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Sunday, September 16, 2001

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Intolerance of food habits

ALTHOUGH I grew up eating what "Inglish" calls "NV" (non- vegetarian) food, there was one meat that was never on our dining table: beef was never cooked at home, it was never brought home and when we dined out, we never looked for it on restaurant menus. As far as I knew, no Hindus ate beef.

I realised the extent of my ignorance when beef was placed before me on my first day in a hostel in Thiruvananthapuram. It was only while living in Kerala that I realised that beef (and buffalo meat) was eaten in that State not just by Christians, Muslims and but also by a large proportion of "NV" Hindus. Some independent reading revealed that there were other parts of India where this was true as well; except that elsewhere beef was by compulsion surreptitiously consumed and that Hindus who did eat it were usually outside the pale - the lower castes and Dalits.

Ignorance is usually accompanied by intolerance and recently we have had plenty of both on beef consumption in India. An article by Harish Damodaran (Business Line, September 4) presented Central Government statistics which stated that the meat India produces most is beef (1.44 million tonnes in 2000); the second is buffalo meat (1.42 million tonnes) and only third, is mutton and lamb (0.7 million tonnes). Beef and buffalo meat together account for as much as 60 per cent of domestic meat production. Fish is in a different category altogether with annual production at 5.8 million tonnes a year. With some rough, but reasonable, calculations Damodaran showed that the amount of protein Indians get, on average, from all forms of meat is roughly the same as from pulses. This is unusual for a supposedly largely vegetarian society, most of whose "NV" citizens are not supposed to eat beef.

The per capita consumption of beef/buffalo in India is 2.8 kg, about half that of fish, but more than twice the average intake of mutton, pork and poultry - indirect evidence that beef consumption must be quite common among meat-eaters of all religions. Yet, because, increasingly, the beliefs and taboos of some are expressed as intolerance towards others, outside Kerala, beef - which is the cheapest of all forms of meat in India - has to be bought almost clandestinely; it is unhygenically stored and it is only the meat of sick and dying animals that is consumed. The result is that this inexpensive source of protein is often denied to those who need it the most. A friend made the provocative argument that vegetarianism is the prerogative of rich societies, and beef, the protein of the poor. There is more than a grain of truth here.

Efforts to dispel our ignorance about Indian food habits are controlled by our increasingly powerful thought police. Some groups have gone to court and obtained a stay on the publication of a scholarly book, Holy Cow: Beef in Indian Dietary Traditions. The author, well-known historian Prof. D. N. Jha, has extensively argued elsewhere, too, that few taboos existed on beef in Vedic times. This was based on a study of Hindu religious texts and scriptures, which give ample evidence of beef-eating in Vedic India. Contrary, then, to what Hindutva would like us to believe, it was not Islam that brought beef-eating to India. While taboos on cow slaughter and a shift away from beef-eating emerged with Buddhism and Jainism, this meat never disappeared from Indian diets. What did happen from the middle of the first millennium, was that beef-eating was increasingly associated with "pollution" in the very era when there was a proliferation of the so-called "untouchable" castes, which is where it has largely stayed. (This perhaps also explains why my books in school never mentioned beef in Indian diets.)

In the past the work of Prof. Jha has been rubbished by our present Minister of Disinvestment, Mr. Arun Shourie, who in his avatar as a selective destroyer of fallacies has pejoratively dismissed such research as the doing of "Marxists". Ironically, it was not Marxist historians who brought to light the presence of beef in ancient Indian dietary habits, but Sanskritists like P.V. Kane and archaeologists/Indologists like H.D. Sankhalia, both far removed from Marxism, who had studied the scriptures. But our thought police has no time for such facts. And unless we are willing to know our history, tolerance of individual food habits will not come easily.

That anybody would want Prof. Jha's book banned shows how hostile we have become towards the expression of facts. The debates on social customs are potentially so explosive that one has to think twice before expressing a point of view which is different but not necessarily hostile. Many of us revere the cow, a practice that has evolved over the centuries. Many of us also see it differently, without causing offence to the believers. Both can survive in our society. But those who think they are our religious and civilisational guardians think otherwise.

C. RAMMANOHAR REDDY

E-mail the writer at crr100@india.com

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