Freedom to Eat

The fight for beef as a democratic right

01 November 2019
The artist Chandru’s stitched-up Kamadhenu (2003) points to how the cow, even if deified and exalted in present-day Hindu belief, remains an animal that eats, shits and dies like any other. When the cow dies, the disposal of its carcass is left to those whom Hindu dogma most denigrates—the Dalits.
chandru / courtesy s anand
The artist Chandru’s stitched-up Kamadhenu (2003) points to how the cow, even if deified and exalted in present-day Hindu belief, remains an animal that eats, shits and dies like any other. When the cow dies, the disposal of its carcass is left to those whom Hindu dogma most denigrates—the Dalits.
chandru / courtesy s anand

“WE WOULD HAVE FELT PROUD if the Vice Chancellor has told that we were suspended because we organized Ambedkar Vardhanthi, Babri Masjid demolition day and Beef festival in the last week,” Rohith Vemula wrote in a Facebook post on 18 December 2015. A day earlier, the administration of the University of Hyderabad, where Rohith was a PhD scholar, upheld an earlier decision to suspend him and four other students for allegedly assaulting a leader of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the students’ organisation of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. All five suspended students were Dalits and members of the Ambedkar Students’ Association. On 6 December, the anniversary of BR Ambedkar’s death and the demolition of the Babri Masjid, the ASA had held an event to mark both occasions, and to publicly serve beef. This was a three-pronged blow to Hindutva politics: a celebration of a great anti-caste icon, a demonstration against the Hindu Right’s most iconic act of political violence, and an assertion of the right to freely eat the meat of the cow. It served as a forceful prelude to Rohith’s most potent political act—his tragic suicide in January 2016, leaving behind a note entitled “My birth is my fatal accident,” indicting the university authorities and the world at large for their treatment of him.

The ASA at the University of Hyderabad was not the first group to hold a beef festival as an act of assertion and insurrection. In April 2011, Hyderabad’s English and Foreign Languages University saw fights break out over a beef festival organised to celebrate Ambedkar’s birth anniversary by the Dalit Adivasi Bahujan Minority Students’ Association and the Telangana Students’ Association. This festival was attacked by the ABVP. In 2012, Osmania University, also in Hyderabad, also witnessed a beef-themed food festival to mark Ambedkar’s birth, with Dalit, Shudra, Adivasi and Muslim students all participating. Here, too, members of the ABVP stormed the venue.

The scholar Sambaiah Gundimeda, an alumnus of the University of Hyderabad, offers us a history of an earlier “beef stall” on the campus:

The Dalit Students Union, a few months before the Sukoon Festival in 2006 … argued that the food in the stalls did not represent the cultural diversity of the university community, comprising students, teaching and non-teaching staff of the university, and was simply another manifestation of the hegemony of the upper castes and their culture. The university, as a public institution, it was further argued, should not allow its public space to be colonized by a particular culture. Instead, it should ensure that space is shared equally by every culture of the university community. In short, the cultural festival of the university should represent the many cultures of Indian society. As a step towards equality in representation, the Dalit Students Union demanded that it should be allowed to set up a beef stall in the Sukoon festival. It was argued that beef constitutes an important part of the food habits of dalits and is thus part and parcel of Dalit culture. Besides, such food culture is equally shared by Muslims and a few others from caste Hindu cultural backgrounds. The administration, the executive body of the university, was “irritated,” to quote one of the Dalit Students Union delegates, by this request and instantly denied permission for the stall on the grounds that “consumption of beef… (in the campus) creates caste and communal tensions.”

In 2012, Jawaharlal Nehru University, in the national capital, tried to catch up. A student group called The New Materialists—which was careful to choose a non-sectarian name for itself—decided to host a beef and pork festival. A statement by The New Materialists made the group’s argument forcefully:

When we asked many of the so-called comrades about the celebration of beef and pork festival, they said that celebrating beef and pork festival is a sentimental issue. They advised us to cook beef or pork in our rooms and they promised to join us. So cooking beef and pork in room is not sentimental but openly celebrating is problematic for them. Because the public sphere belongs only to the hegemonic culture that is brahminism. In India, the public space is not yet public i.e. not for Muslims, Buddhists, Christians or any other religion but only for Hinduism. The public space in India is private space for Hindu brahminical forces and thus nobody else can enter into this ‘public space’. All the beef shops in India in many of the cities including Hyderabad are pushed into interior areas. Now the democratic space in India is shrinking and JNU as an institution is not an exception to it.

The event never took place. A functionary of the Vishva Hindu Parishad, another RSS-affiliated group, approached the Delhi High Court to stop it, and the court ruled that the festival should not be allowed under the Delhi Agricultural Cattle Preservation Act, 1994.

In 2017, the union government tightened the regulation of the cattle trade across the country by mandating that no one could so much as transport an animal to a cattle market without first declaring that it was to be sold for agricultural purposes and not for slaughter. This legitimised the targeting of cattle traders by cow-protection vigilantes, and delegitimised the common practice of farmers selling old and unproductive milch and draught animals for slaughter in order to fund the purchase of young, productive animals. In effect, the rules made communities working with cattle—communities overwhelmingly composed of the oppressed castes and oppressed-caste groups that converted out of Hinduism—look like enemies of the cow, even though these communities had nurtured Indian cattle, and the cattle economy, for centuries. Students of the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, under the banner of the Ambedkar–Periyar Study Circle, protested the government’s move with a beef festival, in which some non-Dalit students also took part. Even though cattle slaughter is not proscribed in Tamil Nadu, this led to violence between student groups. Late last year, a hostel mess at IIT Madras began segregating vegetarian and non-vegetarian students.

Chandru’s triptych (2001) shows an evolution in human views of the cow—in cave paintings, temple sculpture and contemporary art. On close study, all three panels are connected by the presence of a red dot and a yellow horizontal bar—component parts of a tilak. Perceptions of the same animal keep changing, and the cow remains an indifferent subject for humans to spin images of.. chandru / courtesy s anand Chandru’s triptych (2001) shows an evolution in human views of the cow—in cave paintings, temple sculpture and contemporary art. On close study, all three panels are connected by the presence of a red dot and a yellow horizontal bar—component parts of a tilak. Perceptions of the same animal keep changing, and the cow remains an indifferent subject for humans to spin images of.. chandru / courtesy s anand
Chandru’s triptych (2001) shows an evolution in human views of the cow—in cave paintings, temple sculpture and contemporary art. On close study, all three panels are connected by the presence of a red dot and a yellow horizontal bar—component parts of a tilak. Perceptions of the same animal keep changing, and the cow remains an indifferent subject for humans to spin images of.
chandru / courtesy s anand

Beef festivals, and even the failed attempts to organise them, have become part of a pan-Indian movement by marginalised groups—especially Dalits—to assert their food rights and the dignity of their cultural traditions, often at risk to life and limb. As a Shudra intellectual, I belong to a small number of non-Dalits participating in beef festivals. Rohith was part of this movement, and part of a new generation of activists conducting a form of caste-aware and anti-caste politics that earlier generations had not even thought of. Of course, there have been student movements in the country all along, including leftist and radical ones, but none of them ever gave thought to the question of beef, or the politics of what was and was not served on their plates. There have rightly been lots of headlines about the sharp rise in attacks on Dalits and Muslims in recent years—on suspicion of consuming or possessing beef, for slaughtering cows past their prime, for skinning cow carcasses, even for merely transporting cows. But the reply to this, through the proud assertion of beef-eating as a right and tradition, has not made nearly as much news.

IT IS AGAINST THIS BACKDROP that we must today engage with what BR Ambedkar said about the place of the cow and the consumption of beef in his important but much-neglected 1948 work of historical investigation, The Untouchables: Who Were They and Why They Became Untouchable?

Ambedkar’s argument, some of which is in agreement with the scholarship of Indologists before him, is as follows: around the fourth century, Brahmanism countered Buddhism’s democratic and egalitarian appeal by appropriating its message of ahimsa. The cow became the central figure in this appropriation. Whereas cows were earlier sacrificed because they were sacred, now the sacredness became an excuse for their protection. However, because there were people who lived outside the village, as “Broken Men,” who had the duty of collecting cow carcasses and eating their meat, they became figures of scorn. Their degraded position, compounded by their poverty, forced them to consume leftover meat, resulting in the creation of a new form of discrimination: untouchability. According to Ambedkar, these Broken Men were Buddhists—not practising bhikkus, but people whose local idols and spirits had been incorporated into the Buddhist pantheon by travelling monks. Although a majority of castes ate meat, it was the compounded effect of the above factors, chief among which was the continued consumption of cow carcasses even when the rest of the culture had moved away from it, that resulted in the Broken Men’s ostracism and the birth of a new category of oppression. This can perhaps explain why the different castes that eat pig, sheep, goat, chicken or fowl did not form any bond of solidarity with them.

Ambedkar’s work was published at a time when the debate around the cow had come to assume an exclusively Hindu–Muslim aspect. Ambedkar tried to turn the focus firmly to the caste aspect of the matter and its pre-colonial, pre-Islamic past. He based his study on old Brahmanical texts and the scholarship around them, in an effort to pay the Brahmins back in their own coin and prove that their present-day arguments about the cow did not measure up to what their own texts say.

I shall not concern myself here with examining Ambedkar’s hypothesis. Today, the links between untouchability and beef-eating are more than clear. With an eye on history and Ambedkar’s theory, my concern is with the unfolding present, and how any proscription against beef by a modern, secular state strikes at the heart of the health and livelihood of the poorest Indians, while at the same time criminalising large swathes of the population. The ban on the consumption of beef and the curbs on the cattle trade today are nothing but the state practising a severe form of untouchability with the collusion of the courts of law. Dalits, Muslims, Adivasis—all who consume beef, irrespective of identity—face a threat to their lives today. It is imperative to interrogate how this has come to be.

While working on The Untouchables, Ambedkar was also heading the drafting committee for the Constitution, a document that, sadly, does not reflect his concerns on the question of the cow. While modernists such as Ambedkar and Jawaharlal Nehru were not for a religious ban on cow slaughter in the Constitution, they were under enormous pressure from the Hindu Right in the wake of Partition and the subsequent riots.

In the years leading up to the so-called freedom struggle, both the Hindu Right and many influential figures such as Mohandas Gandhi harped on about the cow’s special place in the Hindu order of things. In his recent work Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India, the journalist Akshaya Mukul has shown how the reformist Arya Samaj (founded in 1875), the Hindu Mahasabha (founded in 1915) and the Gita Press (established in 1923) drummed up caste-Hindu hysteria around the cow, especially as a means to browbeat Muslims. Mukul also chronicles the efforts of the mercantile Marwaris in funding what came to be known as the gau-raksha—cow-protection—movement.

Gandhi, whose ashrams and movements were funded by rich Marwari businessmen, preferred the less militant term gau seva—service of the cow—and, in 1941, he established the Goseva Sangh with help from the industrialist Jamnalal Bajaj. Although Gandhi did not push for a law proscribing the slaughter of the cow, he argued that Muslims should voluntarily give up eating beef. He once wrote, “My religion teaches me that I should by personal conduct instill into the minds of those who might hold different views, the conviction that cow-killing is a sin and that, therefore, it ought to be abandoned.”

Gandhi believed vegetarianism to be morally and nutritionally superior, and he also strongly advocated that the untouchable castes give up meat-eating altogether. Yet he never asked the Brahmins and Baniyas who stood behind his “cow service” to graze cows or try their hand at leatherwork or agriculture. This actual work with cattle was still reserved for scorned castes and communities. (Gandhi’s gestural politics also asked the scavenging castes to take pride in their work without expecting anything in return.)

The legal scholar Rohit De, in his paper “Cows and Constitutionalism,” notes how, in 1947, Gandhi told a prayer gathering in Delhi that there was an “emotional wave sweeping the country” in favour of a law against cow slaughter. Gandhi added that he was swamped with telegrams, and that he was being urged to persuade Jawaharlal Nehru and the home minister, Vallabhbhai Patel, to create cow-protection laws.

Generations of social scientists have been influenced by Gandhi’s thinking, but scholars from oppressed-caste backgrounds are now forcefully challenging it. For instance, Christina Sathyamala has critiqued the “structural violence of Hindu vegetarianism”:

Though Gandhi was averse to all flesh-eating, his uppercaste Hindu sensibility was particularly outraged at the consumption of beef, and it was the “untouchable” caste groups which became the target for his reformist propaganda as they were the ones who openly consumed the flesh of [the] cow. It was left to Ambedkar, born of this “untouchable” caste group, to show how it was that the food hierarchy among the Hindus, specifically beef consumption, provided the material basis of the unjust caste system.

During the Constituent Assembly debates, Syed Muhammad Sa’adulla, Frank Anthony and others pressed for clarity regarding the “cow question.” Oddly enough, neither Nehru nor Ambedkar intervened or said anything of significance in the assembly’s debates on cow protection. Members of the assembly representing Marwari interests joined hands with Brahmins—including Seth Govind Das, Pandit Thakur Das Bhargava, Shibban Lal Saxena, Ram Sahai and Raghu Vira, who were most vocal in demanding a law against cow slaughter, and wanted the protection of the cow enshrined as a fundamental right.

The artist Rajyashri Goody has, since 2017, been creating and compiling a series of texts dealing with Dalit memories of food, for eventual publication in an anthology as part of her “Writing Recipes” project. Goody combs Dalit autobiographies for passages on food—or, often, the lack of it—and uses these as a base for second-person accounts that are part recipe and part poetry. Her recipe for chaanya is adapted from the writer Daya Pawar’s autobiography Baluta, a landmark in Dalit writing.. courtesy rajyashri goody The artist Rajyashri Goody has, since 2017, been creating and compiling a series of texts dealing with Dalit memories of food, for eventual publication in an anthology as part of her “Writing Recipes” project. Goody combs Dalit autobiographies for passages on food—or, often, the lack of it—and uses these as a base for second-person accounts that are part recipe and part poetry. Her recipe for chaanya is adapted from the writer Daya Pawar’s autobiography Baluta, a landmark in Dalit writing.. courtesy rajyashri goody
The artist Rajyashri Goody has, since 2017, been creating and compiling a series of texts dealing with Dalit memories of food, for eventual publication in an anthology as part of her “Writing Recipes” project. Goody combs Dalit autobiographies for passages on food—or, often, the lack of it—and uses these as a base for second-person accounts that are part recipe and part poetry. Her recipe for chaanya is adapted from the writer Daya Pawar’s autobiography Baluta, a landmark in Dalit writing.
courtesy rajyashri goody

This had been dismissed by Ambedkar in his capacity as chairman of the drafting committee, stating that fundamental rights dealt only with human beings and not animals. Thanks largely to him, India did not become the only nation in the world to offer a fundamental right to an animal. The concern for cows was, however, introduced into the Constitution in ambiguous language under the directive principles of state policy. A provision under Article 48, titled “Organisation of agriculture and animal husbandry,” reads, “The State shall endeavour to organise agriculture and animal husbandry on modern and scientific lines and shall, in particular, take steps for preserving and improving breeds, and prohibiting the slaughter of cows and calves and other milch and draught cattle.” Ambedkar, for his part, ensured that Article 48 eschewed religious language.

Had it become a fundamental right, cow protection would have been enforceable. Its inclusion in the Constitution as a directive principle means it is non-justiciable, though the principle is enabling—that is, each state in the Union of India is free to legislate on the matter. This is why we may relatively easily procure beef in Kerala, Tamil Nadu or the northeastern states, but not in Delhi, Madhya Pradesh or Gujarat.

After 1950, once the Constitution came into force, the states of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh were the first to enact bans on cow slaughter, under the supposedly secular leadership of the Congress party. Since the so-called anti-colonial period, the Hindu Right was comfortably accommodated within the Congress. The Bharatiya Janata Party, with its fixation on cow protection, merely panders to a right-wing, caste-loving, untouchable-hating, Hindutva-influenced public nurtured by everyone from Congress Gandhians to communist and socialist Brahmins.

After a BJP government in Madhya Pradesh was ousted in the 2018 assembly election, the state’s new Congress government emphasised its commitment to cow protection and cow shelters. On 30 January 2019, Gandhi’s death anniversary, the state’s Congress chief minister, Kamal Nath, announced that 1,000 gaushalas—cow shelters—would be set up in the coming months to accommodate nearly a hundred thousand stray cows and their progeny. By March, he had laid the foundations for 36 such gaushalas in Vidisha, making it clear that the party intended to fulfil its promise.

IT IS A FACT—clear as daylight even to Brahmin scholars before and after Ambedkar, from PV Kane writing before Independence to DN Jha writing in more recent times—that the Vedic Brahmins did slaughter cows and eat beef, and to them no untouchability applied. In his copiously referenced Myth of the Holy Cow, Jha writes:

The Rigveda frequently refers to the cooking of the flesh of the ox for offering to gods, especially Indra … At one place Indra states, “they cook for me fifteen plus twenty oxen”. … Second in importance to Indra is Agni … his main food being ghee. Protector of all men, he is, nevertheless, described in the Rigveda as “one whose food is the ox and the barren cow”.

The later Vedic texts provide detailed descriptions of sacrifices and frequently refer to ritual cattle slaughter and the Gopatha Brahmana alone mentions twenty-one yajnas, though all of them may not have involved animal killing. A bull (vrsabha) was sacrificed to Indra, a dappled cow to the Maruts and a copper-coloured cow to the Asvins. A cow was also sacrificed to Mitra and Varuna. … The Taittiriya Brahmana unambiguously refers to the sacrificial killing of the cow which “is verily food” (atho annam vai gauh), and praises Agastya for his sacrifice of a hundred bulls.

That the sacrificial victim was generally meant for human consumption is abundantly clear from a passage of the Taittiriya Samhita, which tells us about the mode of cutting up the immolated animal and thus gives an idea of the distribution of its flesh. More explicit is the Gopatha Brahmana of the Atharvaveda, according to which the carcass was to be divided into thirty-six shares by the samitara who killed the victim by strangulation.

Yet scholars such as Kane and Jha never explored the connection between beef-eating and modern-day untouchability, as Ambedkar did. Since caste can never be held accountable to morality or even notional equality, the modern association of beef-eating with untouchability is, as such, irrational. And if eating beef is a marker of untouchability, giving it up does not remove the taint. Among the Dalits, there are many who do not eat beef and yet face untouchability.

This argument was made by Periyar way back in 1926:

they find fault with you [Paraiars], that foul smell comes from your body, that you do not take bath, do not wash clothes, that you eat beef, that you drink alcohol and preach that you must give up all these. … it is not an honest act to say that your eating beef and drinking alcohol is the reason for your being ‘paraiar’. In fact, those who eat beef and drink alcohol are ruling the world today. Besides if you eat beef, the fault is not yours. As you have not been allowed to earn, eat well, walk in the streets, freely move about to go and work and earn accordingly, you are obliged to eat with your limited resources to have more to eat whatever can be had for that money. … My conclusion is that this is a dishonest, irresponsible reason for keeping you in a degraded condition rather than a real cause. I am not objecting that beef and alcohol should be given up. But when some say that if you give up these your caste will have a higher status, then I object to that dishonest uttering. I will not ask you to give up beef or alcohol just to raise your caste to a high level. For that, there is no need for you to do either. … giving up what is consumed by all has nothing to do with becoming a higher caste. So if any one says avoiding beef and alcohol is good to become a higher caste I say it is a lie.

The way out lies in Dalitisation, the philosophical and material opposite of what Brahmanical sociologists such as MN Srinivas, Andre Beteille and their acolytes have described as Sanskritisation—the desire for upward mobility by imitating a superior caste, with the Brahmins considered to be at the apex despite being a social and cultural minority. Dalitisation is not simply about eating beef, but about changing one’s attitude to questions of dignity, food culture and labour. It is a move toward equality. Dalitisation is about the democratisation of society by disregarding false divisions of the sacred and the profane, of the high and the low. Dalitisation is surely not about forcing anyone to eat beef or any other meat. It is about challenging those who question the right of others—often Dalits and Muslims—to eat beef or any other food of their choice. It is about challenging the false and unnatural consensus around vegetarianism imposed unjustly and violently on Hindu society.

The act of serving and partaking of beef—or pork—in public in India is quite like the Ambedkar-led act of the untouchable castes drawing water from Chavdar Tale in Mahad in 1927. There, Ambedkar said, “We are not going to the Chavdar Tank to merely drink its water. We are going to the Tank to assert that we too are human beings like others. It must be clear that this meeting has been called to set up the norm of equality.” Those behind beef festivals are saying that by serving and eating beef they are not merely quelling hunger, but asserting that they too are human beings, that the food they eat is just as equally food. Each beef festival is a meeting to set up the norm of equality.

To stop eating beef is neither practical nor economically viable for oppressed communities. Besides, if one of the theoretical premises of democracy is equality—and India’s claim is that it is the most populous democracy on earth—then equality must begin with food and the right to eat what one likes, wants and needs. What one eats cannot, and must not, be legislated, unless it involves partaking of endangered species—an extravagant pastime of the very rich—or eating one’s own species—an aberration. In practice, beef-eating among Indians is already more widespread than Brahminical pretences allow many people to admit. It is not as if the beef stalls of Hyderabad and other Indian cities are frequented exclusively by Dalits and Muslims; others do queue up on the sly. One often hears stories of many non-Dalits, including Shudras and members of the dominant castes, happily tucking into beef. The issue is that very few will publicly admit to doing so.

Rajyashri Goody’s “Lal Bhaaji” (2019) represents a dish of the same name eaten by some Dalit communities in Maharashtra. Lal Bhaaji—literally, “red vegetable”—is a widely consumed leafy plant, but Dalits use its name as a code for beef, so as not to let others know what they are eating. Ceramic pieces representing beef, puris and bones are arranged on red paper made of a pulped copy of the Manusmriti, a touchstone of Hindu caste laws, and the bone pieces are stuffed with pages from the text. Goody evokes the shame that many Dalits have been conditioned to associate with beef-eating—her own family has turned to vegetarianism, and now scowls at beef—and tries to associate it instead with resistance to caste beliefs. Her use of the Manusmriti as an active “ingredient” in her Lal Bhaaji is an act of assertion and defance.. courtesy rajyashri goody Rajyashri Goody’s “Lal Bhaaji” (2019) represents a dish of the same name eaten by some Dalit communities in Maharashtra. Lal Bhaaji—literally, “red vegetable”—is a widely consumed leafy plant, but Dalits use its name as a code for beef, so as not to let others know what they are eating. Ceramic pieces representing beef, puris and bones are arranged on red paper made of a pulped copy of the Manusmriti, a touchstone of Hindu caste laws, and the bone pieces are stuffed with pages from the text. Goody evokes the shame that many Dalits have been conditioned to associate with beef-eating—her own family has turned to vegetarianism, and now scowls at beef—and tries to associate it instead with resistance to caste beliefs. Her use of the Manusmriti as an active “ingredient” in her Lal Bhaaji is an act of assertion and defance.. courtesy rajyashri goody
Rajyashri Goody’s “Lal Bhaaji” (2019) represents a dish of the same name eaten by some Dalit communities in Maharashtra. Lal Bhaaji—literally, “red vegetable”—is a widely consumed leafy plant, but Dalits use its name as a code for beef, so as not to let others know what they are eating. Ceramic pieces representing beef, puris and bones are arranged on red paper made of a pulped copy of the Manusmriti, a touchstone of Hindu caste laws, and the bone pieces are stuffed with pages from the text. Goody evokes the shame that many Dalits have been conditioned to associate with beef-eating—her own family has turned to vegetarianism, and now scowls at beef—and tries to associate it instead with resistance to caste beliefs. Her use of the Manusmriti as an active “ingredient” in her Lal Bhaaji is an act of assertion and defance.
courtesy rajyashri goody

There is little doubt that the so-called secular-liberal intellectuals of India—often people of high caste—are squeamish about beef. They may, if at all, eat it in the protected environs of a luxury hotel, or when they travel abroad, but they do not countenance beef being served at, say, a conference or seminar on a university campus. Except in Kerala, where almost everyone apart from some Brahmins eats beef, the Indian Left, which remains Brahmin-dominated, does not push the beef question even in places such as Chennai and Hyderabad, where the sale of beef is not banned.

In 2015, Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharya, a Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader and former mayor of Kolkata, participated in a beef-eating event held after the death of Mohammed Akhlaq, murdered by a Hindu mob after a false rumour that he had slaughtered a cow. The event was held in West Bengal—a communist stronghold for decades, where Muslims and Scheduled Castes each account for roughly a quarter of the population. For this, Bhattacharya was severely reprimanded by a cross-section of Left Front leaders. The Hindu reported:

“During the meeting, CPI’s State Secretariat member Swapan Banerjee said that Mr. Bhattacharya should not have participated in the beef-eating event as it may create negative impression on a section of the society,” a senior Left Front leader told The Hindu. He also said the CPI leadership expressed its displeasure over the “media hype” created by the organisers of the event. “Mr. Banerjee wondered what Mr. Bhattacharya was trying to prove by taking part in that protest. He said that food habits are one’s personal matter. He could have eaten beef at home,” the Front leader added. According to Front insiders, senior Forward Bloc leader Hafiz Alam Sairani also criticized Mr. Bhattacharya’s actions. “Left Front chairman Biman Basu also agreed that it would have been better if Mr. Bhattacharya did not take part in the event,” sources said.

In 1995, when I was part of the Left-based Andhra Pradesh Civil Liberties Committee, I suggested that the group serve beef at its annual conference. This was unprecedented. The Brahmin leaders of the group fell silent. The exclusion of beef had apparently happened almost naturally over the years. One fellow Shudra in the group, Burra Ramulu, said that he could arrange for beef to be served at the conference, and he did. I recall that most Brahmin delegates avoided the beef-eating, with the notable exception of the writer and lawyer K Balagopal.

Detail of Rajyashri Goody’s “Lal Bhaaji.”. courtesy rajyashri goody Detail of Rajyashri Goody’s “Lal Bhaaji.”. courtesy rajyashri goody
Detail of Rajyashri Goody’s “Lal Bhaaji.”
courtesy rajyashri goody
Detail of Rajyashri Goody’s “Lal Bhaaji.”. courtesy rajyashri goody Detail of Rajyashri Goody’s “Lal Bhaaji.”. courtesy rajyashri goody
Detail of Rajyashri Goody’s “Lal Bhaaji.”
courtesy rajyashri goody

While in Sanskritisation the figure of the Brahmin is imagined as the norm, and the obscure, inaccessible and exclusionary Sanskrit language is projected as an aspirational ideal, for Dalitisation we must take the beef-eating, labouring untouchable as our new universal. If everyone who claims to be secular and enlightened in India adopts this approach and ceases to see beef as the food of only Dalits and Muslims, it will deliver a bigger blow to caste-fixated Hindutva than the conversion of the oppressed castes to Buddhism or any religion can. It will also remove the onus for change from the oppressed castes, who are often asked to adjust, to try and “fit in” in Brahminical society, and shift it to the privileged castes—the ones who benefit from the caste system, and who have felt no need to desist from their casteist ways. If the ideal of vegetarianism has been forced down our throats for centuries, it is time we reclaimed beefarianism.

With the world’s largest population of buffaloes and cows, India is the globe’s third-largest exporter of beef. It was reported in 2015 that beef had overtaken basmati rice as India’s largest agricultural export in terms of value. Who is benefiting most from this huge export? One of the largest slaughterhouses in India is run by a company called Al Kabeer Exporters, on the outskirts of Hyderabad. The establishment is jointly owned by Satish Subberwal, a dominant-caste Punjabi Khatri, and Ghulamuddin Shaikh, his partner. Another major Indian beef exporter, Al Noor Export, is headquartered in Delhi, and is owned by a family of Suds, who again are non-beef-eating Punjabi Khatris by caste. (The names of these companies are Arabic since they cater largely to the Arab world’s needs; in non-Arab countries, they often sell under other, non-Arabic, brands.) Numerous other Indian beef exporters also have dominant-caste Hindu ownership. And yet, dominant-caste Hindus are not being vilified as cow killers; only Muslims and Dalits are.

At the same time as India exports beef to the world, the country ranks among the lowest per-capita consumers of beef and veal, according to data for 2018 from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. Each Indian eats 0.5 kilograms of it per year on average, compared to 2.6 kilograms for each Ethiopian, 9.3 kilograms for each Vietnamese and 26.1 kilograms for each American. In India, 44 percent of children—a total of over forty-eight million—are malnourished. Of these, 45 percent have stunted growth and another 20 percent are too thin.

Beef is a rich source of protein, and is cheaper and healthier than the much-promoted broiler-chicken meat that many studies have revealed contains high levels of steroids and antibiotics. In 2010, beef retailed in Hyderabad at around eighty rupees a kilogram. The price shot up to around a hundred and forty rupees in 2014, and, after the Hindutva-driven clampdown on beef in recent years, it now retails at almost two hundred rupees a kilo. Today, when even vegetables such as bhindi can cost over a hundred rupees a kilogram, beef can be an essential source of nourishment, especially on poor people’s tables.

Contrast the Indian state’s proactive approach to creating gaushalas with what it has done to address mass malnutrition among the country’s children. The midday meal scheme, introduced first in the Madras Presidency during the colonial period, was revived in Tamil Nadu in 1982, by its then chief minister, MG Ramachandran. In the 1990s, 12 other states followed suit, since India, as part of its commitment to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, had to address the issue. The Supreme Court directed the universalisation of this programme in 2001. Now, the midday meal scheme is covered under the National Food Security Act, 2013, which seeks to address the nutritional needs of over 120 million children. Eggs and milk were made part of the children’s diet to address malnutrition, but since the Modi government came to power, in 2014, only five of 19 states governed by the BJP or its allies provide eggs. In 2015, the chief minister of Rajasthan, Vasundhara Raje, declared that there was no question of offering eggs in the midday meal scheme, or in food distributed at anganwadi centres, which are meant to provide rural childcare. “We respect religious sentiments of the people,” Raje said. “We will not distribute eggs or any other item that hurts anyone’s religious feelings.” If Hindus can be so squeamish about eggs, the struggle to put beef on the table is going to be long and arduous.

There are two ethical issues when it comes to eating meat: environmental concerns and the morality of killing animals. Let us first look at the environmental question. It is a scientific fact that livestock accounts for about 14.5 percent of global greenhouse-gas emissions, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations. But unlike in Europe, North America or even Latin America, in India most cattle are not factory farmed; poultry is. The environmentalist Sunita Narain has argued that environmentalism does not necessarily mean vegetarianism in India:

Indian farmers still practice cow-buffalo-goat economy that is of small scale. In fact, this economy has been sustainable for the fact that it is in the hands of small farm owners. Animals are their insurance policy; their ways of managing bad times, made worse today because of climate change-induced variables and extreme weather … the strident and often violent call for cow protection has led to the total breakdown of this economy of the poor. Cattle are now abandoned. They have become a menace, marauding [through] fields and destroying crops. Remember Indian farmers do not fence their fields; they cannot afford it and actually this is good for soil and water conservation. Now this is not going to work.

On the question of slaughter, there are also many dimensions to consider. Cows can live up to thirty years but they are considered productive only as long they can be milked—from the age of three to the age of ten or twelve at best. Past that, they are a massive drain on resources, and the question then is how to dispose of aged cows. The reason we see many cows on the streets, ambling on main thoroughfares in peak traffic and foraging from overflowing garbage dumps, is because in place of slaughter, many people abandon their non-productive cows. You rarely see stray buffaloes, since people see nothing divine in the black animals and are happy to send them to slaughter after they have ceased to produce milk, earning a good sum in the process. Some cows are taken into shelters, but, in practice, this is not a humane alternative either. The media regularly reports the death by starvation of large numbers of cows in cow shelters across north India—including in Uttar Pradesh, ruled by its saffron-clad chief minister, Adityanath. The choice is between abandonment and starvation or slaughter, and slaughter is the only viable option for sustaining the cattle economy and the millions of livelihoods tied to it.

Despite these facts, the highest courts of the land have taken a sentimental and religious view of cow slaughter. The scholars Sambaiah Gundimeda and VS Ashwin, in their paper “Cow Protection in India: From Secularising to Legitimating Debates,” have analysed two important verdicts—Mohammed Hanif Quareshi and others vs State of Bihar, from 1958, and Mirzapur Moti Kureshi Kassab Jamat and others vs State of Gujarat, from 2005—to demonstrate how the Supreme Court legitimised Hindu majoritarian sentiments in the law by conceding valuable ground to cow worshippers. In both cases, Muslim butchers had moved the courts to challenge “the total ban on cow slaughter under three Fundamental Rights, respectively Article 14 (right to equality), 19(1)(g) (right to practice any profession and carry on any occupation) and 25 (right to freedom of religion).” They argued that total bans—imposed by the states of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh—placed Article 48, the directive principle on agriculture and animal husbandry, above these fundamental rights. Gundimeda and Ashwin write:

The State Legislature of Gujarat had introduced the Bombay Animal Preservation (Gujarat Amendment) Act of 1994, enlarging the prohibition of slaughtering bulls and bullocks below the age of 16 years to a total ban on slaughter of cows and their progeny. As the Gujarat Act infringed the longheld Supreme Court position, its constitutional validity was challenged before the Gujarat High Court, which promptly struck down the impugned legislation, arguing that the 1994 Act imposed an unreasonable restriction on Fundamental Rights and was ultra vires the Constitution. This was probably a strategic refusal, allowing the state of Gujarat to appeal to the Supreme Court by a Special Leave Petition. A Supreme Court Bench of seven judges, led by Chief Justice Lahoti, re-examined the issue and in the final verdict, six judges upheld the validity of the impugned amendment.

The Court eschewed not just established principles of constitutional interpretation but overruled the earlier settled jurisprudence on the slaughter of bulls and bullocks in Hanif Quareshi case. Unmistakably, this judgment was pro-Hindutva, and against Dalits/OBC, Adivasis, Muslim and Christian minorities. … He [Chief Justice RC Lahoti] also rendered the Fundamental Rights subservient to the Directive Principles, an interpretation, as Jaising et al. (2016) argue, that was “both disingenuous and dangerous and precisely what the constitution-makers wanted to guard against”.

The bench headed by Chief Justice Lahoti made some astounding statements:

the value of dung is much more than even the famous ‘Kohinoor’ diamond. An old bullock gives 5 tonnes of dung and 343 pounds of urine in a year which can help in the manufacture of 20 cartloads of composed manure. This would be sufficient for manure need of 4 acres of land for crop production. The right to life is a fundamental right and it can be basically protected only with proper food and feeding and cheap and nutritious food grains required for feeding can be grown with the help of dung. Thus the most fundamental thing to the fundamental right of living for the human being is bovine dung.

Gundimeda and Ashwin tell us how the chief justice was citing claims made by right-wing, cow-worshipping pamphleteers.

Across most of the world, food brings people together and helps establish cultural common ground, even in the face of other markers of difference. But this is not so in India. There are food taboos, and ideas of the sacred and the profane, in both organised and tribalistic religions elsewhere, but nowhere else do these leads to either untouchability or lynchings. If an elite educational institute such as IIT Madras believes in having separate dining spaces for vegetarians and meat-eaters in this day and age, the kind of casteist hell that exists in rural India can only be imagined.

The violence and murder based on the consumption of a particular food and the trading of the cow ought to have led to an international scandal, but this has not happened. The reason is that too many Indian intellectuals and scholars, instead of taking the lead in standing up to such violence, believe that discriminatory food habits, including ones that sustain the practice of untouchability, are part of Hindu “tradition” and “culture.” Respect for cultural diversity and Hindu sentiments is offered as a pathetic excuse for sidestepping the violation of the fundamental right to the food of one’s choice. While the Hindutva-led violence against Muslims and Dalits in recent years has led so-called liberal and secular intellectuals to return state awards in protest and run a “Not in My Name” campaign, hardly any of these intellectuals have showed up at, or expressed support for, beef festivals organised by oppressed-caste thinkers and activists. The onus now must be on non-Dalits to take the initiative in serving and eating beef, and thus secularising it and our public and political culture.

This essay has been adapted from Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd’s introduction to Beef, Brahmins and Broken Men, recently published by Navayana. The book presents an annotated and critical selection from BR Ambedkar’s The Untouchables: Who Were They and Why They Became Untouchables?


From BR Ambedkar’s preface to The Untouchables: Who Were They and Why They Became Untouchables?

… what annoys one is the intolerance of the Brahmin scholar towards any attempt to expose the Brahmanic literature. He himself would not play the part of an iconoclast even where it is necessary. And he would not allow such non-Brahmins as have the capacity to do so to play it. If any non-Brahmin were to make such an attempt the Brahmin scholars would engage in a conspiracy of silence, take no notice of him, condemn him outright on some flimsy grounds or dub his work useless. As a writer engaged in the exposition of the Brahmanic literature I have been a victim of such mean tricks.

Notwithstanding the attitude of the Brahmin scholars, I must pursue the task I have undertaken. For the origin of [the Criminal Tribes, the Aboriginal Tribes, and the Untouchables] is a subject which still awaits investigation. This book deals with one of these unfortunate classes, namely the Untouchables. The Untouchables are the most numerous of the three. Their existence is also the most unnatural. And yet there has so far been no investigation into their origin. That the Hindus should not have undertaken such an investigation is perfectly understandable. The old orthodox Hindu does not think that there is anything wrong in the observance of Untouchability. To him it is a normal and natural thing. As such it neither calls for expiation nor explanation. The new modern Hindu realizes the wrong. But he is ashamed to discuss it in public for fear of letting the foreigner know that Hindu Civilization can be guilty of such a vicious and infamous system or social code as evidenced by Untouchability. But what is strange is that Untouchability should have failed to attract the attention of the European student of social institutions. It is difficult to understand why. The fact, however, is there.

This book may, therefore, be taken as a pioneer attempt in the exploration of a field so completely neglected by everybody. The book, if I may say so, deals not only with every aspect of the main question set out for inquiry, namely, the origin of Untouchability, but it also deals with almost all questions connected with it. Some of the questions are such that very few people are even aware of them; and those who are aware of them are puzzled by them and do not know how to answer them. To mention only a few, the book deals with such questions as: Why do the Untouchables live outside the village? Why did beef-eating give rise to Untouchability? Did the Hindus never eat beef? Why did non-Brahmins give up beef-eating? What made the Brahmins become vegetarians, etc.? To each one of these, the book suggests an answer. It may be that the answers given in the book to these questions are not all-embracing. Nonetheless it will be found that the book points to a new way of looking at old things.

I mention this because in the course of my investigations into the origin of Untouchability and other interconnected problems I have been confronted with many missing links. It is true that I am not the only one who has been confronted with them. All students of ancient Indian history have had to face them. For as Mountstuart Elphinstone has observed in Indian history “no date of a public event can be fixed before the invasion of Alexander; and no connected relation of the natural transactions can be attempted until after the Mohametan conquest.” This is a sad confession but that again does not help. The question is: “What is a student of history to do? Is he to cry halt and stop his work until the link is discovered?” I think not. I believe that in such cases it is permissible for him to use his imagination and intuition to bridge the gaps left in the chain of facts by links not yet discovered and to propound a working hypothesis suggesting how facts which cannot be connected by known facts might have been inter-connected. I must admit that rather than hold up the work, I have preferred to resort to this means to get over the difficulty created by the missing links which have come in my way.

Critics may use this weakness to condemn the thesis as violating the canons of historical research. If such be the attitude of the critics I must remind them that if there is a law which governs the evaluation of the results of historical results then refusal to accept a thesis on the ground that it is based on direct evidence is bad law. Instead of concentrating themselves on the issue of direct evidence versus inferential evidence and inferential evidence versus speculation, what the critics should concern themselves with is to examine (i) whether the thesis is based on pure conjecture, and (ii) whether the thesis is possible and if so does it fit in with facts better than mine does?

On the first issue I could say that the thesis would not be unsound merely because in some parts it is based on guess. My critics should remember that we are dealing with an institution the origin of which is lost in antiquity. The present attempt to explain the origin of Untouchability is not the same as writing history from texts which speak with certainty. It is a case of reconstructing history where there are no texts, and if there are, they have no direct bearing on the question. In such circumstances what one has to do is to strive to divine what the texts conceal or suggest without being even quite certain of having found the truth. The task is one of gathering survivals of the past, placing them together and making them tell the story of their birth. The task is analogous to that of the archaeologist who constructs a city from broken stones or of the palaeontologist who conceives an extinct animal from scattered bones and teeth or of a painter who reads the lines of the horizon and the smallest vestiges on the slopes of the hill to make up a scene. In this sense the book is a work of art even more than of history. The origin of Untouchability lies buried in a dead past which nobody knows. To make it alive is like an attempt to reclaim to history a city which has been dead since ages past and present it as it was in its original condition. It cannot but be that imagination and hypothesis should play a large part in such a work. But that in itself cannot be a ground for the condemnation of the thesis. For without trained imagination no scientific inquiry can be fruitful and hypothesis is the very soul of science.


From BR Ambedkar’s chapter “Did the Hindus never eat beef?”, in The Untouchables: Who Were They and Why They Became Untouchables?

To the question whether the Hindus ever ate beef, every Touchable Hindu, whether he is a Brahmin or a non-Brahmin, will say “no, never”. In a certain sense, he is right. From times [sic], no Hindu has eaten beef. If this is all that the Touchable Hindu wants to convey by his answer there need be no quarrel over it. But when the learned Brahmins argue that the Hindus not only never ate beef but they always held the cow to be sacred and were always opposed to the killing of the cow, it is impossible to accept their view.

What is the evidence in support of the construction that the Hindus never ate beef and were opposed to the killing of the cow?

There are two series of references in the Rig Veda on which reliance is placed. In one of these, the cow is spoken of as Aghnya. … Aghnya means “one who does not deserve to be killed”. From this, it is argued that this was a prohibition against the killing of the cow and that since the Vedas are the final authority in the matter of religion, it is concluded that the Aryans could not have killed the cows, much less could they have eaten beef. In another series of references the cow is spoken of as sacred. … In these verses the cow is addressed as Mother of Rudras, the Daughter of Vasus, the Sister of the Adityas and the Centre of Nectar.…

Reliance is also placed on certain passages in the Brahmanas

There are two passages in the Satapatha Brahmana which relate to animal sacrifice and beef-eating. One … reads as follows:

He (the Adhvaryu) then makes him enter the hall. Let him not eat (the flesh) of either the cow or the ox, for the cow and the ox doubtless support everything here on earth. The gods spake, ‘Verily, the cow and the ox support everything here: come, let us bestow on the cow and the ox whatever vigour belongs to other species (of animals)’ […] and therefore the cow and the ox eat most. Hence were one to eat (the flesh) of an ox or a cow, there would be, as it were, an eating of everything, or, as it were, a going to the end (or, to destruction) … Let him therefore not eat (the flesh) of the cow and the ox.

The other passage … speaks against animal sacrifice and on ethical grounds. … Such is the evidence in support of the contention that the Hindus never ate beef. What conclusion can be drawn from this evidence? So far as the evidence from the Rig Veda is concerned the conclusion is based on a misreading and misunderstanding of the texts. The adjective Aghnya applied to the cow in the Rig Veda means a cow that was yielding milk and therefore not fit for being killed. That the cow is venerated in the Rig Veda is of course true. But this regard and venerations of the cow are only to be expected from an agricultural community like the Indo-Aryans. This application of the utility of the cow did not prevent the Aryan from killing the cow for purposes of food. Indeed the cow was killed because the cow was regarded as sacred. As observed by [the Indologist Pandurang Vaman] Kane: “It was not that the cow was not sacred in Vedic times, it was because of her sacredness that it is ordained in the Vajasaneyi Samhita that beef should be eaten.”

That the Aryans of the Rig Veda did kill cows for purposes of food and ate beef is abundantly clear from the Rig Veda itself. In the Rig Veda … Indra says: “They cook for one fifteen plus twenty oxen”. The Rig Veda (X.91.14)21 says that for Agni were sacrificed horses, bulls, oxen, barren cows and rams. From the Rig Veda … it appears that the cow was killed with a sword or axe. As to the testimony of the Satapatha Brahmana, can it be said to be conclusive? Obviously, it cannot be. For there are passages in the other Brahmanas which give a different opinion.

To give only one instance. Among the Kamyashtis [minor sacrifices, primarily for the fulfilment of special wishes] set forth in the Taittiriya Brahmana, not only the sacrifice of oxen and cows are laid down, but we are even told what kind and description of oxen and cows are to be offered to what deities. Thus, a dwarf ox is to be chosen for sacrifice to Vishnu; a drooping horned bull with a blaze on the forehead to Indra as the destroyer of Vritra; a black cow to Pushan; a red cow to Rudra; and so on. The Taittiriya Brahmana notes another sacrifice called Panchasaradiya-seva, the most important element of which was the immolation of seventeen five-year old humpless, dwarf-bulls, and as many dwarf heifers under three years old.

For Ambedkar’s complete references identifying specific passages from the Vedas and Brahmanas, see The Untouchables: Who Were They and Why They Became Untouchables? (Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches: Volume 7, Government of Maharashtra, 1990); for detailed annotations on the references, see Beef, Brahmins and Broken Men (Navayana, 2019).

Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd is a social scientist, academic and writer. He is the author of books such as Why I Am Not A Hindu and Post-Hindu India.

Keywords: beef caste BR Ambedkar food Dalits cow protection Rohith Vemula
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