Himanta’s Ram Mandir food ban has no empirical basis in Assam

The BJP’s bid to regulate food habits in the Northeast has failed before.

WrittenBy:Manoranjan Pegu& Suraj Gogoi
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The pran prathistha ceremony in Ayodhya hasn’t just left behind a media frenzy in its wake. Educational institutions are shut in several states, PVR movie theatres are livestreaming the event, and many hospitals have declared a half-day for non-critical services.

Assam hasn’t been very far behind in the celebrations. 

On January 21, addressing a press conference, Assam’s Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma declared several moves for the “auspicious” occasion:  a dry day across the state, no sale of meat and fish until 4 pm, no serving of non-vegetarian food at restaurants until 2 pm. The official orders soon followed. 

But what does it mean for Assam, where less than five percent of the population – according to Rukmini S in the book Whole Numbers and Half Truths – is vegetarian? It is an accepted fact with sensitive data that cases of vegetarianism would be lesser than what is reported. Because of social taboo, many in India report as vegetarians publicly even though they consume meat privately. 

India’s vegetarian population is at best 31 percent, and realistically less than 20 percent, noted Balmurali Natrajan and Suraj Jacob in an EPW article titled “Provincialising vegetarianism”. 

But despite such data, policing of food, like the latest order in Assam, has become far too common and it infringes the right to privacy as seen in Shaik Zahid Mukhtar v State of Maharashtra & Ors 2016

How did we get here? Beef lynching became a regular event after Narendra Modi came to power. Food in India has now become a public affair and a fundamental problem. And as Natarajan and Jacob show, it is entwined with power, desire and identity. 

Hinduisation in Assam

Assam CM Himanta Biswa Sarma has emerged as the poster boy of ‘Hinduised’ politics in Assam. His charismatic influence which rests largely on aggressive anti-Muslim politics has carved a space for him in the national political scene too. He recently termed the Congress party led Nyay Rally as the Miya Rally and opined that it would only attract an audience in Miya-dominated areas. 

But this aggressive Hinduisation attempt has no empirical basis in Assam, where those who identify as Hindus have always eaten “meat and fish” with their devotion to Hinduism seldom being connected to strict food habits. Even in the Kamakhya Temple, animal sacrifices are offered, as with multiple other Vaishnavite institutions across Assam. 

The ban on fish sounds fishy. In an article written for the Journal of the Assam Research Society in 1959, B K Baruah declared that “fish is an essential article of food for the people of Assam”. It is central to the cultural life of people and that there are many beliefs and ceremonies associated with “fish, fish-eating and fish catching”. Baruah went on to write that fish is not only consumed by Brahmans but also by devout Vaishnavas. According to Baruah, Yogini Tantra, a Sanskrit text looking at the ancient customs of Assam “enjoins fish and flesh eating to all classes of people of the province”.

For tribes, all attempts at Hinduisation have never been able to target food habits. For instance, even RSS could not make much inroads when it came to Hinduising “when it had to remove pork as a food” from the tribal plates. Even the neo-Vaishnavite movement, strongly opposed to idolatry, manoeuvred around the existing food habits. With this government diktat of directing no-sale of meat and fish, the government not just interferes in the food habits of the Assamese people but also marks as his desperate attempt to introduce an RSS version of Hinduism in Assam. 

These religious shifts have also been instituted through the law. There have been significant revisions to animal slaughter laws in states such as Maharashtra, Karnataka, and Gujarat. Assam also followed the same political trajectory which has been accompanied by militant vigilantism. 

The Assam Cattle Prevention Act, 2021 states: “No person shall directly or indirectly sell or offer or expose for sale or buy beef or beef products in any form except places permitted to do so by the competent authority. Provided that no such permission shall be granted in such area or areas which are predominantly inhabited by Hindu, Sikh, Jain and other such non-beef eating communities or within a radius of 5 km radius of any temple, Satra, or other religious institutions belonging to Hindu Religion or any other institution or areas as may be prescribed by the competent authority.”

What signal does it send to the public with such a vegetarian decree when only a fraction of its population are indeed vegetarians? 

The 5-km-radius beef ban as well as the Ram Mandir prohibition are an assault on the minorities and indigenous communities of Assam. The ban on meat and fish, even if only for a few hours, is a direct attack on the rights of millions of people in the state. It not only shows the Brahmanical side of the BJP’s public policy, but is also against Bahujan, OBC, Muslim and Adivasi groups across the state. 

As much as it takes away the right to privacy and liberty by telling a citizen what they may eat and when, it is also against the working class. 

The Act bans slaughter of cows. Additionally, it also bans slaughter of bulls, bullocks and buffaloes under 14 years of age. Only if the cattle is above 14 or has become permanently incapacitated due to injury or deformity, it can be slaughtered. Such a law, however, affects the poor and the social underclass the most as cattle is a source of significant income and a property in times of crisis for the poor. Incapacitating this invaluable property has caused a great deal of agrarian stress where farmers have even responded by not choosing rare cattle in many parts of India. 

As earlier noted by the co-author in a previous piece, “while cattle plays a very important role in Assam’s society and economy, it has never been considered a ‘mother’ in Assamese culture”. Cattle are loved, and at best, considered a companion in the journey of life and there is also a dedicated Bihu which is celebrated to offer gratitude to cattle as a part of the agrarian economy. But with the cow now being considered mother, it also impacts the culture and pushes it more towards the rigid Hindutva discourse. 

Many communities in Assam consume beef and in various parts of Assam, meat items like pork, beef, chicken, etc. are sold in the same market without taboo. And if such a discourse becomes rampant in Assam, such social harmony of respecting each other’s food choices will not be found in the future. 

Ample examples of inter-community conflicts can be found in the states with ‘sacred cow discourses’. The Assam Cattle Prevention Act pushes the envelope a little further.

What was the need for this ban? 

Previous attempts by the BJP to introduce and regulate food habits in the northeastern states have faced stiff resistance and in fact failed. This is what led to Amit Shah’s statement that people in the northeast can eat whatever they choose. While other states in the northeast have electorally adopted BJP and its allies, they have not allowed entry of religion into the food habits like in the state of Meghalaya, Mizoram or Nagaland. And all of the BJP’s recent anti-Muslim policies and aggressive Hinduisation push have to be seen in such light. 

The 1901 census of Assam pointed to three kinds of Hindus in Assam: the Saktas, Vaishnavites and Shivaites. Saktas and Vaishnavas are the majority and both sects practised animal sacrifices and most of their followers also consumed alcohol and meat. Commenting on the converts to Vaishnavism, the census report writes that “converts have for generations been accustomed to a nourishing diet of pig and rice-beer, which they cannot abandon without a struggle, in which the flesh is frequently the victor”. Additionally, the census report also noted that enumerators were inclined to categorise most meat eaters as Saktist if they were not sure of their sect and consumed meat. The flesh was always the victor, never banned. 

Whose Assam is it anyway?

Manoranjan Pegu is an Executive Council Member of Tribal Intellectual Collective, India. Suraj Gogoi teaches at RV University, Bengaluru. Views expressed are the authors' own.

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