(Published in Sify.com on 11 May 2012, retrieved from http://www.sify.com/news/do-we-really-need-beef-and-pork-festivals-news-columns-mflbOSdajgf.html)
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I may as well begin with full disclosure: I turned lacto-vegetarian over a decade ago, and it had nothing to do with my religious beliefs. I stopped eating animals for the same reason that I stopped wearing them. I don’t buy silk, leather, or wool, and I prefer animals off my plate. So, I’m being honest when I say I see no difference whether one is eating cows, pigs, dogs, fowl, fish, crustaceans, goats, cats, or reptiles.
What I find disgusting about university students organising beef-and-pork festivals is that their self-proclaimed assertion of their dietary culture, or cultural diet, or whatever they label it, boils down to deliberate provocation. Neither Osmania University nor Jawaharlal Nehru University prohibits students from eating any organism outside campus – or, as far as I’m aware, even in their rooms. Do universities not have a right to decide what to put on their mess menu? And does the menu matter enough to disturb the already shaky equilibrium of persuasions in this country?
It’s easy to equate protests against beef and pork with religious fundamentalists. But, doesn’t waving these “forbidden meats” at people who subscribe to those beliefs qualify as secular fundamentalism? Do the “rationalists” who organise these festivals not know that militant youth wings of political parties will oblige the stereotype by vandalising property and attacking individuals at these events?
Let’s dismiss the rumours about the meat melas being driven by political agenda and power struggle. Students of these universities are not the first people to have organised beef-and-pork festivals. Atheist centres have been holding them for years. But the statement that these festivals are simply a call for respect for people’s traditional food habits is either naïve or ironic.
The idea of respect for people’s dietary preferences is particularly laughable because festivals that celebrate food that’s banned by certain communities are essentially trampling over the sentiments of those groups.
What is it about us Indians that makes us want to needle each other? In a country that’s united by such a fragile fabric, where differences in language, religion, ethnicity, and appearance leave us with little more in common than nationality, in a country that several states want to secede from, in a country whose states several regions want to break away from, do we need yet another reminder of why we’ve been partitioned so many times?
Celebrating diversity is all very fine, but highlighting dissonance cannot end well. And in India, we jump at opportunities to do the latter. We have been for decades, if not centuries. It was part of the reason for our repeated enslavement by colonial powers, and part of the reason we splintered even as we were liberated from foreign rule.
The reason I think this is a specifically Indian trait, one that we’re prone to when we live in this country, is that it hit me when I returned home after a couple of years abroad. We find it impossible to assert ourselves without offending others.
In the multi-ethnic ethos of London, where I would hear five languages while walking from my dorm to Sainsbury’s, I saw how diversity can actually be celebrated, and more importantly, respected. I’m not claiming London is free of racists, but I was lucky enough not to encounter any. My life was, for the most part, that of a university student.
My flatmates were from Japan, Engand, Switzerland and Pakistan. Most of my friends were from the Middle East, and there were some intelligent folks who weren’t atheists. And we could share meals without upsetting each other. It wasn’t because we followed the same diets, or chose “neutral” food. It was largely because we were polite about it.
Omnivorous friends of mine would ask me if I minded their eating meat in my presence, and we would ask teetotallers if they minded our downing a few. The consideration for other people’s beliefs touched me, especially because ever since I’d turned vegetarian, I’d had people practically rub dead meat in my face. I stopped taking people out on my birthday because I didn’t like paying for something that went against my conscience. And I didn’t enjoy having a lard-laden fork thrust at my face, courtesy some grinning moron who wanted to know whether I was “tempted”.
I wouldn’t want to give anyone the impression that the consideration and politeness came only from people from “developed” countries. It was something of a given in the student body, which leads me to think it’s the natural inclination of anyone thrown into an unfamiliar environment to tread a little carefully. And it was in that unfamiliar environment that I made a conscious effort to say “idiot!” or “ass!” in place of “pig!” (which is my favourite chiding term) in gatherings were pigs weren’t kosher. It was also where I figured one could be politically incorrect, as long as one’s intent wasn’t malicious.
It’s the inherent malice in beef-and-pork festivals organised in India that I find repulsive. If we were once slaves to validation by foreign powers, we’re now slaves to endorsement of our own ideologies.
I discovered that this isn’t a pan-India syndrome yet, during my travels in the North East, where most people do eat both beef and pork. And although I had more varieties of vegetables piled on my plate during a single meal in that region than I did in a week back home, my hosts would be apologetic; they didn’t need to be. I wasn’t in the least offended by their dietary habits, but I was moved by their efforts to ensure I wasn’t. And student politics in that region is largely about saving the environment from being destroyed by mindlessly rapid industrialisation.
Maybe the reason students feel so triumphant about organising this food festival of theirs is that their lives are so untroubled by bigger concerns that they feel compelled to get pig-headed about holy cows. Maybe rebellion to them is about fighting communalism by enraging conservative Hindus as well as conservative Muslims. And it’s precisely that kind of misguided foolhardiness that the likes of Bhisham Sahni and Saadat Hasan Manto wrote about. We should probably ask ourselves whether we’re willing to pay as heavy a price now as we did then.