India highlights dark side of vegetarianism – By Pallavi Aiyar

Growing up as a Hindu in 1980s India, my culinary life unfolded against the backdrop of the question mark that punctuates all Indian diets: vegetarian or nonvegetarian?

The answer to this question situates respondents along several axes: caste, conservatism and religion. Vegetarians are likely to be identified as traditional, upper caste Hindus, while non-vegetarian could mean Muslim. In the Indian dietary syllogism, not all Hindus are vegetarian, but all Muslims are nonvegetarian, so nonvegetarian Indians are likely Muslim.

My family was non-vegetarian, though we didn’t eat beef. This was largely because of the unavailability of cow meat. The slaughter of cattle was illegal in many states and even nonreligious Hindus like me were often “beef-virgins.”

Four decades later, the political ascendency of the ideology of Hindutva, which seeks to make India a Hindu country, instead of a secular one, has led to a surge in the growth of vegetarian vigilantes.

These are Hindu mobs that attack and even murder people they suspect of slaughtering cows or consuming beef. Being vegetarian or nonvegetarian is no longer a question of choice; it can be the difference between life and death.

The most notorious vigilante incident is the 2015 lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq, a farm worker who was beaten and killed after rumors spread that he had slaughtered a cow and stored the meat in his refrigerator.

Later, tests confirmed that the meat was goat. Those responsible for the killing expressed remorse, not for the murder, but for mistaking goat meat for beef. The Hindu mobs want everyone to turn vegetarian, but for the moment it’s only beef eaters who need fear for their lives.

The cow is widely seen as sacred to Hindus. When and how this belief developed remains historically contested. Historians have shown that at the time of the oldest Hindu sacred text, the Rig Veda (dated to the second millennium B.C.), cow meat was consumed by Indians.

A cow on the street of Jaisalmer. Cows are widely seen as sacred to Hindus. (Photo by Pallavi Aiyar)

Over time, particularly from the fourth century B.C., vegetarianism began to spread among India’s Buddhists, Jains and some Hindus. For Hindus, it remained a largely upper caste practice. Later, a trend known as Sanskritization developed, whereby lower castes gave up beef (although not necessarily chicken, fish and goat — the non-vegetarian staples of India) when they wanted to move up the social hierarchy.

But today’s Hindu ideologues have little time for such research. And they insist, without factual basis, that Hinduism requires strict adherence to dietary strictures: non-beef eating at a minimum, and ideally vegetarianism.

The issue is more divisive than ever. Last November the Municipal Corporation of Ahmedabad — the commercial capital of Gujarat, the state where Prime Minister Narendra Modi was chief minister from 2001 to 2014 — banned roadside stalls from selling nonvegetarian food items along public roads and within 100 meters of schools, colleges and religious places. Other cities in the state adopted similar bans. But on Dec. 9, the Gujarat High Court overruled the bans. Even so, penalties for cow slaughter, beef eating, or even possession of the meat, range from up to life imprisonment in Gujarat — to jail time or heavy penalties in other states.

Around 80 million Indians eat beef, including more than 12 million Hindus, according to government data published by the Indian business newspaper Mint after the Akhlaq murder. Trade in cattle and water buffaloes (a related bovine species) provides livelihoods to millions of others.

The victims of today’s “cow-protection” gangs are mainly Muslims, who make up 14% of India’s population. According to U.S.-based Human Rights Watch, at least 44 people — 36 of them Muslims — were killed in cow-related confrontations between May 2015 and December 2018, while 280 people were injured in 100-plus incidents in the same period.

Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party government has expended considerable political capital on strengthening cow protection laws. BJP-affiliated political leaders have rarely criticized lynchings or killings by cow protection groups and have sometimes encouraged it. For example, Raman Singh, BJP chief minister of Chhattisgarh State, said in 2017: “We will hang those who kill cows,” according to Human Rights Watch.

As a result, the cow/Hindutva ideologues are gaining ever greater control of India’s public discourse. Hindu groups have promoted the consumption of cow dung and cow urine as miracle cures for a range of ailments, including COVID-19, and “cow studies” have been introduced in many government-funded schools. A National Cow Commission was set up in 2019 with the express purpose of protecting cows.

Across India, a woman is raped every 15 minutes. This has led feminist activists to suggest that the country is safer for cows than women. It is a statement that often elicits a laugh. Sadly, it is not a joke.

Pallavi Aiyar is a journalist and author, most recently of “Orienting: An Indian in Japan.” She also writes “The Global Jigsaw,” a weekly newsletter on global culture.


Source –