By Chandrahas Choudhury
A "beef festival" organized last month by Dalit (or low-caste) student groups at Osmania University in the south Indian city of Hyderabad ended up not only provoking the very violence and repression it sought to draw attention to, but uncovered other pathologies deeply embedded in Indian social life.
What started out as a debate over the validity of the cow -- to many Indians, the holy cow -- as a source of meat was overwhelmed, on the day, by a conflagration of vehicle-burning and teargas, and, in the days that followed, by a firestorm of upper-caste outrage, conspiracy theory, and, most strangely (but revealingly), by sickening misogyny.
As I wrote in an essay on the subject in January, cow slaughter, and therefore the consumption of beef, is a practice abhorrent to most Hindus. But beef is eaten by India's sizeable Muslim and Christian minorities, and historically by some of the lower-caste groups within Hinduism's elaborate and often repressive hierarchy of castes, an ancient social order that has only been partially vanquished over six decades by the egalitarian Indian Constitution of 1950. Nevertheless, beef-eating in India has become something done in the shadows. There are laws in many Indian states restricting or banning cow slaughter; most restaurants and multinational chains (including McDonalds Corp.) don't serve beef for fear of offending Hindu customers; and mixed-community spaces, such as office canteens or hostel messes, don't serve it either.
This "food fascism" was what some student groups of Osmania University sought to challenge in having a festival that served beef on campus to all those who cared to eat it. But this was like waving a red flag in front of the bulls -- the bovine metaphor seems appropriate -- of right-wing student groups dedicated to the cause of "cultural nationalism," such as the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the student wing of the Bhartiya Janata Party, India's second-largest political party. The Hindu reported April 16:
The ‘beef festival' organised by Dalit students' organisations in Osmania University campus turned violent on Sunday evening. Police had to lob teargas shells and resort to lathicharge to separate rival student groups opposing the festival. [...]
Enough steam was built up in the preceding days of the event with Dalit groups describing it as reclamation of their cultural rights, while the rival right wing groups distributed pamphlets condemning cow slaughter. In view of the attacks by Akhil Bharatiya Vidya Parishad (ABVP) activists during a similar event in EFLU last April, the festival was planned on a larger scale this time with participation of intellectuals and professors supporting the demand of inclusion of beef in the hostel menu.
Sensing trouble ahead of the D-day, police officials convinced the organisers to order food from outside instead of preparing it in the campus. Accordingly, beef biryani was brought from outside and served to the gathering near the NRS (Ambedkar) Hostel at about 5 p.m. [...] After a lull, rival students group began throwing stones and attacked media vehicles. A private TV channel's vehicle was totally burnt down, while another's was partly damaged, also injuring a technician. But, much to the relief of the police, the festival organisers wound up the feast to prevent further trouble.
An alternative interpretation of the festival was provided by the Organiser ("the oldest and most authentic weekly of India"), run by the Hindu group the RSS, which saw the event as a deliberate ploy on the part of Dalits and "Leftists" to inflame the religious sentiments of Hindus. In an article under the headline "Beef Festival Hosted By Left Communalists To Taunt Hindu Sentiments Foiled By ABVP," N Nagaraja Rao wrote:
Dalit students groups of OU supported by some senior faculty and city-based academics had organised the festival to celebrate the Dalit food culture, which includes eating beef. [...]
Now the debate is, despite all the disingenuous claims of the organizers of the Beef Festival at Osmania University, the event was indeed a foolish provocation aimed at caste-baiting. When the alliance of beef-eaters — Dalits, Muslims and Christians — resorted to this curious form of protest to advance their demand that the university hostel serve beef, it was their unstated intention to provoke upper-caste Hindus for whom the cow is an object of veneration. Thus the Beef Festival organisers did (sic) was to make a provocative public show of their eating beef and underlying motive was entirely political. How eating beef publicly leads to Dalit emancipation and assertion of their rights is a million dollar question? (sic) [...]
Human society is neither random nor capricious. The regularities of thought and behaviour called culture are the principal mechanisms by which we human beings adapt to the world around us. Practices and beliefs can be rational or irrational, but a society that fails to adapt to its environment is doomed to extinction.
The implication of the last sentence about adapting to the environment seemed to be that unless "the alliance of beef-eaters" adapted to the wider Hindu environment of beef-eating-as-taboo, Indian civilization would be doomed. Among the participants at the festival who freely accepted Nagaraja Rao's charge that the underlying motive for the festival was "entirely political" was the Dalit poet and feminist Meena Kandasamy, who explained in an essay called "A Cowed-Down Nation":
[The organizers of the beef-eating festival] fought the “food fascism” that kept beef out of the menu [...] and criticised the imposition of caste-Hindu dietary diktats on Dalits from within the confines of a seemingly neutral educational institution. When they rapped “Beef is the secret of my energy” with all the soul of an outlaw anthem, it sounded like the secret heartbeat of an anti-caste cultural revolution. [...]
There is no point getting offended if someone enjoys beef in all its juicy glory. Since nobody is being force-fed, tolerance means digesting the idea that just as cows are meant to be milked, cows are also meant to be meat. There cannot be a shred of doubt that in a racist nation which advertises vaginal skin-lightening creams, the large, naive eyes and flawless complexion make the cow an attractive mother. Men take pride in being mummy’s boys, but it is high time Hindutva organisations and secular, state-run universities stop being swayed by bovine sex appeal, step out of their Oedipus complex and remind themselves that cows, at least the fertile ones, are only mothers of calves.
News of the festival provoked outrage from supporters of Hindu nationalism on social media. But what was most revealing about this strain of reaction was its singling out of Kandasamy for abuse. Although she explained in a Twitter post that the "beef fest motive was NOT to hurt. it was to assert the right to eat what students wanted to eat," what she received in return was a heap of sexually charged invective from upper-caste men.
The comments showed how nationalism, racism, egotism and misogyny often exist on the same continuum, and that the same elites that want to control what should be done to the bodies of cows often also want to control -- sometimes in the coarsest and ugliest ways -- the bodies of women. One might say that by standing up for the right of Dalits to eat beef in a public space, Kandasamy was acting less as a provocateur (as she was accused by many of being) and more as a scapegoat, a figure on whom a society projects its own sins. What she brought into the open was the persistence of caste in India as a source of everyday, even casual, violence, and of gender violence as a widespread response in situations of caste tension. As the writer Annie Zaidi wrote in DNA:
What newspaper or television headlines don’t always say is where that negative incident — violent or not — comes from. It comes from a society where random acts of oppression and discrimination go unpunished. It comes from the flesh and bone of the body of caste.
That, sadly, is the body in which most Indians remain trapped. Go look at some videos made by community members at the Video Volunteers website. In one, you see school-kids being segregated at meal-time. In another, you see a young Gujarati talking of having to go to the next town for a haircut because he isn’t allowed to enter local barber-shops. A tap is washed by a little girl because a Dalit woman has just used it. A Sikh father talks of how his son and pregnant daughter-in-law were killed because it was an inter-caste wedding. A farm worker is left handicapped after being attacked with a sickle for drinking water from a pot. This series of video clips, less than a minute each, is part of a campaign called Article 17. You can view them here.
Perhaps you’ve had your fill of bad news. But if you don’t look, you deny yourself a full portrait of India.
Meanwhile, the news channel CNN-IBN reported last week that men from right-wing Hindu groups had conducted a ritual in Hyderabad "to purify the campus of Osmania University" after its desecration by beef consumption.
Some would say, however, that in situations like this, the ideal of purity is much more inimical to peaceful coexistence than the perception, or reality, of pollution.
(Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the author of this blog post: Chandrahas Choudhury at Chandrahas.email@example.com
To contact the editor responsible for this post: Max Berley at firstname.lastname@example.org- May/02/2012 16:02 GMT