I am currently caught in an ethical dilemma – to eat meat or not. Is it ever justifiable to consume a living creature? Don’t they have an equal right to life? Hinduism believes killing animals is a sin.
Whenever I see a goat or a chicken, I am mystified as to how anyone can kill and eat these lovely creatures. I should disclose here that I have been a non-vegetarian since my childhood.
I have tried to quit several times in the past and even succeeded briefly, only to fall off the wagon again. I have not touched meat in the past five years with the exception of fish, which is still dear to me. I still find myself grappling with questions pertaining to the morality of consuming non-vegetarian food. My mind flounders...
Politicisation of Food Choices
Ever since Yogi Adityanath took over as the Chief Minister in Uttar Pradesh, government-led crackdown on illegal slaughterhouses has put the state in a tizzy, with even legal outfits facing temporary closure.
Now we have similar voices rising in Madhya Pradesh, with a certain section demanding complete ban on meat and enforcing vegetarianism. In the current milieu, where men are murdered in the name of the cow and gangs of cow vigilantes roam the streets, our food choices have become irrevocably politicised.
Two years ago, Mohammad Akhlaq lost his life in Dadri over suspected possession of beef. Recently, Pehlu Khan in Alwar, Rajasthan, was accused by a mob of cow trafficking and lynched to death.
The cow is innocent, non-violent. It is above the politics of religion. Though it is true that the cow is regarded as a holy animal in Hinduism, it is equally true that examples of cow slaughter and beef consumption abound in our history.
Several of my Hindu friends, in fact, are very fond of beef. There are plenty of non-vegetarian Hindus around but you will never find them targeted by so-called gau rakshaks. These attacks are always mired in petty politicking. The cow has been co-opted by certain political elements for nefarious reasons.
Cow vigilantism is inextricably tied with communal sentiments, a means to target the Muslim population. This is a blatant attempt to polarise society along the lines of religion by falsely identifying the practice of cow slaughter and beef consumption exclusively with the Muslim community.
Under the guise of holy retribution, the persecution of a minority community is being legitimised.
Vegetarianism Has Nothing to Do with Religion
Vegetarianism undoubtedly has deep roots in our tradition and history. I remember that when I was a kid, non-vegetarianism was considered a bad practice. Meat was cooked and consumed in the house but a careful facade of vegetarianism was maintained in front of the neighbours.
As times changed and the country progressed, non-vegetarianism found more takers in the country and the associated stigma disappeared, to some extent. Today, neither I nor my family need to lie about our food habits. It is a matter of personal choice.
Unlike what the Hindu hardliners would have you believe, it has nothing to do with my religion. Gandhiji was a great proponent of the practice of vegetarianism, but he never conflated the issue with religion.
In 1947, he said: “How can I force anyone not to slaughter cows unless he is himself so disposed?” He believed that one’s food preferences were entirely a matter of private choice.
In his childhood, Mahatma Gandhi was a secret non-vegetarian for a year. His friend Mehtab had convinced him that meat-eating English overlords could not be adequately challenged if one was a strict vegetarian; meat consumption would make them strong.
However, the shame of having to lie to his family and not able to eat soon led Gandhi to stop having non-vegetarian food. When he was leaving for England to pursue higher studies, his mother Putlibai Gandhi made him promise that he would stay away from meat, alcohol, and women. Young Gandhi gave her his word and followed her injunction his entire life.
Gandhi’s Transformation to a Vegetarian
When a friend of his by the name of Dalpatram Shukla pressed Gandhi to eat meat in London, Gandhi replied: “I accept that eating meat might be necessary. But I will not break my word to my mother. You are free to consider me a stubborn fool. A promise is a promise.”
He later became a member of the Vegetarian Society in London and even wrote for their publication called Vegetarian.
Soon, Gandhi even gave up eating eggs. He wrote in his autobiography that “the seat of taste is not the tongue but the mind.” Even so, Gandhiji never looked down on non-vegetarianism or considered it evil. He also never believed that it was related to religion in any way. He merely believed that killing animals wasn’t right.
If you read Gandhi’s autobiography or Mohan Das, his grandson Rajmohan Gandhi’s book on him, it is clear that he associated giving up meat with strength of character. Upholding his promise to his mother was his way of following the path of truth. He could have easily consumed as much meat as he liked in London without telling his mother. His feeling of shame at such duplicity, however, was always too great to allow him to indulge in such behaviour. It is this same spirit that powered his peaceful agitation against the British.
Though he protested against British rule, he never harboured feelings of hostility against the British. Similarly, even though he preached renunciation of meat, he never thought of non-vegetarians as inferior or bad people. He derived inspiration in his propagation of vegetarianism from the Britishers he met in London while campaigning for animal rights.
It is interesting to note that it is Gandhi’s stint with this activism that trained him for the political role he was to assume later. As a member of the Vegetarian Society, he was required to make speeches and form collectives. In the beginning, the thought of making a public address in front of a gathering filled Gandhi with dread.
In fact, he was so nervous at one of these meetings that another person had to step in and give the speech on Gandhi’s behalf. Gandhi later tried to link the vegetarian movement with politics.
In 1894, he wrote that British vegetarians could more readily understand the agony of colonial India compared to their non-vegetarian counterparts. He used to say that while vegetarianism was simply an alternative available to the British, it was a necessary fact of life for poverty-stricken Indians who couldn’t afford meat.
Cow Vigilantism is Anti-India and Anti-National
Today, those elements in India that call for meat ban and enforce vegetarianism are as far from Gandhiji’s principles as they can be. His path of truth and righteousness involved the realisation that no religion had the right to impose its views on another or cause its members distress and harm.
His views underwent many changes between 1894 and 1947, but even in 1947 he maintained that India was not a Hindu country; Muslims, Christians, Parsis and others had an equal right to it. He wished that any law framed in the country had to necessarily take into account the interests of this diverse group.
A majority portion of the Muslim and Christian community is non-vegetarian. In such a state, how can we possibly call for a nationwide ban on meat?
Gandhiji was a lifelong vegetarian, but he never called for a ban on the consumption of meat. The Indian Constitution gives each citizen the right to live, eat, and dress the way they please. Therefore, any call to ban meat, inspired as it is by communal bias and intolerance, is against the Constitution and Gandhian philosophy.
I have given up eating meat, but I still cook it for my family members. We might not share food habits, but we still eat at the same table. Maybe this is what Gandhiji envisioned. Perhaps this is what secularism and tolerance really mean. The foundational principle of India is love, not hate. All hate and narrow-mindedness therefore, like cow vigilantism, is anti-India and anti-national.
(This piece was first published in QuintHindi. The writer is an author and spokesperson of AAP. He can be reached at @ashutosh83B. 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.)
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