In a Facebook group, which strives to promote veganism in India, a political discussion turned hateful when one of the members commented “now her meat-eating community will know what violence feels like.” It was 2018, and the subject was eight year old Asifa’s brutal rape and murder in Jammu. What followed was a long discussion, conflating the rape and murder of the child to the exploitation of animals by diary farmers and industries.
The intellectual justification of the argument could have hardly contained the blatant demonstration of communal hatred that became regular in the community thereafter. This incident reminded me of how BJP MP Maneka Gandhi, a long-term animal rights activist who encourages veganism had also actively defended the legality of marital rape in India. Prior to the 2019 general elections, she had warned the Muslim community of Sultanpur that “things will be sour” if they dont vote for her, since she wouldn’t care to deliver in their interests.
“We aren’t children of Mahatma Gandhi. I am winning with or without Muslims.“
What made these groups of ethical animal-lovers who sustain themselves on palak tofu, coconut milk ice cream and kadai mockmeat, so thirsty for the blood of Muslims? How can someone support animal rights but deny the rights of their fellow citizens from vulnerable and voiceless communities?
In “Hitler’s Table Talk: 1941–44“, Adolf Hitler advocated for vegetarianism as an ethical and superior choice. These ideas were developed further by Savitri Devi’s books who argued that only the “selfish” vegetarians abstain from eating meat owing to fear of retribution in the afterlife, while the “unselfish” Aryan vegetarians proved their racial superiority and superhuman traits by caring for the welfare of all creatures. Romanticised veganism or environmental activism served as an entry point to white nationalism or reinforced white nationalist beliefs which were already prevalent but latent.
Even in India, vegetarianism was never primarily concerned about animals from the days of Dayanand Saraswati and Bal Gangadhar Tilak. It was used to assume a higher position in the caste hierarchy by citing the reason of “purity” based on one’s diet. The notion being “satvik” or vegetarian diets (mostly consumed by upper castes) were associated with purity and harmony, while Dalits, Muslims and other marginalised groups that consumed meat were inferior, polluted and impure.
This idea also applies to onions and garlic, owing to its extensive use by lower castes in their diets. The Manusmriti says, “Through failure to study the Vedas, the neglect of proper conduct, inattentiveness to duties, and eating the wrong food, death tries to kill priests. Garlic, scallions, onions, and mushrooms, and the things that grow from what is impure, are not to be eaten by twice-born men.“
Om Prakash in his seminal work, Food and Drink in Ancient India had first collected persuasive evidence from a wide range of Hindu-Buddhist/Sanskrit and Pali sources to show that beef was popularly eaten in the land. Professor D.N Jha wrote in his book The Myth of the Holy Cow about animal sacrifices being very common in the Vedic Era (the most important of them being the famous asvamedha and rajasuya) and Vedic gods being offered milk, butter, barley, oxen, goats, sheep as food.
He also mentions, “The Mahabharata also makes a laudatory reference to the king Rantideva in whose kitchen two thousand cows were butchered each day, their flesh, along with grain, being distributed among the Brahmanas.” With respect to Valmiki’s Ramayana, he writes that Dasarath performed a grand sacrifice of animals during the birth of Rama, about Sita’s fondness for deer meat and Bharadvaja welcoming Rama by slaughtering a fatted calf in his honour. “The sacred thread ceremony for its part was not all that sacred; for it was necessary for a snataka to wear an upper garment of cowhide,” writes the historian.
Only after the rapid advent of Buddhism, Brahmins gave up beef-eating to retain their hegemony on the moral consciousness of commoners and royalty. Babasaheb Ambedkar wrote in The Untouchables: Who Were They and Why They Became Untouchables? (1948),
“The clue to the worship of the cow is to be found in the struggle between Buddhism and Brahmanism and the means adopted by Brahmanism to establish its supremacy over Buddhism. If the Brahmins had acted from conviction that animal sacrifice was bad, all that was necessary for them to do was to give up killing animals for sacrifice…That they did go in for vegetarianism makes it obvious that their motive was far-reaching.“
In today’s times, ISKCON run NGO Akshay Patra Foundation which supposedly provides mid-day meals to 1.76 million children from 14,702 schools across 12 states in India continues to flout norms by letting its religious principles impinge on the food rights of malnourished children who end up consuming way lower than the necessary requirement of proteins and calories. They advocate a lacto-vegetarian diet, strictly avoiding meat, fish and eggs and consider onions and garlic as “lower modes of nature which inhibit spiritual advancement.”
Vegetarianism was never ‘apolitical’ since it was a result of one’s caste-class privileges. Similarly, embracing veganism today is easier for already vegetarian upper-caste Hindus/Jains who can afford Vitamin B12 capsules or cashew nut milk as opposed to the marginalised communities whose only source of protein is the fish they catch, the meat of other people’s dead livestock, and the eggs they get in mid-day meals at school.
Antonio Gramsci explained in his writings how elites maintained their control over the culture of a generation by the power of hegemony. Hegemony is a social belief system that is constructed from the ideology of the dominant class but which is accepted as the “normal” or as “common sense” by the whole society. Social and political hegemony imposes a system of beliefs on people that influences their moral conduct and direction of will, but is designed in the interest of the dominant group.
However, this hegemony always has the consent of the masses, achieved by persuasion (through media/language/education) and coercion (laws, police, military). A well-known example of capitalist hegemony is the promotion of the ‘American Dream’ which is advertised and sold as the idea that prosperity and happiness is within the reach of everyone. But as reality or experience shows us, hard work or unending toil doesn’t eradicate poverty because the system is rigged against the poor. Capitalism can only work when everybody starts with the same capital and until then, it’s never a free market in the true sense.
In the Indian context, the social work or ‘sewa’ carried out by RSS karyakartas has helped serve its political and cultural goal of conflating Indian society with ‘Hindu Samaj’ and keeping Brahmanical hegemony intact. The Sangh institutionalised ‘sewa’ in the organisation for the first time in the seventies, to bring the Dalit and Adivasi communities and the lower castes into the Hindu fold, ensuring they do not convert into Christianity or Islam. They have expanded into the fields of education, disaster relief, health, and vocational training, through the national wings and their network of registered NGOs, building strongholds in various parts of India which also helps them in making electoral gains.
Charity, instead of striving for equality, is a good alternative for the savarnas to maintain caste hierarchy while also purging themselves of the ‘savarna guilt’. Indulging in sewa helps them purge their conscience and whitewash their public image, after which they can comfortably continue orchestrating riots. This is how it is possible for likes of Yogi Adityanath to dress or eat simply, while parallely inciting anti-Muslim violence.
Saffron environmentalists and organic farming enthusiasts have not extended their solidarity to the current countrywide farmer protests, signalling their political alignment with the establishment for common grounds unrelated to the ecology. Swachh Bharat Abhiyan supporters can be found hosting educational sessions on segregation of wet and dry wastes but never raising voice against the oppressive lives of sanitation workers.
It’s comforting but contradictory to replace plastic toothbrushes with ones made from Bamboo while simultaneously hating the activists who joined the Narmada Bachao Andolan. It’s easy to blame the farmers for stubble burning and air pollution while criticising the cracker ban during Diwali. The logic here is simple, the ideology is clear: “We are willing to perform as many moral tasks as possible but only till the hierarchy of power remains.”
We want the poor to remain poor, so we can continue our charity.
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