The Politics of Vegetarianism

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.  


  1. It has been quite a debatable issue in current times. Rather than seeing it's political & religious aspect, we should think of our personal choice, well-being and animal welfare while choosing to be a vegan or not. And yes, using leather, silk & other animal products indulges in animal cruelty less or more. Very informative post Mr. Matheikal. Thanks for putting this up!

  2. Food should be a personal choice and the government should not meddle with people's tastes. But the government can work on a lot of other things...


    1. In that case humans meat consumption should also be allowed, if it is one's personal choice. And in that case no progressive intellectual sanctimonious seculars should howl over my choice then ? Another question which baffles me is how the heck ' an elevated consciousness level ', can be achieved in some religions particularly in ISLAM ?

      Ok, I understand the predicaments of people living in harsh conditions; Iceland and Russia for example. Yes they would have to eat non-vegetarian food in order to survive.

      But why people in INDIA eat non-vegetarian food. I mean, name a crop which cannot be grown in India ? Why don’t we realize that how blessed we are with the vast fertile land.
      It really hurts when the statistics shows we are the largest beef exporter.

      And to all the rightist why the heck ban only Beef ?

      I know that 'meat ban' is as similar like 'capital punishment' which has no deterrence at all. I also know when God himself can't eradicate meet ban even at times of Ramayana and Mahabharata, then who the heck we humans are. Guffaw.

      But, when we are going to achieve that elevated consciousness level………….sigh.

      Sorry for the hodgepodge done on your blog.
      Hope you are fine sir.
      And I really missed your mind churning, inspirational Blogs :)
      Hope you would be more frequent in your writings to educate people like us.

  3. What to eat is one's personal choice & that should be the end of it. Howling right wingers do not see it that way. In addition they would like to impose the attire, the language, the rituals & so on of their & only their choice.

  4. Raghav,
    For some mysterious reason my laptop is not opening the replies box. So let me respond to you in this separate comment.
    Food is or should be a personal choice. There was a time when some people at least ate human flesh. As their consciousness level rose, they changed their food habits. I have borrowed the phrase ‘consciousness level’ from Richard Dawkins and I find it very helpful to explain a lot of things. It is a rise in the consciousness level that keeps human civilisation moving ahead. People stopped burning women in the name of witch-hunt, burning heretics at the stakes, throwing people to wild beasts for public entertainment in coliseums, when the consciousness level rose.
    Secondly, as you have implied, there is a close relationship between geography and food habits. You mentioned the cold places where meat eating may play a role. People in coastal areas depend on fish as naturally as people in Rajasthan depend on camel milk. India has a wide variety of geographical regions which naturally implies a wide variety of eating habits. Imposing the eating habits of one particular region on people from other regions is certainly undesirable.
    When are we going to achieve that elevated consciousness level? You ask. How many centuries did it take for the witch hunt to stop? How many centuries did it take for the sati system to change?
    Finally, thanks for letting me know that I inspire :)

  5. Some how the priorities and policies being implemented these days looks highly screwed..

    Welcome back, Sir.. :) Long time..You were being missed in the blogosphere.

    1. That's because it is politics rather than ideology that drives the policies and priorities.

      Thanks for the welcome. I'm passing through a queer state created largely by an invisible godfather who has played a lot of games in my life and behaves like the Biblical Yahweh with all the malice and caprice.

    2. Oh.. that sounds quite grave. I too get disturb by people around me but then I also know that nobody can dictate or disturb our lives unless we want them too. :) Its all in our minds. We need to just break free from the imaginary chains, it has created.

  6. Absolutely loved the piece. Very thought provoking. I am a vegetarian myself and it answers to what should be the reason. With all the frustration we take out on hypocrites in India, we never think of ourselves as one. I'll be saying goodbye to the leather jacket now. Thank you.

  7. I am a non-vegetarian and have never thought much about the environmental impacts of it all.My parents are doctors,so we've always really emphasised on the need to consume animal protein and fat in the right amounts.Also,turns out I am pretty underweight right now and my mother would never let me go veg even if I told her.
    Now,the thing is,if I would tell her.I can't remember if I ever even tried to fast in any ritual or worshipped flattening the first half of my body on the floor,just looks silly to me and my family has been growing more atheist as days have passed.And of course I wouldn't listen to Modi if he told me to go veg (though the butchering of any creature disturbs me.I maintain distance from the place and then like the other stupid people around us,forget about it.).Also,I believe if you go completely veg,you could perhaps resist a lot of KFC and McDonalds,which are sources of more problems than you can study in a day.All in all,a very debatable issue indeed.

    1. Food is inescapably related to culture. Having been born and brought up in a culture that assimilates certain non-veg items as integral parts of its cuisine, you will simply find it natural to have those non-veg foods. It's the same case with me too.

      Health is more important than anything else. So it's better you have your non-veg and look after yourself than worry about the environment right now :)

  8. I'm a vegetarian by birth, and by choice. My mother was a non-vegetarian by birth; she is a vegetarian by choice. I don't think vegetarianism is less cruel. The people who say this are forgetting that plants have life too. Why should killing innocent plants be lauded but not killing innocent animals?
    Secondly, the birth of vegetarianism in India was due to practicality not humanity. In the very ancient past, the upper caste used to sacrifice cows in the yagnas, and eat them. When use of cows, and bulls in agriculture and other stuffs was discovered, the upper caste which enjoyed the fruits of sacrifices were forced to change their lifestyle or lose their important status in society.
    Great post. Hope our govt. understands that governing the country doesn't mean interfering in people's personal lives.

    1. Many eminent historians like Romila Thapar and D N Jha have shown that meat was a common food even among the elite in ancient India. Practices change due to various circumstances, as you have also pointed out.


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