Resisting Culinary Fascism: 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


25 thoughts on “Resisting Culinary Fascism: Nabanipa Bhattacharjee”

  1. It is really ominous how a handful of Individuals claim to run the whole affair of a religion be it what form of mythical text is readable or be it what one can eat and what one cannot

  2. I think we also need to extend this critiques to the fascisms of the animal rights people. Jajjhar is too recent to be forgotten. Please see my small piece “Animal Rights Human Wrongs” in the Hindustan Times around then.

  3. The article at some point talks more about beef and less about pork . Should not the author demand that both should be made available. Why this logic of culinary fascism is applied only to beef. In this country no non-veg food is legally forbidden and in different places people may prefer different foods for one reason or another. If a certain food is not available in some areas there can be many reasons including supply-demand issues and all that cannot be reduced to cases of culinary fascism. If Muslims refuse to eat pork on account of faith, same can be applied to section of Hindus who refuse to eat beef or restrain from eating beef.Why only what a section of Hindus do or dont do is always criticized. Respecting their faith is politically incorrect while respecting the faith of muslims is politically correct- this is the unstated logic in her post.

    If university/college administration prohibits some food then approach courts and seek a legal remedy. Finally tolerance means that while I do not agree with you, I respect your choice and expect you to accept my choice. Are vegetarians in India protesting day-in and day-out sale and consumption of meat or against factory farming. They are not and non-vegetarians are not discriminated against in this country. There are vegetarian Sikhs, Muslims,Christians and Buddhists.Hence this Mesolithic description of vegetarians by the author is silly and ridiculous. If she has some issue with her neighbor that is her personal issue and dont amplify that as a social issue.Finally using the word fascism against anything and everything one is against is not the right approach. Animal rights activism has to be discussed and cannot be dismissed as yet another fascism.

  4. @ yet another Indian

    You have said “In this country no non-veg food is legally forbidden”

    incidentally Beef is prohibited in Gujarat, Karnataka, UP, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana, Punjab and Delhi,

    Are these states in India or are the laws passed by their assemblies not legally sustainable

    you have said that there are vegetarians among Muslims Sikhs,Christians and Buddhists and you are right, your argument would have carried more weight if you had also listed the large Indian Populations that are traditionally non vegetarians,

    but then perhaps you do not want to draw attention to these communities or do you not consider them indians because they eat meat?

    any way i would list some of them

    Almost all Tribals and almost all Scheduled castes are non vegetarians

    or had you forgotten to count them?

    well let us add some more that you had perhaps overlooked

    All Kashmiri Brahmins, with honourable exceptions of course, are Non Vegetarians,

    actually unlike your normal run of the mill north Indian devout upper caste Hindu, a Kashmiri Brahman’s Shivratri is not complete without a feast that includes meat,

    in some cases among Kashmiri Brahmins, decided by the Purohit, a meat dish has to be cooked on the 13th day after a death or else the family is to stay vegetarian for a long period that might extend to 6 months and so the families listen to the advice of the purohit about what to cook on the 13th day.

    Maithil Brahmins are Non Vegetarians, Most Hill Brahmins are Non Vegetarians as well,

    Most worshippers of Durga or Bhagwati in the traditional belt of Kali worship are Non Vegetarians, take Bengali Brahmins for Instance

    An overwhelming majority of Rajpoots are Non Vegetarians, in the Amer fort in Jaipur, there is ritual sacrifice of Black Goats perhaps every tuesday, I know several Champawat Rajpoots who tell me that they regularly sacrifice goats in their temples and the head is ritually given to the Purohit- always a brahmin- the rest of the meat is prashad for the family and friends.

    Almost all coastal populations are Fish eaters and most eat Meats also

    Almost all Kayashts are Non vegetarians.

    So who is not a non vegetarian in India.

    Jains certainly ( keep their population in Mind)
    Most Brahmins ( Keep Their population in Mind too)
    Yadavs Kurmis,
    the Vaishs, (trading community Since Jains are already counted they are also not too many)
    Arya Samajis
    and some other communities

    So all in all Vegetarianism is a lot of Loud Talking, an overwhelming Majority of Indians are and have always been Non Vegetarians and this has nothing to do with Islam or Christianity having brought it in,

    In fact vegetarianism is an import into Hinduism from Jainism.

    Vedic texts do not extol the virtues of Vegetarianism, in fact to the contrary

    You see non vegetarianism is an evolutionary thing, all primates are non vegetarians, the presence of a pair of canines in the mouth of every Homo Sapien (who is not an infant or has not lost his teeth), are a constant reminder of the fact that the most evolved of all species needs a protein rich diet for its brain to function effectively.

    The more we develop the more we are coming to realise that one should not unnecessarily interfere with nature

    1. You see non vegetarianism is an evolutionary thing, all primates are non vegetarians, the presence of a pair of canines in the mouth of every Homo Sapien (who is not an infant or has not lost his teeth), are a constant reminder of the fact that the most evolved of all species needs a protein rich diet for its brain to function effectively.

      The more we develop the more we are coming to realise that one should not unnecessarily interfere with nature

      First a disclaimer: I agree that in the interests of equality, make meat illegal for religious reasons in not the way to go.

      Having made that disclaimer, I must strongly disagree with your last two paragraphs quoted above. Vegetarianism is an environmentally more sustainable life-style: the amount of energy that goes into producing one kg of meat is far far higher than the amount of energy that goes into producing the equivalent amount of nutrition from vegetable sources. This should not come as a surprise: after all, plants are the ultimate source of any nutrition you get, and meat, being a secondary source, will always be more inefficient than the primary source of plant material.

      Secondly, you make an “is-ought” fallacy in your paragraph. Just because we are evolutionary similar to apes does not mean we have to act like apes. “Something happens in nature” is not the same as “Something ought to happen in nature”. If we find tomorrow, that meat farming has become a serious ecological and environmental menace, there is no reason why we should let our evolutionary history come in the way of changing our omnivorous habit to shift to a being herbivores.

      Thirdly, there is a strong ethical argument to be made against eating meat, independent of the religious tradition you came from. Animals reared for meat eating are typically not reared in the best of conditions, and that’s putting it mildly. Do not belittle those who are vegetarians just because of this reason, and not for religious reasons. You might like to look up Peter Singer’s writings on the subject (he is in fact mostly a vegan).

      Fourthly, and this is just a technical point, there is no such thing as a “most evolved animal”. We humans might errorenously think of us that way, but that is a flawed view of evolutionary theory. The evolutionary “tree of life” does not have “humans” at its peak in any meaningful way, and by its standards, bacteria should probably be considered more successful as organisms than any multi-cellular animal: after all, as has often been said, the bacteria are not here because we let them be, WE are here because the bacteria let us be.

      1. <<the amount of energy that goes into producing one kg of meat is far far higher than the amount of energy that goes into producing the equivalent amount of nutrition from vegetable sources.

        So why waste the energy , by ingesting it we are doing justice to the nature .

        <<Animals reared for meat eating are typically not reared in the best of conditions, and that’s putting it mildly.

        well if you consider the practices used for growing vegetable foods, its horrendous ……. consider it GM modified mutant 'vegetarian' foods are widely consumed … whereas for Meat there is a ban on GM which strictly enforced.

        <<Just because we are evolutionary similar to apes does not mean we have to act like apes.

        well you might detest your primate ancestry, but you got to accept it Our digestive, reproductive systems were designed that way and there is no way to act all 'artificial'. And I dont how going 'vegetarian' counts as evolutionary progress, cause primate brains rapidly expanded after they took it to eating meat , and its the reason that made you and me are human.

      2. Aditya, I think all your arguments miss the point:

        You say: “So why waste the energy , by ingesting it we are doing justice to the nature .” and “Animals reared for meat eating are typically not reared in the best of conditions, and that’s putting it mildly.”

        This is not true. Most of the meat that humans consume is commercially produced. It is not nature that is producing this meat: these animals are farmed, just like vegetables. Except that producing one kg of that meat will take in resources far larger than producing the same nutrient equivalent of vegetables.

        Further, my point about the rearing of animals was the inhumane side of it. Animals can feel pain exactly to exactly the same intensity as humans. Don’t you think it is ethical then that we should try to minimize the suffering of these “farmed” animals, as far as possible?

        Secondly, your point point about genetic modification is another matter altogether. The debate their is whether GM crops and animals are harmful to humans or not, not how “painful” GM is to the animals in question. Even in this count, meat eating is far more risky, even without GM. Ever heard of the Mad cow disease: no GM was responsible there. Or the increased risk of cancer with several varieties of red meat?

        You then claim that I am somehow “detest my primate ancestry”. No, I do not. And you also make the astounding unsourced claim that “primate brains rapidly expanded after they took it to eating meat , and its the reason that made you and me are human.” Any references for this? There are several theories on the emergence of what we call intelligence, and this “meat eating” one seems to be the weakest of them. Why didn’t intelligence evolve in the other carnivorous mammalian lineageas then? Why not in the canine and feline lineages, for example? Our evolutionary history suggests that primates, and most mammals, have always been meat eaters, and hence there is little chance that meat eating conferred any advantages to the primate lineage that allowed this lineage, and so far as we know, only this lineage to evolve intelligence.

        And now the most tricky part. Just because we evolved in a certain way does not mean we have to keep behaving like that. This is the so called “is-ought” fallacy. If we find today that meat eating has become a severe environmental and ecological concern, we should not persist with it just because it is part of our evolutionary history and part of the so called “natural order”. As Richard Dawkins puts it, the notion of a welfare state is a very unnatural notion: there are almost no parallels in the evolutionary history of anything like a “welfare state” having evolved earlier. Yet, we would be remarkably foolish to dump the idea of having a welfare state just because it is not part of our evolutionary history.

      3. Aditya: Also, I would suggest you had a look at this freely available wonderful documentary called HOME (if you google “Home documentary”, you should get a link to the creator’s Youtube page, where the documentary is freely available). It examines the enviromental and ecological costs of several human activities, including meat farming and agriculture, and the effect it has the lives of humans (mostly in less developed areas of the world) and animals.

    2. A total non sequitur. The argument is not about vegetarianism v/s non. It is about some establishments not providing beef and pork. If beef is demanded at certain places, why can’t pork be provided as well? You need to answer that question

    3. Umm, Beef is not illegal in New Delhi, please get your facts straight. Aside from the 5-stars, you can get beef burgers at the Hard Rock Cafe, steak at the Smokehouse Grill and there are few other restaurants that also serve it. So about Delhi at least, you are wrong.

      Hmm what else are you wrong about…oh yes – about non-vegetarianism being “an evolutionary thing”. We are also equipped with an appendix – used by animals to digest cellulose, found in grass. Maybe that means we should be eating grass and leaves as much as we should be eating meat?

      “The more we develop the more we are coming to realise that one should not unnecessarily interfere with nature”

      So according to you, the slaughter of chickens, pigs and cows in factory-style slaughterhouses is ‘not interfering with nature’? The additional strain on farms and the environment that takes place becuase of having to feed and fatten up animals for meeting seems to be completely lost on you.

      You accuse others of ‘culinariy fascism’ when your own opinion is clearly biased, and not based on fact.

    1. I still think there is a major “throwing the baby with the bathwater” flaw with Sohail’s argument. Firstly, taking the poll numbers at their face value, 40% is still a large number: I personally have never believed the number of vegetarians in India would be any larger.
      Secondly, that vegetarianism is highly correlated with religious beliefs is no reason to believe it is bad. In fact, as I pointed out in my comment above, there are very compelling ethical, environmental, and practical reasons to go vegetarian whenever possible.

      I should restate the disclaimer that banning meat eating on religious grounds is bad. On the other hand, I would whole-heartedly support initiatives to design vegetable based substitutes to meat nutrients, and to encourage people everywhere to reduce consumption of commercially produced meat. Let’s face it: in the long run, vegetarianism is a far more sustainable and efficient lifestyle, since after all, plants do lie at the lowest level of the food chain.

  5. First, you can rightly protest against forcefully imposed food restrictions and emphasize the fight against social hierarchy embedded in this protest.
    But, unlike other forms of social protest, there is a third actor here – namely the animal itself. (Although this post isn’t directly about recent events mentioned above).

    When talking about traditional forms of non-vegetarian diet, the main thing to note is that modern meat industry, especially in the developed countries and increasingly in the rest of the world isn’t remotely anything like what we had before. An animal which before its death, might be grazing in the fields is now confined to a cage a little bigger than its body and is often made to endure an enormous amount of pain.

    Pain is the key point which seems to missed especially when focus shifts in debates to whether animals have abstract rights. Even if we take it for granted that animals dont experience the various complex forms of suffering we see in humans, it is undeniable that they are capable of feeling intense pain, especially given how much shared anatomy and biological processes that we have with other mammals. The frightened response of a dog on someone picking up a stone should be a small indicator.

    And physical pain is not a small thing. Here’s a question, as humans, would we rather undergo a month of extreme depression or feel physical pain in a torture chamber?

    The full force of modern industrial setup is efficiently optimizing the monetary cost while ignoring this cost in animal suffering and the environmental cost(for instance, a bigger contribution of greenhouse gases than the automobile industry). This reduction in monetary cost has for instance lead to an drastic increase in the levels of meat consumption from previous times.

    The post isn’t really about veg vs non-veg, but rather that we reduce the suffering of these sentient beings, regardless of whether we eat them. They are often so marginalized that even the traditional voices who defend the marginalized ignore them.

  6. As a moderate carnivore, I shudder to think about what will happen with more meat on people’s plates in hostel dining rooms. And this is without even going into the identity politics of the thing that has everyone in such a lather. I remember (now with the safe nostalgia of distance) the grubby fingers that went into Francis’s milk shakes and the old rogue’s crookish grin as he reassured us that the milk shake was “not non-veg this time”, (i.e. none of the thousand flies buzzing around went into the blender). I can only imagine the conditions under which large quantities of beef and pork would be procured, preserved, and served. And don’t tell me that students shouldn’t have to worry about food safety, that their job is only to agitate for menu diversity, the rest is the administration’s problem. The administration is already overstretched, and I have seen only too well what happens behind the scenes in hostel kitchens (having once performed the utterly thankless job of mess secretary). Stay mostly vegetarian in hot, sub-tropical lands. With primitive abattoirs and dodgy refrigeration facilities in urban India, quasi-vegetarianism is safer for you, it’s halal and kosher, and is probably healthier as my vegetarian friends would argue.

  7. Lively debate…..Kalpana K’s piece in The Hindu (1 May, 2012) also interesting…….and we ought to also re-read (for those who havent yet) A.K Ramanujan’s ‘Food for Thought……’ piece…… make the debate livelier

  8. i think there is a fallacy in the focus on ‘energy consumed in making meat vs vegetarian food’. it totally depends on the method of production and the environmental and geological possibilities of the area of production. for example in most arid areas like Rajasthan, Ladakh and other Himalayan highlands, the Deccan etc. it is much cheaper to produce goat, sheep and cattle-based food because these are able to feed on pasturelands which are too barren for agriculture. these are the regions where millions of migratory shepherds continue to herd their animals according to the season and availability of pasture. forcibly trying to convert arid pastures to agricultural land involves huge drain on both ecological and economic resources but this is mostly the case as open pastures are more and more converted to intensive green-revolution farms by pumping up ground-water from ever deeper borewells and intensive use of chemicals. Secondly, for a proper ecologically balanced farm it is important to have both plants and animals, the wastes of one feeding the other and enriching the whole. a purely vegetarian farm would be much more energy consuming than a mixed culture. so people who talk about vegetarianism as being more ecological dont know anything about the farming.

    commercial and industrial production of food both veg and non-veg is not healthy for the consumer but much more surely not healthy for the environment. so in that sense the most harmful non-veg is actually chicken which is a highly industrial and unnatural food, followed closely by milk. many vegetables are similarly drenched in growth hormones, antibiotics and pesticides. it is no longer safe to eat the peal of fruits due to the use of pesticides and ripeners. water from most rivers is not safe due to the residues and leaching of toxic chemicals from agricultural lands.

    if i were to start a new religion now, the foods i would decree as unsacred polluted food to be avoided would be industrial poultry and milk, unfermented soyabean, industrial corn and so on. similarly cotton should also be regarded as a impure and polluted fabric because of the way it is grown and the farmers who have died growing it. but will not my followers be merely deluded that they are purer than those crass Others?

  9. naveen jarkar:

    Firstly, I was talking of industrial meat production units, like those in the western countries, and not the much more eco-friendly meat eating practices in rural India. You say that “people who talk about vegetarianism as being more ecological dont know anything about the farming”: and imply that somehow beef and pork (and chicken )producing industrial farms in the west are somehow paragons of ecological balance, where animals and plants live in harmony, just as in the Rajasthani hinterlands. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The conditions of the animals in these “farms” is nothing short of concentration camps. Most cows, chicken and pigs that are are reared seldom get out of their painfully tiny shelters, let alone participate in any kind of natural ecosystem. A milkman in India producing milk in his backyard farm, and a tribal in Raasthan rearing a few goats for his personal consumption are far more ecologically sensitive than that.

    And what is being mandated in the post above is something different: the post is not about areas in Rajasthan where eating meat might be crucial for survival. It is about an urban population in Delhi. Are you proposing that that all the urban non-vegetaians in Delhi are so ecologically sensitive that they will be able to rear their own polutry and their own cows and their own goats in as ecological a way as the Rajasthani tribal? Something tells me the answer has to be no: we will just fall back to the quick and easy “concentration-camp-for-animals” meat farming technique now practised in most western countries.

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