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The fallacy of organising a beef festival

In 2003, a year after he had lost everything in the Gujarat riots, a Muslim businessman boarded the Ahmedabad-bound Jet Airways flight from Delhi. He had a seat reserved in business class. As he sat down and fastened his seat belt, he could feel the stares of his fellow passengers who walked past him. Zafar Sareshwala is a believer, and has a beard the way pious Muslims like to keep it. So it was evident who he was. And this was a time when there was still too much tension between Hindu and Muslim Gujaratis. A few minutes later, a man wearing saffron robes and wooden slippers paused next to him. His seat was next to Sareshwala. The two sat quietly, and Sareshwala could see that his fellow passenger was uneasy sitting next to him. But nothing could be done about it. After the flight took off, the hostess came to Sareshwala to give him his pre-ordered non-vegetarian meal. But considering that the sight of chicken could disturb the person sitting next to him, he refused to take it, asking instead for a vegetarian meal. As he sat munching on steamed French beans, Sareshwala’s co-passenger, who turned out to be the head of a powerful Hindu sect in Gujarat, asked him: “But you are a Muslim, how come you refused chicken?” Sareshwala replied: “Eating chicken does not make me Muslim; other things do, like consideration for my neighbours, or fellow passengers.” The answer stunned the Hindu leader. They got talking, and the two deplaned with the mahant holding Sareshwala’s hand. His followers were stunned to see him holding the hands of a Muslim. As they parted, the mahant even extended an invite to Sareshwala to visit him.

This small anecdote holds out a much larger meaning. Religion and caste, and oppression based on these factors, are a grim reality. As it has been for thousands of years now. But by deliberately antagonising a certain section of people or hurting their religious sensibilities, one is bound to achieve nothing except creating further fissures.

Recently, a beef festival was organised at Hyderabad’s Osmania University by a section of Dalit students and activists. The argument was that beef is a part of the Dalit diet, and by not including it in their menu institutions like the Osmania University are enforcing dietary diktats of upper-caste Hindus. The whole fest turned into some sort of frenzied orgy with activists writing how they had challenged the very citadels of Manu by tucking into beef biryani. Of course, the right-wing student groups went berserk on the other side and wrote sickening things about a female activist friend who took part in the festival and with whom I’ve stood in solidarity on so many issues – from the plight of Adivasis in Bastar to the Sri Lankan government’s genocide of its Tamil population. But on this issue I differed with her. For me, this festival achieved nothing except serving as fodder for right-wing thugs who are at all times hell bent to portray how Hinduism is in danger.  For me, it was especially frightening since the festival came a week after these thugs deliberately put cow meat in a temple in old Hyderabad to engineer riots.

I personally don’t eat beef. I grew up in a Kashmiri Brahmin household where one does not even think about it. For me, though, it is more of a cultural thing than religious. In exile as Kashmiri Pandits for the last 22 years, we have been able to preserve very few rituals or traditions that marked us apart not only from other religions but even from other Brahmins in the rest of India. To me, not eating beef is a part of preserving a part of my identity. And even an Arab hotel manager in Jordan respects that. In 2003, while waiting for a passage to Baghdad, I stayed in Hotel Darotel in Amman where I accidentally bit into a beef pizza sent by room service that understood very little English. As I took the first bite, the manager stormed into my room – without knocking on my door – and prevented me from eating it. As a young student he had studied in Pune, and hence knew about Hindu sensibilities, and he had casually enquired about what food was being sent to my room just in time.

The advocates of beef eating always quote from Myth of the Holy Cow, a book written by noted historian Dwijendra Narayan Jha in which he argues that beef-eating was prevalent in Rig Vedic times. But that is not the point. Most religious beliefs are not founded on strong pillars of logic, or scientific evaluation for that matter. The fact is that most Hindus today consider eating beef abhorrent, and that is it.

Now I am not even remotely suggesting that one should not eat beef. Many of my Hindu friends do and I sit with them while they are at it and I dig into my chicken platter. There is nothing heroic or villainous about eating beef. It does not usher in any kind of revolution. You eat beef, well, good for you. But to see it as a tool for upliftment is both simplistic and misleading. There are too many far more important issues related to the caste oppression that need to be changed. Brutal violence against Dalit women, for instance. Referring to a series of rapes of Dalit women in Uttar Pradesh last year, Maoist ideologue Kobad Ghandy writes*: “In our highly patriarchal system, a girl’s life is cheap; a poor Dalit girl is less than a chattel in the prevailing upper-caste/upper-class social thinking.” Only recently, the Patna High Court acquitted 23 people accused in the 1996 Bathani Tola massacre in which 21 Dalits and poor landless Muslims (including a 2-month-old infant) were brutally killed. Except my friends in the CPI (ML), I haven’t seen anyone else even talking about it.

In an essay published in No Alphabet in Sight: New Dalit writing from South India*, Sanal Mohan quotes a Dalit song from the Travancore region:

Yoked alongside buffaloes and bulls

we plough the fields, we plough the fields!

Father is sold away… thinthara!

We wept…thinthara!

Mother too is sold…thinthara!

We wept disconsolately…thinthara!

The oldest child is caught…thinthara!

The plantain tree is dug out.

He is thrown into the pit,

Covered with dry leaves, and set on fire…thinthara!

Can tucking into beef biryani douse that fire? I really don’t think so.

*In an afterword written for “Hello, Bastar”

*Published by Penguin Books India, 2011


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