This story, first published on Countercurrents.org in 2005, is being republished
Recently while travelling on the early morning flight from Mumbai to Ahmedabad, I overheard my co-passenger’s request for non vegetarian breakfast being denied by the flight steward on the ground that on Mumbai Ahmedabad route, non vegetarian food is not served. The same got confirmed a few days later when the management of the said airlines publicly stated that since the passengers on this route are manly vegetarians, and in case of some slip on the part of airlines staff if the vegetarian passengers if by mistake is served the non vegetarian food, it will be hurting their religious sentiments.
Similarly during one of the trips to Ahmedabad when sipping tea with one of the young IT professional friend in his rented accommodation, I was aghast to see the landlord barging into the flat and making headway straight to the kitchen, inspecting something and going away. I could not hide my amazement and asked the young friend as to how someone can come and inspect your kitchen utensils, and that too even without the courtesy of asking your permission. He replied that it is more or less a routine practice in the city where the landlords or landladies keep a watch whether the tenant is cooking non vegetarian food.
Also one house hunter in the city of Mumbai was surprised that the real estate agent inquired about his food habits before showing him the flats for sale. He was also told that the particular housing complex where he wanted to buy the house, they had the unwritten (? written) rule that non vegetarians will not be permitted in the housing complex.
By now it has become a routine for one to hear in different workshops and seminars that Muslims are having aggressive mentality because they consume non-vegetarian food.
There is a hidden sentence in this which comes out easily when probed further that the real reason for their having aggressive mentality is that they eat beef. It comes as an addition that since cow is holy for the Hindus, they at the same time are hurting the sentiments of the Hindus.
This trend is picking on from last few years more strongly. One can roughly say that it runs parallel to the rise of communalism and communal violence in society. It has become rooted in stronger fashion, post Babri demolition along with demonisation of Muslims reaching a new high.
Two issues have been deliberately intertwined in the social common sense. One is about non-vegetarian food causing violent tendencies and the second, the eating of beef by Muslims and thereby hurting the sentiments of Hindus. It is very clear that the definition of non-vegetarian food varies from place to place and community to community. Eggs are passé for some vegetarians and strict no for others. Some regard sea food, fish and the like, as vegetarian while for others it is non vegetarian food in all sense of the meaning.
Today world over roughly more than 80-90% of the population is non-vegetarian so to say. While Muslims in India are the object of wrath, apart from other things, also for eating beef, Europeans and Americans do get away easily in this psyche despite having beef as their staple diet. In the countries and people who follow the biggest apostle of non-violence ever, Lord Gautam Buddha, the consumption of non-vegetarian food is no less in quantity.
For that matter there are innumerable communities in India for whom beef has been a part of their food habit, non-vegetarianism being prevalent in most communities. Even amongst those who feel that Muslims are aggressive because of eating non-vegetarian food the prevalence of eating non-vegetarian food is substantial.
A section of community has been discarding non-vegetarian food in a very strong way. Amongst these sections of middle class, traders are taking the wows of vegetarianism. There are political over and undertones also in this ‘hate non-vegetarians’ thinking. One can go to the extent of saying that vegetarianism is also being used as a social and political weapon to browbeat the minority community. No doubt one has the choice of shifting to vegetarianism with full commitment, but to be intolerant to the non-vegetarian and to label Muslims as having violent personality due to the food habits is a part of political campaign.
Historically speaking, beef was the staple food in Vedic times (Cow is essentially food, Atho Annam Via Gau). DN Jha in his classic book on the ancient Indian food habits shows that it was with the rise of agricultural society that the restriction was brought in on cow sacrifice by Lord Buddha. The primary goal was to preserve the cattle wealth. The ardent follower of Buddhism, Emperor Ashoka, in one of his edicts to the royal kitchen orders that only as many animals and birds be killed as are necessary for the food in the kitchen. This was to put a break on the animal sacrifice which was part of Brahminical rituals.
It was as a reaction to this that Brahminism came up to project cow as mother to show that it also has concern for cattle. One can make an interesting point a la Kancha Ilaiah’s ‘Buffalo nationalism’, as to why only cow was selected to have the exalted place as a mother, why not buffalo? Has the colour politics something to do with this? This needs investigation!
As far as the violent personality and food is concerned, not much scientific literature is available to prove any correlation of food habit with violent tendencies. Violence is a personality trait, in the realm of psychology, which is shaped by familial, social and political circumstances. It also keeps changing according to the situation. A quiet person can take to arms and violence when faced with adverse physical situation. A person with a history of violent behaviour can change to quietist behaviour, without change of food habits, with the change in circumstances.
There are systems of medicine, the traditional one’s which classify food according to the Satwik (leading to pure, quiet persona), Tamsik (increasing anger) and Rajsik (royal) but it hasn’t been vindicated beyond stray empirical assertions. It is more than understood in the modern system of medicine that the psychological traits have all to do with the circumstances at all the levels, family, social and political. Despite some people holding on to human nature and type of food, it is far from being vindicated by any of the modern scientific studies.
There are groups of people taking to vegetarianism, the vegans, on health grounds, which one can understand. The element of religiosity is not mixed up here. Neither are these people intolerant to the ones who consume non-vegetarian food. The phenomenon being observed amongst the sections influenced by Hindu right operates at the level of religiosity. Vegetarianism here is a part of one’s religion so to say.
Being mixed up with religion it becomes associated with emotions and that’s where the strong rejection of non-vegetarians in the neighbourhood arises. How this has been turned as one more tool of demonisation of Muslims is a matter of amazement for the writer of these lines. One also feels like complementing the myth-makers and rumour-mongers who have achieved this feat of using the food habits as yet another tool of spreading hate.
Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer, the pioneer of Human rights, narrates a story about Mahatma Gandhi’s Muslim friend’s son visiting his ashram on the day of Bakrid. Gandhi, a strict vegetarian, ordered non-vegetarian food to be brought to the ashram for his Muslim friend’s son as it happened to be associated with his festival. It is another matter that the Muslim boy in deference to the rules of Gandhiji’s ashram insisted that he will have no non-vegetarian food in the ashram.
Respecting each others sentiments comes alive in its best form here. One sees similar respect for ‘others’ sentiments in the will of Emperor Babur who writes to his son Humayun that since Hindus respect cows he should not let the cows be slaughtered during his reign.
What a contrast to the present atmosphere where vegetarianism is being propagated and imposed in such an aggressive way. One is not sure whether non-vegetarian food leads to aggressive tendencies or rather one can say violence is in the mind and mind is shaped by social situations. One can certainly say that those propagating vegetarianism in such a fashion are intolerant to the hilt, and that’s for sure.
One would like to be informed, if Narendra Modi who presided over one of the worst carnages of present times, is a vegetarian or a non-vegetarian. This writer will wait for the answer! Forget Modi, one suspects that Hitler who unleashed the biggest ever pogroms in history of modern times was an ascetic and a vegetarian.