Newsclick interviewed Prof. Salil Misra, Ambedkar University to discuss the issue of banning beef in Maharashtra and the politics and history of eating beef in India. Prof. Misra thinks that it is not just a matter of imposing a code on food habits but harming the plurality of India. He explains how the banning of beef is part of a bigger project of homogenizing Hinduism.
Prof. Misra explains how beef eating was part of Indian culture and cow becoming a sacred animal in Hindu religion. He also compared Gandhi’s way of protecting cows to Dayanand Saraswati’s Cow Protection Society which he thinks are more responsible for killing cows.
Nakul Singh Sawney (NSS): Hello and welcome to Newsclick. We have with us today, Prof. Salil Misra from Ambedkar University, Professor of History and we are going to discuss with him the politics around banning beef. Salil Sahib, welcome to Newsclick. Why are we suddenly hearing all these talk around the beef ban considering here was already a cow protection act way back in 1976 I think in Maharasthra and what this beef ban does, and actually in large parts of India what you are getting in the name of beef is actually is buffalo meat. So why this sudden need to introduce the beef ban?
Salim Misra (SM): I see two reasons for it. If it was just a question of food habits or imposing a kind of a code of eating or trying to standardize food stuff or ways of eating, it would still be bad but it would not be so worrying. What is much more worrying is that this beef ban or eating of beef or not eating of beef, I suspect is connected to certain larger projects. It's not just food for it's own sake. It's food which is projected as a cultural symbol. Now, the thing is that there have been various forces that have been trying to impose a certain kinds of discipline, let's say there has been a homogenization project almost since the beginning of the 20th Century of two kind. One is there is that great search to create an idealized Hindu religion. Now, Hinduism is as you know is an extremely complex religion. It is extremely plural. There is no single God, there is no starting point, there is no founder, culturally very plural, linguistically very plural. All kinds of cultural and groups have flourished and all. Now, there is this attempt to try and homogenize Hinduism. Trying create one idle type standardized Hinduism. These attempts have not been succeeded but these attempts have been made. So to try and create certain sacred, important symbols uniformly shared of Hinduism and because cow at some point in history we will discuss later came to be established as a sacred form of Hinduism. Therefore, beef related to cow, sacred cow so it is being projected as a template of idealized standardized Hinduism. That's one project. So to create one ideal type of Hinduism with some strong identifiable symbols. This is worrying. This is bad enough. I like Hinduism in plural form as it is. The second is a kind of a coercive project in which those who are not Hindus sending disciplinary signals to them that they must confirm certain types of standards, conducts, eating habit etc. in accordance to certain principles or norms which have been created which means a coercive homogenizing project. So there are two types of coercive homogenizing project. One within Hinduism and other at the national level those who are non-Hindus to send strong signals to them to fall in line, to confirm, to cater to these existing norms. Both of which are extremely worrying as an Indian, as a liberal person, I should be worried by and I am worried by this.
NSS: Exactly, so I then guess it's right to say that one has to look at this in a slightly larger context. On the one hand you are saying Ghar Waapsi. You are saying this whole propaganda around Love Jehad. It's probably just an extension of that kind of attempted homogenizing the Hindu and sending a message to minority community, coercive message. But the first part of the argument that you made which is that ultimately Hinduism is also a religion which is plural which is not homogeneous, it is heterogeneous so Hindus also, there are several communities that have been eating beef for the time immemorial. Isn't that the case?
SM: Absolutely. If you go to the history of Hinduism, one would have to go back to ancient India. I am not a historian of ancient India but there are instances, there are practices of beef eating etc. at some point among pastoral communities because of cow and the significance of cow, it became an important symbol, it became a source of wealth. So cow was established as a wealth. In pastoral societies you know this would be treated as wealth and overtime in certain pockets, so beef came to be banned and there were groups within Hinduism which completely gave up eating meat and they became dominant groups and as you know that then becomes a dominant culture. By the way, when the Turks and Mughals came they also respected this practice. Meat was more or less not very much in practice. In Punjab for instance in 19th Century meat was really banned by Ranjit Singh and others. They banned the eating of cow meat. The ban was lifted by the British when they took over and then in Punjab in the late 19th Century after Arya Samaj was formed, Arya Samaj created cow protection societies, Gorakshini Sabha and that move was extremely successful by the end of the nineteenth century something like 180, 180 plus cow protection societies had been set up in various parts of North India. So lot of this consciousness, this sacrilising of cow does not really go back in time in a very seamless kind of way. It was there but in nineteenth century there was a new focus on treating cow as a sacred sacred symbol and there was these societies were set up. Just one more thing interestingly I had to bring Gandhi here. Gandhi had a very interesting position on this. Gandhi as you know he called himself a Sanatan Hindu, he had a great faith in Hinduism and he had great respect for the cow. He treated cow as extremely, extremely sacred. But he was completely opposed to this cow protection societies and he said in his Hind Swaraj that cow protection societies, Go Rakshini Sabha should be called killing societies, Go Bhakshini Sabhas because through their intransigence and excessive insistence on protecting the cow, that attitude leads to lot more cows being killed. He said if I were to save a cow, I would try to persuade my friends, my Muslim friends, my other non Hindu friends, Christian friends, they will listen to me and we can have an understanding through dialogue and we can really solve this problem and he lived up to his words. During Khilafat movement there have been empirical examples that because there was tremendous Hindu Muslim cooperation, instance of cow killing actually came down. So Gandhi said, this is not central to the problem, this is an aspect. This is a manifestation of the problem. Real problem lies deep down. So Gandhi, who was a great Hindu, Sanatani Hindu respected the cow, treated the cow as sacred, he had extremely innovative ways of looking at this question and he did not practice, he did not share the politics of cow protection societies. He was extremely, extremely critical of them.
NSS: That's a very interesting point and that and I think that also in many ways reflects what you were saying heterogenous nature of the religion and how different people also who may consider it a problem, also approach the problem also differently. But at the same time, if one has to look at the communities do consume beef and it is the second point that you made in response to my first question about how there is this kind of coercive code that is being enforced on communities that don't necessarily subscribe to a Bhrahmanical notion of Hinduism. A lot of dalit communities, may not if they were beef eating, but at the same time specially the Jatav communities in North India has been part of the trade that is involved in the cow skin, in leather and so on. At the same time, the beef eating communities, it is also the cheapest form of meat that I available in the market today. At the same time, there is a whole economics around the production and sale of beef, bullocks, buffalo and so on and so forth. Can you talk about that a little and how actually and do you see then as a direct attack on not just social and cultural aspect of communities rather than the Brahminical Hindus but also on the economic aspects and a basic survival aspect for lot of people outside this fold.
SM: Very much. It has an economic aspect of it and the economic aspect is if this move were to become successful, you would find people would be very reluctant to rear cows, to maintain cows because it will become completely inviable for them. You know, the milk producing period is slightly short so there are going to be a whole range of economical implications of it. Plus for certain groups and communities this is a source of food, cheap and inexpensive food. But much more than economics what I find really worrying is that it effects our nature of Indian nation and Indian natinalism. Indian nationalism itself is very very plural. Just like Hinduism is very very plural which means that it can not rest on one symbol, one culture and so on. Now, the communal forces, they don't call themselves communal but they use the word cultural nationalism. They call themselves cultural nationalist which basically means that the Indian nation should be based on a single culture, single code, a sacred universe. Now all that itself is very worrying because that's itself is negation of manner in which Indian society has evolved of the very USP, DNA of the Indian nationalism. Indian nationalism is not based on a single culture or a single language. It's not like European countries. The whole strength of Indian nation is it's variety, it's plurality, multiple ways of organizing life, multiple way of eating, multiple types of food and so on and all of them co-exist within this umbrella called Indian nation and that must persist. There are very dangerous, very worrying signals that all these moves are going to if they were going to become successful, they would effect the very nature and essence of Indian nation and thereby Indian society, thereby India. So it is very anti-national, anti-society.
NSS: That's a very interesting point because anti-national is the term that they often throw at. This is anti-national. Absolutely. At the same time, I think what's happening is that there is government which is now beginning to decide about what films we will watch, what books we will read, what food we will eat. It's not as if it's not happened in Congress regimes but the extent of which we are seeing this kind of coercive code that has been enforced on people is obviously new and the scale at which we were seeing it. But at the same time, what's also interesting is a lot of the protest in this kind of imposition of what you will eat specially in the context of the beef ban, a lot of the opposition is not necessarily coming from let's just say one would expect from a Muslim community in India, they would have opposed it most but actually coming from a whole cross section of society and in fact, yesterday there was an example in Shillong it was I think a very embarrassing for the BJP president the way he responded to the protest. Do you really see this protest coming from a cross section of society and dalit groups have protested against it in such a big way in so many parts of the country as well.
SM: I am a little bit optimistic. I don't think coercion of this kind will work beyond a point. They are self defeating. Indian society, it's a very complex society. There was a time when there was a dominant Brahminism. It worked in the sense that it existed. But it was not able to change many many things and there was a lot of resistance to it. The Bhakti movements and the Sufi movements. So Indian history is a very interesting history of ideas and counter ideas, protest ideas also developing. So coercion has not worked very very much. There is something about the DNA of the Indian society. There is a sense that people want their spaces their freedom and so on. So I think there is going to be a lot of opposition to all such moves when you are going to be dictated from the top that wear this, eat this, read this, do not read this. Will all these things happen? They might work for a little while. But in the long run, the protest in the opposition is going to come from extremely unusual quarters because by and large, people do not like being dictated to and I think if there is an onslaught on this, there is going to be a resistance and from all kinds of quarters as you absolutely rightly pointed out. It is going to increase.
NSS: On that very optimistic note. Thank you so much Salis Sahib and we hope to discuss similar issues time and again on Newsclick. Thank you.