Beef and Bigotry

Meat-eating and the marginalisation of minorities

A cow stands outside a temple in Pushkar, Rajasthan, in 2016. Cattle roam the streets but are also ubiquitous in India’s culture, history and political discourse. Himanshu Sharma / REUTERS
31 August, 2023

“CATTLE SEEMED TO BE EVERYWHERE,” begins the anthropologist James Staples’s Sacred Cows and Chicken Manchurian: The Everyday Politics of Eating Meat in India. The observation is not one that needs much elaboration, having figured heavily in representations of India—cattle roam the streets but are also ubiquitous in India’s culture, history and political discourse.

The sociocultural significance of meat, particularly beef and its various connotations and contestations, is Staples’ primary focus, in an ethnographic book that is a culmination of thirty-five years of fieldwork in Andhra Pradesh. Staples draws on participant observation, interviews, food diaries and surveys to study the consumption of meat in the country and analyses the entrenched connections between meat-eating and caste and communal politics, particularly within the context of Hindu nationalism, the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party and cow vigilante violence against Dalits and Muslims.

These aspects are of continuing relevance today. This July, for instance, a remark from the chairperson of the Infosys Foundation, Sudha Murty, about her food habits, sharply divided public opinion on social media. “One of my biggest fears is that the same spoon may have been used for both vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes,” she said. “So, when I travel, I look for a pure vegetarian restaurant. And I carry an entire bag full of food.”

“Vegetarianism as practiced in India is imbricated in the caste order,” the social scientist Janaki Srinivasan tweeted in response. “As a personal choice, it has only one line of defence—it is a matter of habit, which is tough to break even while acknowledging its caste foundation.” Others, meanwhile, questioned how Murty’s statement had anything to do with casteism. A senior police official tweeted: “I will gladly have food next to a non-vegetarian. But I will be extremely uncomfortable if same spoons are used for veg & non-veg food. I will rather skip the meal. If you don’t understand this, it’s your problem. In support of #SudhaMurthy & everyone in their food choices.”