By Abul Kalam Azad:
It was a sultry afternoon. Hunger snored in my stomach like an unwelcome guest. For some reason, beef was on my mind. While I was lamenting the lightness of my pockets restricting my access to tasty food, a slew of news articles with the buzz words which inspire an uncritical respect in any middle and above class Indians, IIT and IIM, appeared on the web. The last time they were in the limelight, as far as I can remember, is when this extremely problematic matrimonial website (iitiimshaadi.com) that boasted of its attempts to segregate students of elite colleges from the normal marital market and help render their marital transactions with much ease, was in news. This time around, it was for a different kind of segregation, one based on your choice of food. A letter was written to the HRD ministry by a group of concerned citizens, some associated with the RSS, expressing their dismay at the influence the students consuming non-vegetarian food, and thus, for some miraculous reason, promoting ‘western culture’, exert on these purer species of vegetarians, hence making them vulnerable to the attack of ‘tamasic’ (dark and unrighteous) characteristics. This was forwarded to all the concerned institutes “requesting the heads of the institutes to apprise it with the action taken by them on the demand”.
At this point, I would like to narrate a small anecdote from my life. My first crush, which happened when I was in 5th standard, was on a pretty girl from the 6th standard, belonging to an upper caste hindu family who were devout vegetarians (I can hear echoes of ‘love jihad’, but for the moment I will ignore them). And that was the time, in order to impress, I began hinduizing (to be more accurate, brahminizing) myself. I went to temples with her, and looked at the sky for any tremors when I courageously smeared red teekaÂ on my forehead. I lied to her family that I hate non-vegetarian food. I still vividly remember the words of delight, laden with amusement, that they used to confer on my blushing being. Now, in retrospect, I just inverted their delight to ponder upon the disgust they must be feeling at a typical non-vegetarian muslim, and the kind of segregation they must have wished from such filthy ‘tamasic’ creatures, given the kind of religious devotion and significance they exhibit towards the food choices of people. Don’t ask me what happened with the affair. Besides the point.
The letter betrays the vicious intolerance that is insidiously creeping and intensifying its foundations all across the nation. The self-righteous claims of non-vegetarian food being a proponent of western culture is better discarded in the dump, without any sweat spent on refuting it. Not long ago, even brahmins, the purest proponents of ‘Indian culture’,Â used to savor beef, before they decided to become purer. The bigoted analysis linking non vegetarian food to the rise of crimes is nonsensical and has no rational basis for the claim. Attributing ‘tamasic’( dark and unrighteous) characteristics to non-vegetarian food, which a majority of Indians consume, is basically saying India is a country of unrighteous dangerous creatures. The notions of purity and pollution invoked is typical of the caste Hindu discourse that stigmatizes anything non-brahminical as dirty and dangerous, the proud posterity of their casteist ancestors.
For all their ‘tamasic’ rhetoric, one would expect these pure unpolluted vegetarian folks to be more tolerant and respectful (that is, more ‘Satvic’). But, evidently, they belong to one of the most intolerant communities in the country. Not surprising, though, given most of them are born into vegetarianism by way of caste. Vegetarianism in India, for the most part, is caste lines drawn out on our plates and food. What provokes this intolerance if not the castiest religious injunctions related to the consumption of such food? How many vegetarians, by choice and not by caste, take offence with such violent righteousness and oppressive cultural assertion at the sight of non-vegetarian food?
I see this effort in the larger context of intensified food fascism that is spreading tentacles tightly across the throats of the throttled ever since the new government came to power. The chauvinist gau-raksha dals propping up everywhere, with members who look like gym instructors out of jobs, who stigmatize and attack particularly beef-eating and selling muslims, are also pawns in this larger scheme of intolerance and bigotry.
However, the most disturbing thing is not the content of the letter per se, but the uncritical approval of the HRD ministry for this clearly deranged letter and their thinly veiled order to the institute authorities to take action. And we wonder, where do the bigots and cultural chauvinists like the aforementioned petitioners derive their strength and sanction from?
This is not to say that it suddenly disturbs the blissfully tolerant atmosphere of these institutes. Such food censorship and cultural hegemony operate subtly in these elite institutes, run almost exclusively by upper caste authorities. There are some IITs which already have separate messes for vegetarian students. This repugnance towards people and cultures deviating from the brahminical norm is, by no means, a new phenomenon. It exists everywhere, in our schools, colleges, canteens, neighborhoods, offices, progressive newspapers, every single conceivable space in the sub-continent is infected with these casteist and communal notions. This whole hullabaloo is just an indication as to which direction the polity in this country is gleefully cruising towards. The fervor and ease with which all the subtler forms of hatred are becoming more blatant and pronounced is disturbing.
One could only hope that this blatant act of bigotry would wake us up from our convenient slumber of nurtured apathy and ponder over both the implicit and explicit ways in which these casteist and communal notions of purity, culture, and food choices are reinforced in our private and public spaces.
Maybe, at some distant point in the future, a 5th standard boy need not hide his food inclinations for impressing the family of his 6th standard crush.