Resisting Culinary Fascism: Nabanipa Bhattacharjee
Guest post by NABANIPA BHATTACHARJEE
At the end of last month (March 2012) students of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi under the banner of a recently formed group called the New Materialists (NM) organized a public meeting to debate the issue of (dis)allowing certain kinds of food – beef and pork in particular – on the campus. The group, as one of its members Suraj Beri said, intended to petition the university administration to allow the sale of beef and pork in the canteen(s), and fight for inclusion of the same in the hostels’ menus; it was a struggle, as the NM declared, against the Brahmanical dietary impositions on Dalits and other minority community students of JNU. In fact, Francis (JNU students of the 1990’s would remember the man from Kerala) who ran a canteen at the basement of the School of Social Sciences II did serve beef curry on Saturdays, and it would not be an exaggeration to say that there would be more than a mad rush for that. However, he was pressurised – by Hindu right wing groups and other similar forces – to stop the sale of the “forbidden” food, and the canteen was eventually closed down.
Despite the diverse cultural (culinary) profile of the student community, JNU unfortunately neither protested nor debated the matter then. However, by raising the issue of food preference and choice on JNU campus – although after more than a decade – the NM in fact, paved the way for further debate on this critical matter in the larger public sphere. A fortnight later – on 14-15 April (incidentally coinciding with Ambedkar Jayanti) – violent clashes broke out at Osmania University (OU), Hyderabad over a beef eating festival organized by Dalit and Left leaning student activists on the campus to protest against Brahmanical food restrictions. Fairly widely reported and discussed – the latest Economic and Political Weekly (28 April, 2012) (EPW) editorial and a Kafila post (22 April, 2012) being well-known examples – the public response to beef eating has ranged from active support, calculated indifference and, as is obvious from the recent attack on Meena Kandasamy’s views, violent rejection (also see EPW, 28 April, 2012).Beef eating as a carefully constructed divisive symbol has been historically on the agenda of the Sangh Parivar in particular, and used essentially to target the Indian Muslims and Christians. The entry of Dalits as incidents at JNU and OU show, has added an unanticipated (and uneasy) dimension (and dilemma) to that – though ABVP activists unhesitatingly took to violence in OU. However, the top leadership of the Sangh Parivar has reacted cautiously given its agenda of inclusion of Dalits in the Hindutva political fold (also see EPW, 28 April, 2012). While the response of the rank and file of Sangh Parivar (to beef consumption) has by and large been along predictable lines, what the two episodes (JNU and OU) and also Kandasamy’s comments (21 April, 2012) bring to light is the public posturing of Dalits over culinary fascism which in turn is hinged on beef eating.
While it is true that beef eating has been the defining feature of the ideology of culinary fascism in India, thanks to Article 48 of the Indian Constitution, non-uniform state policies regarding its consumption or otherwise, and reactionary politics of the Sangh Parivar, and so forth, yet that is certainly not where the story ends; for instance, the addition of pork, incidentally a prohibited meat for Muslims, on the agenda of NM is a pointer towards that. Given the complexity surrounding the dietary habits of Indians, a beef centric view of culinary fascism would therefore offer only a non-nuanced understanding of that ideology. The Indian variety of culinary fascism is premised (and practised) upon the Hindus and Others (including non-vegetarian Hindus) divide which in turn feeds into the pure, vegetarian and impure (dangerous), non-vegetarian food divide. Obviously, we need to recognize that culinary (food) fascism in India is marked by an acute everydayness and extends far beyond the issue of beef consumption alone to include all kinds of non-vegetarian food; other varieties of non-vegetarian food if not being able to stir such “heightened, passionate” feelings as with beef surely does no less.
I would argue that an approach to counter culinary fascism in India necessitates an understanding of how the vegetarian and non-vegetarian divide resting upon a selective and hence, biased study of Hindu (and Jain) myths, texts, and so forth operates at micro level on an everyday basis. And it is just not about beef eating but also pork, chicken, fish, egg, and so on. And it is also not about Dalits and, Muslims and Christians alone but numerous non-vegetarian upper and middle caste (Bengali, Kashmiri, Maithil, and Assamese) Hindus. We need to remember that no community, Dalits in particular, have a monolithic culinary culture just as not all Hindu Brahmans are vegetarians or Muslims/Christians meat eaters. The fascistic ideology propagated by a section of “devout Hindus” – even if not all are officially part of the Sangh Parivar – obviously operates on the constructed “Indian (vegetarian) culinary culture” which forbids inclusion of all kinds of non-vegetarian food, and consequently excludes, hates and targets not only the Muslims/Christians (presuming all are non-vegetarians) but also the “lesser non-vegetarian Hindus (including Dalits)”; interestingly, even Hindu deities are often ranked along ambrosial lines. As the EPW editorial pertinently points out: ‘How has Hindu, or even Indian, food culture been defined as largely vegetarian and who has decided that beef [and pork, lamb, chicken, and fish for instance,] is against Hindu food culture? It is the north Indian, Hindu, upper-caste male who has had a free run for more than a century and a half in defining Indian food and culture’ (p.8).
It is perhaps not incorrect that the culinary fascism grows and thrives in northern (and parts of western India) India, in the Gangetic plains to be precise, yet southern India is not far behind; my personal experience of being a Hindu, Bengali, non-vegetarian, upper caste woman living in north India (in Delhi, where my intolerant western Uttar Pradesh born neighbour routinely humiliates me by saying that I eat “meat, fish and what not” kind of food) and teaching in a south Indian management run college (non-vegetarian food is forbidden in the college premises) affiliated to the University of Delhi suggests that. While I certainly stand in solidarity with the agenda of NM and students of OU as also Kandasamy’s comments and Kafila’s position on the matter, but at the same time I would reiterate that the need of the hour is to extend the Dalit-Muslim, beef centric understanding of culinary fascism to interrogate the larger vegetarian versus non-vegetarian cultural and political (pertaining to the nature of individual rights and choices in a “secular, democratic” state) framework within which the ideology is located. We urgently need to debate and resist culinary fascism in order to be able to eat, live and grow in a tolerant India.
Nabanipa Bhatttacharjee teaches at Sri Venkateswara College, Delhi University