Dalits, OBCs in India’s colleges are using beef as a symbol of a resurgent identity
“Non-Brahmins have evidently undergone a revolution. From being beef-eaters to have become non-beef-eaters was indeed a revolution. But if non-Brahmins underwent one revolution, Brahmins had undergone two. They gave up beef-eating, which was one revolution. To have given up meat-eating altogether and become vegetarians was another revolution.”
The Beef Menu
- Available In Kerala, West Bengal and the states of the Northeast, there’s no restriction whatsoever
- Partial Ban In UP, Andhra, Orissa, Bihar, M’rashtra, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Delhi, Punjab and Haryana, cow slaughter is banned. No ban on slaughter of bulls and buffaloes.
- Total Ban In Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat, there’s a complete ban on cow slaughter
Last month’s beef festival at Osmania University, Hyderabad, and the violence it engendered have set off a debate—and a demand for beef on other campuses. Last fortnight, students of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) handed out pamphlets demanding the inclusion of beef on the menu. A muted buzz is being heard at Delhi University too.
So, is beef the provocative new symbol of Dalit and backward-caste assertion? Is it a reflection of the changing social profile of campuses after OBC reservation was introduced in 2006? Many see the demand for beef as a sign of the consolidation of the backward classes and the most depressed castes, which together make up 70 per cent of India’s population. They say this is an important step towards real inclusion in places known to be liberals’ havens.
Rajkumar, a professor of political science at Delhi University, says, “Initially there was confusion when reservations began for the OBCs. Now, there is a greater understanding and acknowledgement of their numbers. This finds an echo in the demand for an inclusive food culture, and one shouldn’t miss the politics of food. One has to have an agenda to change the discourse of discrimination. Beef alone may not be sufficient, but it’s definitely a beginning.” And Jitendra of the All-India OBC Students Association says, “Beef-eating is not just a symbolic act but a demand for a new identity. It’s time to make a choice about where we wish to stand: behind the forward castes or hand in hand with the backward castes, many of whom are close to being completely depressed.”
|The beef festival organised by some students at Osmania University was met with protests (photo) and violence.|
There’s reason for the fuss over the sensitive issue that beef is. In northern and western India, real or rumoured incidents of cow slaughter have started riots. In the south, there is far greater acceptance of beef-eating: many colleges in Tamil Nadu and Kerala include beef on hostel menus. There are beef-eaters of all castes and religions, overtly or covertly breaking taboo and law, where it exists. In India, beef is usually understood to mean buffalo meat. Its high protein content and affordability make it a staple of poor folks’ diet. “Much of our problems of malnutrition could be easily addressed if we regularly put beef on our plates,” says Veena Shatrughna, of the National Institute of Nutrition (NIN), Hyderabad. One of the catalogues brought out by NIN makes prominent mention of beef for its 70 per cent Class I protein content. But pragmatism takes a back seat in the face of religious taboo. With many Hindus regarding the cow as holy, the debate on beef raises red flags along the Hindu-Muslim faultline. But the difference this time is that the debate has arisen within the Hindu fold. Kancha Ilaiah, a sociologist and Dalit activist who participated in the beef festival in Hyderabad (and is being questioned by the Osmania police for doing so), asks: “How can anyone impose one kind of food culture? Shouldn’t one question the sociological implications of purity and impurity of food normally associated with the notion of untouchability?” Ilaiah and others are accused by the administration of fomenting trouble. The Osmania police has been asked to submit a report by May 31.
Ilaiah argues that beef—which can include cow, buffalo and bull—has not only been the staple food for the depressed castes but was once consumed by upper castes too, a view that does not go uncontested. While the Constitution enshrined the protection of cow in the directive principles, the courts from time to time upheld the ban on slaughter of not only cows but also buffalo and bull after they have ceased to yield milk, stopped breeding or can no longer be used as draught animals.
Some states have taken it a step further by prohibiting the slaughter and sale of all beef. Quite recently, the Madhya Pradesh government, with a nod from the Union home ministry, passed a draconian bill providing for rigorous imprisonment of seven years for those who engage in cattle sale. A similar bill is pending approval of the governor in Karnataka. With the exception of West Bengal, Kerala and states in the Northeast (where there is no ban on the sale and consumption of beef), other states have enacted their own legislation to prevent the slaughter of cattle.
Y.S. Alone, an associate professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, says food rebellion cannot alter the caste structure. “A Brahmin may eat beef but that does not change his caste. He or she doesn’t shed the pride of his caste and religious authority. Similarly, a Dalit may desist from eating beef but that doesn’t turn him into a Brahmin.” Prof Umesh Bagade of Babasaheb Ambedkar University (Aurangabad) agrees, saying, “Such contestations have always taken place within the caste structure, but for a movement to happen, it has to have universal appeal. With Brahmins too eating meat these days, it is debatable whether the festival will lead to mobilisation.”
Whether beef can become a tool of a new political mobilisation remains to be seen. Yet the symbolic act has annoyed many and invites debate on yet another contentious food item: pork. Says Mohan Rao, a former professor at Osmania University and a sympathiser of the abvp, which protested the beef festival, “This debate on beef is communal and everyone knows it is a sentimental issue. Can Ilaiah talk about the inclusion of pork in colleges the way he talks about beef? I think such festivals will only divide people instead of uniting them.”
But for many, like Sudarshan Balaboina, it’s vital that their view finally gets put on the table too. He asks, “The university has many students of the Madiga, Mala, and other tribes. Isn’t it about time we talk about the inclusion of different food cultures?” So more and more students will ask—where’s the beef? Their numbers are small—and the issue is provocative—but the old question is being prised open with a new realism.