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That Bitter Taste: When Food Becomes A Political Weapon

Food becomes a tool of politics when it acquires ethical messages of abstention or becomes a culinary aesthetic

Bloodlust A student protesting the lynching of Md Akhlaq in 2015 Photograph: AP

The history of food is mired in politics. Even when it denotes a spiritual message or aesthetic or sensual pleasure, underne­ath it often lies an essential politics, a desire to categorise and control people. When Krishna classifies food into sattvik, rajasik and tamasik in the Gita, the focus is on a higher spiritual order that can be attained through food, but the hie­rar­chy is as much about food as it is about the people who consume it. The elite French words beef and pork came into vogue to denote cuisine, instead of cow and pig, when English was a poorer language. Culinary preferences can instigate a revolt when soldiers rise up against cartridges greased with beef and pork fat. Food is an ethical enterprise when M.K. Gandhi emphasises vegetarianism. It becomes a cunning act when hoarders, with the connivance of rulers, store food to make profits during a crisis. It is a poli­tical tool that figures in election manifestos as the promise of free rice. The market seamlessly segues into politics when harmful chemicals are deployed for farm production, without caring about their impact. And it marks a majoritarian triumph when mobs impose a forcible shutdown of meat shops during Hindu festivals.

The basic biological need is now a weapon to dominate and eliminate the Other. In Au­g­ust 2015, Mohammad Akhlaq was killed by hooligans who barged into his home in Dadri on the suspicion that he had stored beef. Days after the incident, the then Union minister of culture Mahesh Sharma explained the assault in an int­erview to this reporter: “Gai ke maans par hum logon ka… andar se aatma hilne lagti hai (On beef… our soul starts shaking). You can kill other animals… (but) when you name cow…We have linked the cow with our mother.”

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