Human beings are mostly meat eaters. This is the way we evolved and this is the way we have stayed. It is estimated that almost three quarters of humanity can be classified as omnivores. Essentially, we eat anything. A survey conducted by IPSOS, a leading global market research firm, was instructive in the kind of food habits practised worldwide. Seventy-three per cent of the world is omnivorous – regularly eats both animal and non-animal products. Fourteen per cent is flexitarian – mostly vegetarian, but occasionally known to eat meat or fish. Three per cent is pescatarian, eats fish but not meat. Five per cent is vegetarian – do not eat animals but eat animal products. And three per cent are vegan – neither eat meat and fish, nor animal products (milk, eggs etc).
The dominant ideology in India is to think of us as a vegetarian country and this is blatantly delusional. India does have a lot more vegetarians than elsewhere, but the omnivores outnumber them by almost 3:1. It is estimated that 71 per cent of Indians eat everything, with only 29 per cent forswearing meat and fish. But this is only part of the picture. India in Pixels, looks at census data at a state level, and this gives us a more dramatic reading of the story of food habits in India. There is a swathe of green – vegetarian – across the north-western belt of India, and a swathe of red – meat eating – from the north- east all the way to the south.
While most of us are used to the imagery of the vegetarian Tamilian, and the butter chicken eating Punjabi – the truth is that less than 2.5 per cent of Tamil Nadu is vegetarian; and over two-thirds of Punjab is vegetarian. In addition to caste and community defining our eating of meat, there is a very clear-cut regional bias. For many Hindus in the northern and western parts of India, vegetarianism is a part of their religious make-up. Be it the Jains or the Hindu Vaishnavas, abstinence from meat can be obsessive, bordering on fanatical. In the west and south, the relationship with meat is far more transactional, with many devout preferring to be flexitarian rather than ‘pure’ vegetarian. You will find people across these states abstaining from meat or fish on particular days of the week, or during particular periods in a year.
In the last decade or so, the politics of food has become more pronounced. With the growth of political Hindutva, the need to impose the food habits of one community amongst Hindus on the rest of us has become widespread. In Delhi and adjoining areas, it is very common to see the demand for banning meat and egg around certain Hindu festivals. If the demands are not met, there is violence. This hooliganism and vandalism have been defended, time and again, as the right to defend religious freedom. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. The rot runs far deeper, as does the propensity for violence.
In 2015, a mob of men broke into the home of Mohammed Akhlaq and bashed his head in with a sewing machine. His ‘crime’? His murderers justified their act by suggesting that Akhlaq ate beef and implying that killing those who eat the ‘holy’ cow should be justified. A ‘fast-track’ court has just begun hearing the case, six years after the murder. While people quibble over whether the meat in Akhlaq’s fridge was mutton or beef, the fact remains, irrespective of the type of meat, a man was murdered. This was the first lynching, and the guilty are still walking free.
Often, the act of lynching leads to political rewards. In 2018, Union Minister Jayant Sinha brazened out the greeting and garlanding of eight men out-on-bail, convicted of lynching coal trader Alimuddin Ansari. Once again it was not just part of the political class that became cheerleaders for murderers, but also ordinary people. There have been excuses galore. ‘Oh, they are cattle hustlers. The cow is holy. If our religious beliefs are offended, blood will flow’. In all this, the state has been mostly mute, while politicians who run states have been supportive of murderers. This lack of condemnation and action has led to at least 44 such murders.
Last week, a man in Ghaziabad was eating roti and soya sabzi. Soya is one of the products that is used to create ‘vegetarian meat’ preparations. The man, Praveen Saini, and his friends were attacked on the belief that they were eating meat near a temple. Praveen died.
Mainstream, not fringe elements
When you give ground to religious fundamentalists, it is just a slippery slope. Collectively, we excused murder in the name of the poor cow. The state went soft on vigilantes who murdered Muslims on the suspicion of cow trafficking. Communities kept quiet as hooligans and vandals shut down businesses that provided meat and poultry. Our willingness to put up with creeping violent religious fundamentalism has led us here.
It is time we stopped pretending that this is fringe. It isn’t, it is now mainstream. If we want to avoid the fate of the nations that have fallen to fundamentalist political Islam – Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan – this rot must be stemmed. They did not speak up in enough numbers on time, and they have become nations imprisoned by religious fundamentalism. We need to avoid this fate and stop the radicalised young men in our community from causing more death and destruction. For that to happen, enough of us have to stand up and be counted and say, ‘not in my name’.
The writer works at the intersection of digital content, technology and audiences. She is a writer, columnist, visiting faculty and filmmaker