Guest post by KRISHNANUNNI HARI
This essay emerged as a response to the following question that was raised during a Q&A session that I had run on social media:
“How does one tackle people who amalgamate veganism with upper caste vegetarianism?”
The immediate answer to this is that veganism avoids all animal products and all forms of animal ab/use, and hence cannot be amalgamated with vegetarianism and its caste baggage.
Such an answer, however, ignores crucial cultural issues that determine how Animal Rights (AR) and veganism are perceived, co-opted or taken forward in Indian society.
Vegetarians, contrary to what Right wing Hindutva will have us believe, comprise less than 40% of the country’s population. Jains, most Sikhs and Brahmins and some rich urban forward castes make up the vegetarians in India1. Vegetarianism in India is connected to social power and caste hegemony, unlike its counterpart in the West, where it is an ethical lifestyle and a social justice movement.
In India vegetarianism has little to do with treating animals better, and is used to alienate and marginalize others, and to assume a higher position in the scale of purity in caste hierarchy. This has got to do with the notion that the vegetarian diet (and castes) are purer than those which include/consume meat – Dalits, Muslims and other subaltern groups who have historically been meat-eaters are hence seen as inferior, polluted and polluting. A State-sponsored, aggressive normative vegetarianism alienates meat-eaters unto themselves, shaming them into seeing themselves and their communities as dirty and contaminated/-ing.
This is not to say that all vegetarians are willing participants in such a Brahminical discriminatory dynamic of purity and pollution. Such generalizations are not possible as several vegetarians might avoid meat for ethical and health reasons. Nevertheless, vegetarianism as a general concept located in the caste-class history of India is open to critique. Unless non-Brahminical vegetarians recognize the inevitable caste connotations of their diets and take a stand against casteism, they run the risk of being appropriated into an ideological project that destroys marginalized lives and cultures.
As a protest against the Hindutva imposition of vegetarianism and mob lynchings in the name of possessing, transporting and consuming cows and buffaloes, Dalit political groups have vigorously asserted their meat-eating traditions in an increasingly hostile country. This is a matter of pride and self-respect, indicating that meat is never just food but also resistance. The Hindu Right’s worship of the ‘gomata’ is nothing but a strategy to harass and kill poor Dalits and Muslims, and demonize them as enemies of Hindus. To follow a meat-avoiding diet under such circumstances is to bend to the power of the oppressor, to be complicit in the torture of one’s kin and to break the solidarity within one’s community. Meat-eating in this context is in spite of the availability of plant-based options, that is, it exceeds the issue of diet and informs political action and dissent against a State that polices their food while leaving them to die through the denial of proper welfare measures.
The caste system is speciesist at its core. It categorizes both humans and animals into different jatis or kinds which are hierarchically organized and informed by a decreasing measure of purity/pollution. Through this ‘logic’ Brahmins are the purest while Untouchables are the most polluted/-ing. Certain animals like the cow are accorded a high caste status (they become Untouchable when dead) and its urine is used to purify those polluted by Untouchable humans and animals. A dog belonging to a savarna becomes untouchable when fed by a Dalit and is excommunicated; similarly, Brahmin wild animals touched by Dalits are said to be banished by their societies. While some justify jati as functioning merely as a taxonomic system, they conveniently forget that only some people and animals are granted protective rights while the rest are trapped into an abject space (characterized as dirty and squalid) where human-animal boundaries blur in wretchedness. The caste system recognizes only savarnas as humans and sees Dalits as living the life of (and with) inferior animals. Such blurring is seen in words like ‘pariah dog’ and ‘shudrajeevi’. The lexicon of caste borrows from and is sustained by the lexicon of speciesism–there is strong similarity in how this language talks about Dalits, and about stray dogs and pigs. Such language is at once caste-ized and animalized.
As Claire Jean Kim points out, to a people for whom the greatest struggle is to assert, ‘We too are human beings’, it is insensitive, if not symbolically violent, to argue that we are all animals and therefore have to extend equal moral consideration to nonhuman animals. Though Animal Rights (AR) rhetoric raises a different point, it is not innocent of the casteist connotations of its discourse. As activists, we must take stock of our own caste-class privileges/disadvantages as well as of the interlocutors before making an argument for animal rights.
In the crossfire between Hindutva caste and communal politics, and Dalit activists’ protests through meat, AR makes important interventions. Although there are several incidents where AR campaigns have been clubbed with parallel Hindu Nationalistic ones, AR in its true anti-speciesist sense, unsettles the Hindutva project. At a time when cows are abstracted into symbols which are then manipulated for Hindutva politics or in protests against it, AR foregrounds the cow as first and foremost an individual, sentient being with a worldview of her own and an interest in being let alone. AR exposes the violence behind a casteist vegetarianism that considers milk as an essential purificatory agent: the dairy industry renders ‘sacred’ cows into mere milk-producing machines who are eventually sent away for slaughter or abandoned on the streets. Elephants, snakes and monekys–all divine in Hindu cosmology–are similarly trapped, confined, abused and traumatized. AR, by demanding a total liberation of all animals from being property (symbolic/material) to humans, questions and dismantles upper castes’ hollow concerns for the welfare of selected animals.
Even so, veganism is haunted by the casteist baggage of vegetarianism. The reasons for this are many and often obvious. Vegans tend to use language that villianizes the slaughterhouse, tannery and dairy workers without realizing that both lower caste-class humans and animals are trapped into the structural violence of Animal Agriculture. Similarly, language that is used to express disgust towards meat inevitably borrows from the casteist vocabulary of purity, cleanliness and dirt. Vegans mindlessly demonize ‘beef festivals’ without addressing the socio-political contexts from which they emerge primarily as protests. Veganism is imagined as apolitical, uninfluenced by caste and class privileges/disadvantages. Vegans are looked upon favourably by the State and by the police who appreciate our marches that demand liberation for animals from structures that render them killable, even as the same police beat up anti-CAA protestors who speak up against the killability of certain classes of human beings. Unless we are wary of casteist language, unless we take a stance against a power structure that kills both humans and animals, and configure a veganism that is outspoken about its anti-discriminatory fundamentals, the AR movement in India risks getting hijacked by Right wing projects that use symbols of some animals to lynch vulnerable humans.
It becomes imperative to recognize our caste-class privileges that make veganism affordable, viable and thinkable for us. This must go hand in hand with serious and urgent research on how to sensitively take AR to underprivileged communities and locales. If not, veganism will be confined to the ‘developed’ IT pockets of the country and remain a rich, upper caste man’s idea.
AR and vegan activists must recognize that the normative AR theory founded on animal sentience and moral considerability is one among several ways of being ethical with animals. We ought to be attentive to ethical practices and ways of perception that emerge from subaltern knowledges, such as Ambedkar’s Maitri. There has to be space within the AR movement for Dalit veganisms to flourish. Forming alliances between AR and Dalit politics goes together with, and should not be destabilized by, mutual critique. AR activists ought to question their own caste-class privileges and their discourse that sometimes evoke caste violence. They should not use casteism and resistance to it as a mere prop for gaining currency for the fight against speciesism. On the other hand, Dalit politics has to take into account the violence inflicted on animals in their defence of meat eating, even though it is directed against savarna domination. Resisting power need not come from exercising power over those who are weaker to us. More importantly, to respond to Hindutva intrusion into private eating practices (exemplified by the beef ban), through the amplification of meat-eating, is to be trapped in the debate as defined by the oppressor. It inescapably continues to trade in the violent symbol of the cow. To kill and eat cows as predictable protest is already built into Hindutva’s assertion of the cow as gomata. As Naisargi Dave reminds us, displacing the cow from the centre shows how violence is visited upon Dalits and Muslims, not because they eat cows, but because they are Dalits and Muslims2. It is for this reason that a Brahmin who decides to eat beef has nothing to fear from gaurakshaks.
A “mutual avowal and critique” between AR and Dalit politics attunes us to the suffering visited upon different individuals by the same power structure3. Both the category of the Beast and that of the Untouchable are justifications in themselves for rendering individuals into killable lives beyond the reach of dignity. Someone who is categorized as animal/Untouchable can be killed with impunity. Both these categories reinforce each other and have to be annihilated together for total liberation.
“How can you talk about Animal Rights when a large section of people in the country struggle to even be recognized as human beings?” This question will always haunt AR3. It can never be answered adequately, and highlights how the State manufactures the perception of AR as a luxury or a distraction from institutional human rights violations. This question must hence be left open if we are to stay focused on the ways in which normalized oppression reproduces itself. We must resist State Power by orienting ourselves to the suffering of other groups, building meaningful alliances with those who fight other facets of oppression and by taking a position of zero tolerance towards any form of exploitation.
A veganism that fights for animals but maintains silence on the subjugation of precarious human lives is politically inadequate and morally stingy.
To bear witness is to understand how different discourses of oppression overlap and energize each other.
- Statistics are from “Provincializing Vegetarianism: Putting Indian Food Habits in their Place ” by Balmurli Natrajan and Suraj Jacob, EPW. March 3, 2018.
- From interview with Naisargi Dave in Messy Eating: Conversations on Animals as Food. Fordham University Press. 2019
- From Dangerous Crossings: Race, Species and Nature in a Multicultural Age by Claire Jean Kim. Cambridge University Press. 2015
Krishnanunni Hari is a research scholar at EFL University, Hyderabad. He tries to build conversations around an intersectional approach to animal rights in his city. He can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org