In a recent article in the Economic and Political Weekly, the authors argue that vegetarianism in India is more a cultural and political phenomenon than a conscious choice that stems from any concern for the well-being of animals.
The article starts with the basic premise that “in India, vegetarianism, and particularly the advocacy of the same, is seen as the product of conservative, often right-wing, beliefs and attitudes.” However, there is a sizeable section of the country’s population that does not want to be seen as conservative and much less right-wing. The world is becoming increasingly globalised and people’s choices and preferences are guided by what is perceived as chic beyond the narrow confines of one’s national and/or religious culture. Dining out in a multinational eatery like KFC or McDonald’s is not merely a matter of the palate or the belly, but a statement of one’s social and economic status. Indians belonging to the upper economic classes do not want to be seen as conservative. They see themselves as progressive and belonging to the wider global culture.
There was a time in the holy cow’s India (until recently) when non-vegetarianism was associated with the lower castes and the economically backward. The authors of the above article argue that the recent shift to non-vegetarianism among many people who were vegetarians earlier is due to the fact that non-vegetarianism is losing its cultural bias in the country. In other words, these new non-vegetarians are opting for the global culture.
Such a transition from vegetarianism would not have occurred if the vegetarianism was founded on any solid ideology like concern for the well-being of the animals. The naked truth is that the vegetarians never had any qualms about wearing leather shoes, leather jackets and other leather products while they shunned non-vegetarian food. What they actually shunned was the lower caste/class associations that non-vegetarianism was polluted with. The authors of the above-mentioned article also point out that the vegetarians in India relied heavily on dairy products to meet their protein requirements.
Today we have a union government that goes out of the way to protect certain animals particularly of the bovine family. Is the move motivated by any noble ideology or by sheer politics?
People in the west are increasingly moving towards vegetarianism because of their concern for animals as well as the environment. Their transition is an informed choice that comes from an elevated consciousness level. Can the government of India bring about such a transition in the country? Can it alter the consciousness level of the people? Can it instil genuine sensitivity in the minds of the people?
Can a government that has not revealed much sensitivity for many sections of the citizens on account of their religious affiliations actually generate sensitivity towards animals?
In another and more scholarly article in the same issue of the EPW [Marginality and Historiography], Amit Kumar and Fayaz Dar tell us that shaping the history of any country is “a deeply political act”. Politics impels the creators of history to ignore some people. “Everything is not said in our stories,” the authors tell us. “There are certain silences; some forgetting and some remembering is continuously at work...”
Such selective forgetting and remembering may be inevitable in the manufacture of history. Nevertheless, if the selectivity of our remembering and forgetting can be restricted as much as possible, we can usher in an era of informed choices. There will be no need to ban anything then. Vegetarianism will be an ideological choice then rather than a political one.