu caste hierarchy. Muslims, Christians and Dalits are all okay with red meat like several others but they are constantly being targeted.

At least 70% population in India consume non-vegetarian food. However, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is an avowed vegetarian like most ‘upper’ class Gujaratis. I say ‘upper’ class because Prime Minister Modi, now classified as a member of the OBC (Other Backward Class), was classified under savarna, that is, ‘upper’ class until 1999.

Simply put, Modi became a backward class Indian through a central legislation only when he was about 50 years old. Gujarat has over 40% population that eats non-vegetarian. This does not include those who do not cook at home but are okay with eating outside, a very particular Gujarati characteristic. It must also be noted that Gujarat has more non-vegetarians than Rajasthan, Punjab and Haryana.

Food fascism

Considering India’s diversity, food prescription is tacky. Socio-economic and cultural dynamics vary intensely in the country. This mutton-fish mockery by Modi is an atypical Sanskritised stance. Centuries ago, Brahmins in India who themselves were beef and meat eaters converted to vegetarianism to stigmatise against their then main rivals, the Buddhists. Over the years, the Buddhists became Dalits, the lowest in the caste ladder in India.

To quote from Beef, Brahmins and Broken Men, which is an annotated selection of B.R. Ambedkar’s seminal work, The Untouchables, “For generations the Brahmins had been eating beef. Why did they give up beef-eating? Why did they, as an extreme step, give up meat-eating altogether and become vegetarians? It is two revolutions rolled into one. As has been shown it has not been done as a result of the preachings of Manu, their Divine lawmaker. The revolution has taken place in spite of Manu and contrary to his directions. What made the Brahmins take this step? Was philosophy responsible for it? Or was it dictated by strategy? Two explanations are offered. One explanation is that this deification of the cow was a manifestation of the Advaita philosophy that one supreme entity pervaded the whole universe, that on that account all life, human as well as animal, was sacred. This explanation is obviously unsatisfactory.”

The second explanation, derived from Vedanta Sutra, is equally unsatisfactory.

Offering a genealogy of untouchability in India, Babasaheb Ambedkar had written that Dalits were descendants of those Buddhists who were fenced out of the narrow prism of caste then in India. He beautifully portrayed how the Vedic cult involved sacrifice of cows and how Brahmins relished beef.

Currently, Gujarat and Rajasthan are lapping up Modi’s utterances and criticism of those eating non-vegetarian food during Chaitra Navratri, Sawan month as a “Mughal mindset”. Mughals are easily translated as Muslims who have the ignominy of being viewed with suspicion, negativity and hatred in New India.

This time, unlike the beef ban and mob lynchings, what is different is that a majority of India do not abstain from non-vegetarian food in this month.

Although the tradition is to offer fish and mutton to the goddess, who embodies strength, power, and universal creation, even in Gujarat, Maa Ambe is portrayed as killing the demon Mahisasur and drinking his blood.

In Bihar, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Assam, and Odisha, there are temples where fish and mutton are offered as bhog to the Mother Goddess.

This explains why non-vegetarian food and its consumption are considered absolutely normal. In fact, according to a report by India Today, seven out of ten Indians eat non-vegetarian food.

The latest bout of food fascism once again raises the danger of majoritarian, right-wing-inspired politics. As history has recorded, fascism always grants a special, privileged status to the majority. Those among the minorities who cave in are given much more than the majority also, but unfortunately, those who choose to carry on without compromising their self-respect are made to live like second-class citizens.

The CAA has cleared a fast-track citizenship status for illegal Hindu immigrants but is inevitably uncertain for their Muslim counterparts. In a situation already brimming with these discrepancies, this latest showdown of food fascism speaks of arrogance, a cocky sauciness, and insolence.

The relationship between food, status, and caste in India has always been structurally hierarchic, but never before has there been a top politician attempting to create fissures in the country on the basis of food. To create a sanitised history around food and to link eating non-vegetarian during this month with “Mughal mentality” is clearly linking food with region and faith.

For a Kashmiri Brahmin or a Bengali Brahmin, a vegetarian diet may be unimaginable, just like a non-vegetarian diet may be frowned upon by a Naagar or Brahmin in Gujarat and Rajasthan, or an Iyengar Brahmin in Tamil Nadu. Vegetarianism is an elite concept reserved for some of the topmost castes in India.

A Maharashtrian folk song says:

pati bhar Laddu Kai kamache, wati bhar pahije Matan,

ani wati bhar matana sathi zurate man na ho;

Bajar chya divashi matan nasel tar kasa divas legato Bhanbhan

An wati bhar matana sathi zurate man na ho.

A Dalit woman “dares” and confidently sings a song stating the superiority of beef over sweet desi ghee laddoos that the higher caste enjoys.

The Savarnisation of food ensures that those with “anti-Brahmin” food habits are humiliated for their choices. Forget cow meat; even blood is not new to traditional Indian culinary practices. “Rakti” refers to a dish that utilises blood as a crucial ingredient in Dalit cuisine from Western India. For instance, the Goan specialty known as “Sorpotel” is a pork offal curry that includes heart and liver, along with a significant component – pig’s blood. The term “sarapatel” itself signifies “confusion,” reflecting the diverse mix of homegrown and homebred ingredients.

However, in these oversanskritised times, the ruling BJP haughtily wants to impose their own agenda on what we eat, drink, and wear. Of course, the BJP is absolutely two-faced and duplicitous. Its hypocrisy is apparent from the fact that they demean those eating non-vegetarian food, yet they are absolutely fine accepting donations from those who deal with it.

The Allana Group, one of India’s leading exporters of processed food, particularly meat, donated electoral bonds to the BJP, as did Frigorifico, another similar company.

The South is much saner than North India in letting people be. The highest number of Hindu beef eaters are in Andhra Pradesh followed by Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Karnataka. Beef and buffalo meat-eating is most common in Lakshadweep, with over 97% of the population consuming it, according to the National Sample Survey. However, in present times, forget consuming non-vegetarian food; there is increasing bigotry and a muscle-wielding Rightist attitude towards even people who eat or look like they eat it.

India has already witnessed fragile food fascism where a Hindu Zomato customer refused to have his food delivered by a Muslim boy. This audacity is possible only in Modi Raj. This contaminated politics of exclusion, stereotyping, othering, and branding people is unbearable to every liberal Indian. However, in Gujarat, this exclusionary nationalism is celebrated endlessly as the victory of the son of the soil, that is Prime Minister Modi.

Now, what qualifies me to comment on this tragic food fascism of India. First of all, I am a vegan but I still believe that food is an absolute personal and private choice. I also happen to be a Naagar. Naagars are a Brahmin subcaste but they scale themselves higher than the Brahmins on the caste catechism. Narsinh Mehta who penned Mahatma Gandhi’s favourite ‘Vaishnava jana to tene kahiye je peed parayi jaane re’ was a Naagar. So was Gujarat’s first woman graduate Vidyagauri Nilkanth. Her grandson is the acclaimed author Pico Iyer who of course has gone on record to say he has never spent a night in Gujarat. I am a Vadnagara Naagar which means my family origins are from Vadnagar in North Gujarat. Yes, the quaint little town where Prime Minister Narendra Modi was born.

Despite all these “qualifications”, I refuse to be “cowed” down by vigilantes who want to decide who can eat what and when. Mutton or macchi in sawan or bhado should not be a national discourse.

India deserves better.

This article was originally published on The Wire on April 17, 2024.

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