Caught Between Kinds of Killing: Choosing To Be A Vegetarian in Modi’s India
The recent incident of a man in Dadri, UP, being lynched and killed on suspicion of eating beef, has sent ripples through the country. For me, it caused a sharp twinge on a personal level, in addition to the sense of recoil shared by all. To explain this, I need to go back in time a little bit. More than two years ago, I gave up eating meat. I have always been sensitive to the sight of animal suffering. I have been living in Salt Lake since the age of four, and for most of our food products, my family depended (and still do) on the local market that is assigned to each block. As with any vendor, the meat did not come frozen. I saw chickens being strangled at a very early age, and I remember that it caused me an inordinate amount of distress. This wasn’t a learnt phenomenon, and no supermarkets were around at that point to get me accustomed to a more sanitised process of buying meat.
However, I hardly ever had to visit the market and over time, I stopped thinking about animal slaughter for the most part. I loved to eat, and I enjoyed my meat as most Bengalis do. In school, I was proud and defensive of my status as a non-vegetarian. A lot of my Marwari schoolmates, who were in general extremely friendly, expressed palpable revulsion for the non-vegetarian Bengali tiffin and its seemingly contagious properties. Being fiercely non-vegetarian was a default response, admittedly exacerbated by parochial pride. I remember a Marwari friend of mine once asked me how I could claim to love animals if I ate meat. That question annoyed me intensely. How could she, I fumed, use my entirely innocent and non-malicious food habits to cast doubt on my genuine love for animals? And besides, she was born vegetarian, what did she know about choices?
I am not sure if my resentment at her question bore the underlying traces of guilt because at that point I never seriously questioned my position as a non-vegetarian. However, in the later years of my school life and beyond, when I became more critical about the world in general, I started growing increasingly restless about my feelings towards eating meat. I knew I did not distinguish between livestock and other animals in terms of my capacity for affection or curiosity regarding them. Once I opened myself to doubt, I was assaulted by memories of events where the border between animal as livestock and animal as living being had already been crossed—like having my hand licked by a calf in some local gaushala, and of rescuing a baby goat from a boisterous bunch of kids at Haldia. I knew it made little sense for me to be upset by images of the dog eating festival in China, because I knew there was a negligible degree of difference in how much I would care for a dog, or a pig if it was entrusted to my care. And besides—I already knew how much I hated to see any animal suffer. The bigger and more expressive the animal, the more obvious the suffering. Just the sight of an animal body twitching in pain (which includes insects) had the potential to upset me on some level, and most of the animals I ate make for pretty gruesome sights when they are killed. So one day I took the plunge. It was right after my grandmother died, when I was somewhat shaken and possibly more open to having my self-image dented. I needed something to concrete to usher in the change, so I decided that the last day of her funerary rites—which involves eating meat after a stipulated period of vegetarian—would be the last time I ever ate meat.
I was painfully self-conscious when I first announced this decision to the world. Bengalis wear their carnivorous label with pride, and I am not at all naturally disposed to rebellion. When another friend of mine cited convincing environmental reasons for turning vegetarian, I swooped upon them with relief, seeing them as more empirically defensible, and hence less embarrassing than emotional reasons. I also decided not to be a full-fledged vegetarian. Rejecting arguments for pre-natal life, I placed eggs and milk in the same category (cruel due to the practices of the dairy and eggs industry) and decided I could not possibly reject them both, because it would make my life too bleak and regimented. Besides, as things stand, it would make me far too dependent on a supermarket-driven economy, and alienate me entirely from any kind of cultural festival which is so important to the local’s struggle against the western-dominated global. So I decided to retain both in my diet. I also eventually stretched the strictures to include fish on weekends—mostly to give me something special to look forward to on weekends, and to pacify my mother.
I still deflate the announcement of my semi-vegetarian status with self-parodic comments and apologetic smiles, to avoid coming across as superior and mostly to stem the tide of incredulous glances that I don’t have the energy to fight on every single occasion. However, there is another far more serious reason why I can’t call myself vegetarian with the same sense of conviction with which I call myself a feminist. And this is because being vegetarian in India is not just an ethical position. Given the project of the right-wing in this country, identifying yourself as vegetarian always runs the risk of further marginalising those who eat meat and are maligned for it. So when I read the article about the lynching, I knew that there was more to the subsequent lurch in my stomach than mere outrage. There was certainly a touch of shame. However, a lot of the responses to the lynching confirmed for me why I chose to stop eating meat in the first place, and why that might remain an important if slightly abstractly political position to defend in one sense, while being explicitly politically problematic in another.
The responses I’m talking of, are those that compare the life of a man to the life of a cow, with a fair dose of contempt and ridicule directed at the cow—a lumbering creature that spews dung, a laughable mascot of a laughable and sinister movement. In such comments, the cow—the individual and the species—is robbed of all life-force and feeling and is seen only in terms of its appropriation by Hindutva and its function as food.
Would this be possible if the cow was an animal we were socially conditioned to love and find charismatic? When we hear of dog-eating, how many of us actually do not feel a twinge of distress, even though we keep quiet out of respect for a different culture? Do we then accept the separation of functions between pet and livestock just because they exist? Is the split to remain forever unchallenged?
Philosophers, activists and artists have long tried to remind us that humans are animals too. This does not mean we embrace a naive ideology that prioritises brute power and instinct over modern democratic and empathetic ideals, though some philosophers would have had it that way. It could mean however that we take stock of our complex identity as humans —recognise our vital connection to animals and see our politics of empathy not as a marker of superiority, but as something that can help us in this recognising the connection. Let us not forget that women, the working class and indigenous cultures were once, and are still to some extent, spoken of in a distant, demeaning rhetoric very similar to that used for animals.
Yes, undoubtedly there is a hierarchy we must admit to. Humans still speak for animals. However as much as humans may try to speak as animals, their use of human language foils their very attempt, and animals do not have the power to organise, mobilise and resist in a way remotely comparable to human rights movements. And yes, there is the question of priority. We owe our loyalty to our own species. But here I would like to remind you, that the force of community ties is something most of us who are urban and sophisticated usually like to downplay when we push forward our left-liberal agenda. We question the power that nation, ethnicity, family etc. hold over the human imagination. Yet, we unhesitatingly accept the lower priority of animals, and particularly some kinds of animals on the basis of an apparently unbridgeable difference.
I am not saying that these hierarchies must be abolished. People do not have endless empathy, and limits are necessary for sanity. But when we constantly try to stretch these limits within the human, and are in fact quite contemptuous of those who cannot, perhaps we should be a little less hasty before ridiculing another life-form, especially when we are conveniently blind to the terrors it faces at the moment of slaughter. We should recognise our hypocrisies, by means of which we happily fetishise and fawn over cute images of livestock animals in animation, children’s stories etc. but talk about them as steaks, bacon and sausages at another moment without any sense of conflict. We condemn animalistic outbursts of rage and violence but do not acknowledge our own predatory instincts that make meat-eating so enjoyable on a primal level; nor do we acknowledge how easy and sanitised the whole business of procuring meat has become and how we get to satisfy our lust for meat without having to confront the mess or violence behind the scenes.
Yet, with all these judgements passed, the lynching remains a truly scarring event in the history of our country. I would like to propose why, without entering into a kind of rhetoric that pits the human against the animal, to prove that the incident can be condemned in the strongest terms without necessarily going there.
Firstly, any knee-jerk act of retributive violence is abhorrent to most of us. More so when it involves crowd frenzy and actual loss of life.
Further, I would like to take a guess than even the Hindus who committed the murder may worship cows in all sincerity, but are not actually more attached to cows than they are to people. In any case it seems likely that they and their defenders did not stop to consider what might actually distress them more—the possibility that a cow has been killed and eaten, or actually losing a family member to an angry mob. Neither, I believe, did they stop to think about which is actually more morally loaded, even by their own standards—eating (not even directly killing) an animal that is not protected by your religion, or killing a member of your own species.
The Hindutva rhetoric is only cow-centric, not animal-centric, and leaving aside the question of whether worship is at all an intelligent form of care, it is both ridiculous and horrifying that Hindus attribute moral superiority to their choice when it is entirely an inherited set of affects revolving around one chosen symbol, and has nothing to do with ethics or empathy for vulnerable beings in general.
Following from the previous point, a refusal to recognise how subjective religion is, translates into a refusal to recognise the complete innocence of spirit with which a person may eat an animal—an innocence that is all the more unquestionable when the person does not have the privilege of introspection and of reorienting their life according to ideologies like animal rights (it makes no sense to reorient diet according to the dictates of another religion so I’m not even considering that). When I said earlier that my sense of ‘innocence’ was stung by my friend’s allegation that I couldn’t love animals if I ate them, I wasn’t lying. Food habits go deep, culturally and biologically. Judging people’s character by their refusal to let go of the food they’ve known and loved all their lives, is unfair to say the least. To be so hardened that you fail to see innocence is nothing short of terrifying.
Finally, to move onto the pressing matter of context, it is extremely important to see the murder as part of a wave of hate crimes that have been committed in the name of Hinduism recently, and are made possible by Hindutva rhetoric, some of which is ostensibly non-violent but carries the germs of war. Resisting this destructive, divisive, putrid wave is a prime concern.
But we might ask ourselves—how do we feel about Hindu believers who identify emotionally with the cow, and what do we expect them to do? Do they ‘take responsibility’ for the right-wing and try to negate the intense cluster of feelings around the cow, in their mind and religion—and what if they tend cows and see them as much more than symbols? Do such people become unimportant and laughable by default, because of what Hindutva is upto, and because supporting the underdog should be our only aim? Is it possible for us, who see ourselves as secular, to maintain an overt political stance that aligns ourselves with the persecuted minority, while being more privately, reflectively open to philosophical engagement with ideas of animal-centric affect? And could this personal openness also prompt the critics of Hindutva to take a less hostile public stand regarding cow-worship? If so, how to balance that with the eating of beef as a deliberate, provocative step that is a formidable method of protest for severely ill-treated communities like Dalits for whom anger is indispensable? These are questions that might be worth asking ourselves, if we do have the luxury of time.
As you can tell, I’m not an advocate of vegetarianism. Apart from respecting the validity of different cultural traditions, I recognise that the sale of beef and other kinds of meat provide a lot of people with their livelihoods. One cannot be oblivious to economic pressures and speak ethics from a purely theoretical position. Even emotionally, I have made my peace with the presence of non-vegetarians all around me. Almost all the people closest to me eat meat, and I am perfectly comfortable with that. I believe in the need to be flexible with certain choices if the scenario is sufficiently ambiguous. If I were to land up in Gujarat for example, I might choose to eat meat as a political stance. I would urge hardcore voluntary vegetarians in India to recognise the political complexities and soften their stance, if possible. But I also think it would be a step in the right direction if meat eaters who aren’t directly threatened by Hindutva and have some sympathy for animals, would avoid the trap of weighing the value of one life form against another. I believe that even without making comparisons, it is possible to criticise the atrocity of such fanatical acts in terms that are uncomprisingly, scathingly angry. After all, do we really want to infuse our anger with contempt for a creature that has life, can suffer, is caught in the machinery of human society, and has no way of making itself heard on our political stage?
I fear there is some arrogance in allowing myself to mull over things at a time like this; introducing doubt and qualification into a situation which calls for solidarity above anything else. To those who do indeed find it arrogant, I apologise sincerely. I hope however, that this will resonate with some people who find themselves caught between different loyalties, and are searching for reconciliation that is not a compromise. In that light, I end with the words of Uday Prakash in an interview where he talks about his protest against Kalburgi’s murder:
“In [response to] my story Warren Hastings ka Saand, some said I had become sanghi, an RSS man, because the story showed sympathy for a cow! Cows do have minds, memories… Where does the ‘magic’ of Marquez’s magic realism come from? From the myths and superstitions, the smaller faiths and the pluralism of his continent. Half my family is Christian. I’m a Shaiv by birth. My wife does not belong to my caste. My daughter-in-law is French. So who am I?”