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:

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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