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Dalits ‘Cowed’ Down

The Folly of Beef Festivals

by FARZANA VERSEY

If a group of Christians decided to hold a pork festival as part of their cultural assertion in Hyderabad, a city in South India that is now in the news for the Dalit beef festival at Osmania University, would no one protest? I doubt it. There would be protests, if not clashes. The Hindu rightwing Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) did just that and it resulted in mob fury, and even a student being stabbed.

Beef festival organizer B Sudarshan, a research scholar, said it was unfortunate that some upper caste students tried to disrupt the festival which was going on peacefully. “We have not made any slaughter of animals in the hostel premises but only distributed food among the students to acknowledge the age-old custom of Dalits and minorities. We wanted to remove the dirty image associated with beef, as spread by the Brahminical culture,” he said.

If it is age-old customs that they refer to, then it would also mean being subjugated, something that Dalits have suffered for centuries. There are several ‘dirty images’ that need to be publicly flogged. There are professions that have come to be associated with the scheduled castes and are looked down at. Perhaps, such scholars might like to find out if the Grade 1V low cadre workers can even afford a meal of lentils and chapattis, or how those in the rural areas are stripped naked and beaten up, even killed, for belonging to a scheduled caste. Will they be discussing beef with them?

This issue appears to be ostensibly puerile. But when it is projected as a cultural move, then we need to discuss it in the larger framework, as much as we do when the Hindutva groups wish to reclaim the ancient heritage by pulling down structures and inciting hatred against minorities. The standards for argument have to be similar, for it is a political move responding to a religious-political group.

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Food is a primal need. So much so that alleys that stock edible items in malls make sure to not only psychologically but physically work up an appetite with strategically-placed exhaust fans that exhale the scent of freshly-baked breads or the sound of the crackling pit close to the ready mixes. Besides being a marketing trick, it urges us to salivate. It is a bit like pornography.

The reason for this digression is that Dalits, by fighting for the right to choose their food, are in fact portraying an image that might be quite unlike the one they envisaged.  There is a large section of Hindus that reveres the cow; the movement against such slaughter is not new. It is seen as muscling Brahmin superiority. This is not completely true. You pass any temple and even the poorest people, not all Brahmin, will stop to touch the cow with reverence or feed it. Among the other castes, too, one often comes across instances where the men may rebel and partake of meat outside the house. At an eatery in Rajasthan, the owner told me that on weekends men visit for their dose of meat and booze. They would not permit the women to eat any sort of meat. These people are not Brahmins.

Meat is associated with pugnacity. It harks back to the caveman image of men hunting, holding up the bloodied spear, skinning the animal, tying its limbs and letting it cook in its own juices on a slow fire. The barbeque is often seen as a man’s day with the hunted, although women are primarily the cooks. Their participation here as well is a rolled-up sleeves act.

This is cultural conditioning. The Dalits are talking about the right to not be subjected to Brahminical dictates where food is concerned. It is true they might seem to be belittling the reverence for the cow, but is that their only motive? Is it not possible that the anger against the beef festival has also to do with them being part of an educational institution, of qualifying for the same professional stakes?

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I feel they have taken the sting out of their protests by playing into the ‘reverence’ narrative instead of creating one of their own. The idea is not always to react. Some feel happy they are allowed entry into temples or to become priests. These are in fact the very values they ought to be moving out of. Why do they need the temples that have scripturally created the hierarchies in the first place? Why do they not have their own places of worship, if they must? Why read out shlokas (verses) that affirm, say, the karma theory, which would in effect amount to implying they are what they are because of some past birth sin?

The problem is not with beef. Anyone can tell you that many Hindus do eat beef. So, Dalits, Muslims, Christians can eat what they wish to. But to celebrate it is plain politics. These Dalits will not have a pork festival at the Muslim-run Anjuman-e-Islam institute.

I do not eat pork. I do not eat beef. I do not eat kangaroo meat or ants. Whatever it is that I eat, I do keep the sensitivities of those around me in mind.

When Mahavir Jayanti and Bakri Eid clashed on one day a few years ago, I wrote in one of my column that Muslims should perform the qurbani (ritual sacrifice) a day earlier. The simple reason is that vegetarianism is intrinsic to Jainism, whereas the qurbani is a symbolic gesture and it is often performed at different times in different parts of the world. Not a single Muslim wrote contesting me. It does not mean they did not do what they had planned, but I was not called a kafir or pseudo-secular, which happens often.

Some see culinary choices as hypocrisy. Let me give a personal example. When I was in school a close relative got married to a South Indian, a Brahmin. She converted. They went overseas to plum jobs with their plum education. On one of her trips home, I recall her saying that if one can eat lamb then why not pork, why these double standards? She had started eating pork. I assume her husband ate beef. I never bothered to ask. It did not really affect me. Looking back, I find it a bit strange for I am not the religious one; she chose another religion, which naturally made her an adherent to a faith. The liberalism was short-lived.

Years later, she and her family turned vegetarian, for health and ethical reasons. Now this idea began to be flaunted. It was both a physical and spiritual detoxification, but it also resulted in proselytising. I see that often among vegetarians, more than meat eaters. I have never denied that not eating pork is most certainly part of conditioning and it would be difficult for me to shake that off. I am aware that there will be people ready with their clichés to push me into a corner of an Islamist. Will I go and stuff myself with bacon only to prove them wrong?

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It is not surprising that intellectuals have jumped onto the bandwagon, the academic Brahmins. I wonder what these proponents of the Dalit beef festival would say about the communal flare-up in the same city when a piece of beef was hurled at the Hanuman Temple wall. Would they see this as a protest? The first suspects would have been Muslims, but a source in the Special Investigations Team said, “We have specific information that the incident was executed by locals from the same community”. This was done by rightwing Hindus to cause mischief and put the blame on Muslims.

What would be the stand of the beef festival organisers on this? It is so easy for perceptions to change because the reality is not constant.

The real pity is that in a nation where many people go hungry, the Brahmins push for cow protection and the Dalits rebel against that. Where people do not have a place to live, places of worship become a refuge for scoundrels to act out their nasty beliefs – a piece of pork near a mosque, beef on temple walls. Caste and communal riots only prove that we are different. No one realises that with so much to lose, we have human festivals almost every day. Someone celebrates someone’s death. It is not just about human flesh, but humane ideals that die.

Farzana Versey is a Mumbai-based writer. She can be reached at http://farzana-versey.blogspot.in/