In light of recent lynchings over suspicion of cow smuggling, The Quint is republishing this piece from its archives, originally published on 1 May 2017.
A few days ago, Mohan Bhagwat, head of the RSS – which supposedly controls the BJP, now the sarkari authority – said no Indian should kill a cow. A cow?
On 30 April, two persons in BJP-ruled Assam were lynched by a supposed gau rakshak mob. Pehlu Khan, a farmer transporting cattle, was killed on 1 April in Alwar by so-called gau rakshaks – cattle saviours – now on a rampage across north India. It turned out later that he was not a cattle consumer, but was simply carrying cattle from one place to another.
Crackdown on Food Habits
So today, a human life is worth less than cattle? I don’t know what you think, but this really brings my lunch up.
“So long as you have food in your mouth, you have solved all questions for the time being,” wrote Franz Kafka. He would have known: starving and cold most of his life and leaving his works of genius to be burnt by his closest friend, Max Brod.
Food is fuel for all people over the world and nobody has monopoly to dictate what anyone eats. This is a fundamental truth, often violated in many places by food taboos imposed by prevalent beliefs, prejudices and politics of the day.
Thus, decisions of BJP governments in Gujarat, Rajasthan, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh to crack down on meat and poultry production and consumption are an assault on peoples’ dietary habits as well as an attack on the economic well-being of India.
Dependence on Animal Husbandry
It all began as cow – gau rakshak – militias. Now it’s grown to a multi-state assault on people’s dietary habits. The Gujarat BJP chief minister promises a 14-year sentence, effectively a life term, against those convicted of cow slaughter in the state. Other BJP leaders are eager to play along.
This ignores the fact that much of India’s population depends on farming and related activities like dairying, poultry, fish farming and meat sales for their existence.
Crop failures abound, deprived of stable irrigation, dependent on monsoon cycles. A hedge against this is animal husbandry, especially the rearing of cattle.
That is why India is the world’s largest buffalo meat exporter, with 58 percent of the global buffalo population. In a survey done in 2010-11, our meat production (including poultry) was 4.9 million tonnes, the eighth highest in the world. Our export of buffalo meat is reckoned to be close to $5 billion a year, growing 15 percent every year, a rate that would make the IT industry blush.
A large chain of people, including caste Hindu cattle rearers, middlemen, traders, Muslim butchers, Dalit skinners and cleaners, and businessmen retailers and exporters are involved in the meat trade. Each performs a valuable role in the trade – not just of buffalo, but any sort of meat sold anywhere in India from Nagpur to Nagaland.
All numbers are from a study done by FICCI, an industry lobby. The verification is up to that organisation. The rest of the story is easy to grasp.
Meat Finds Mention in Hindu Scriptures
Most Indians do not share the food taboos of Bhagwat. His views cannot be imposed on the vast majority. All Hindutva claims on our diet have to be based on some historical evidence. So, here it goes, from India’s foremost historian of food, KT Achaya, in ‘Indian Food: A Historical Companion’.
He writes that according to the Puranic Griha Sutras, the first food to be served to a newborn child as ‘annaprassanya’ is milk. It will then be followed by other food, which will balance the child’s future nature.
These include goat (or ram) meat to deliver physical strength; partridge meat for saintliness; fish, a gentle disposition; rice and ghee, glory. Elsewhere in the texts, he finds the consumption of rhinoceros flesh propitious. He cites that the Jataka tales list pigeon, partridge, monkey and elephant as edible.
Ancestors as Hardcore Carnivores
My personal footnote to all of this is simple: the version of the Ramayana, the 15th century Krittibas magnum opus that we learnt in Bengal, said Ram and Lakshman loved eating venison and ‘goshap’, a monitor – a large lizard – that was probably easy prey in the forests of those early days.
Kautilya’s Arthashashtra adds much to our wisdom of food and its processing restrictions. Writing around 300 BC about the regulation of slaughterhouses, the Machiavelli of India describes every ingredient of what it takes to cook 700 gm of meat – 175 gm of curd and 7 gm of garam masala, for instance. He was not in favour of any bans, but a tax to the administration and health rules would suffice. Chanakya was certainly no food fundamentalist.
Now, go a few years ahead in history. The Charaka Samhita gives us a nice menu. Apart from the usual meats, it has a list which includes alligator, tortoise, jackal and porcupine. For most of us today, even the omnivores, this might seem hard to digest, but clearly our ancestors had stronger stomachs.
In India’s northeast, where the BJP is very keen to take power, it is wary of saying anything about food. After all, aren’t all those northeastern people known to eat anything? I’m married to the region, and well, the meals are good.
Eat what you will. Fight nobody over their traditional daily meal.
(The writer is a Delhi-based senior journalist. He can be reached @AbheekBarman. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)