Porotta and beef fry: Why food has always been political

At 15, my grandmother Indu lost her father, the sole breadwinner of the family. Indu and her mother survived on plain rice for days; on some afternoons, she would go to her next-door neighbor’s home to ask for two chilies.

“Look at the tragedy that has befallen you,” the neighbor said on some occasions. (This is translated from Malayalam so there’s really no way to say this without it sounding dramatic.)

She would respond, “Listen, I just want two chilies.”

Two chilies and a few grains of rice. For weeks on end, my grandmother’s meals were a tasteless gruel punctuated by spice. I don’t know if poverty has a flavor, but perhaps she savored it.

Indu told me this story as I went on my daily walk on a rainy evening in Bangalore. At the time, I thought about how just a few hours earlier I had tapped my thumb against the screen of my smartphone, placed an order online without checking my bank balance, and received a meal big enough for a family of at least two within 30 minutes (from an exploitative fast-food multinational, no less). Such was my privilege, only two generations later. But it’s easy to think about privilege in terms of quantity or wealth. Of course, the rich have bigger tables, bigger plates, and bigger tummies to feed. It’s only obvious that the poor would go with less—for reasons of income inequalities and “poverty traps” that are equally obvious, one would think.

I am reminded of an incident a friend shared with me: he had been waiting to pay for produce at a kirana store when he overheard a conversation between the store owner and another customer. There was some confusion about past dues.

The customer informed the owner, “I’d paid you the pending amount on Monday, remember? I’d come in with my wife.”

“Oh yes, I seem to have forgotten. Sorry about that, here’s your new total.”

The customer extended a few notes of cash and added, “It seems you didn’t eat any badam while growing up! Your bad memory is catching up to you, eh?” There was a sheepish grin on his face.

My friend didn’t know what it was, but a climate of discomfort seemed to have blanketed the small store. “I grew up too poor to buy badam, sir. My family survived on grains.”

While I’m learning that nutrition deficits aren’t always as straightforward as they seem, I’ll leave the details of this to the Abhijit Banerjees (Poor Economics) of our world to flesh out. Class privilege is for the equity-conscious economists to solve (for now). 

The politics of a plate, however, stretch far beyond the cost of a meal. Many will remember the great beef fiasco of 2017. In May that year, India’s Ministry of Environment—under the totally secular guidance of the Bharatiya Janata Party—imposed a ban on the sale and purchase of cattle for slaughter at animal markets under numerous Prevention of Cruelty to Animals statutes. It was one of many rulings to come that would leave Muslims, so-called lower castes, and other marginalized communities at the mercy of the still-ruling party and its “gau raksha” bandits. Junaid Khan, a 16-year-old traveling via a local train in Mumbai, was one of the victims of these “save the cow” vigilantes. Unfortunately, he was not the last—but he was not the first either.

Cow vigilantism dates back to colonial India. In the 1880s and 1890s, riots calling for the protection of cows had become commonplace in several regions across the nation-state. In 1893, anti-cow killing demonstrations in Punjab resulted in the death of at least 100 people. This protest began during the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha, and was organized again in 1894. Just behind the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the violent demonstrations of 1894 were British India’s largest riots.

Today we must feel compelled to look at our plates as a small part of the Hindutva whole. The meat or lack of it is simply a small-time battle in the ongoing war for the BJP’s ultimate vision: a Hindu Rashtra. If Narendra Modi or Amit Shah could envision our futures, nowhere would it be better depicted than on the banana leaf platter of the vegetarian Brahmin savoring from his fingers the delicacy of genocide. Yet, we must remember that Hinduism didn’t always look so vegetarian (or vegan, for all you “fundamentalists” out there). In fact, historian DN Jha argues in his controversial 2009 publication The Myth of the Holy Cow, that cows were neither untouchable (ironically) nor worshipped during ancient times as they were later—that is to say, now, when it has become politically convenient again. He writes, “Brahmanical texts (e.g. Grhyasutras and Dharmasutras) provide ample evidence of the eating of flesh including beef. Domestic rites and rituals associated with agricultural and other activities involved the killing of cattle. The ceremonial welcome of guests (sometimes known as arghya but generally as madhuparka) consisted not only of a meal of a mixture of curds and honey but also of the flesh of a cow or bull. Early lawgivers go to the extent of making meat mandatory in the madhuparka—an injunction more or less dittoed by several later legal texts. The sacred thread ceremony for its part was not all that sacred; for it was necessary for a snataka to wear an upper garment of cowhide.”

So what changed? Originating from Sikhism, then co-opted by British colonizers, and finally borrowed by the “Hindu reform movement”—an attempt at re-energizing the religion at a time when the country’s biggest export had dwindled in popularity—cow vigilantism quickly became the majority’s fan favorite. Upper caste Hindus, realizing that their religion was “dying out,” needed a game plan. Not only did they wish to secure their social ranking, but they wanted also to trump their newest competitor in the free market of religion: Buddhism. BR Ambedkar notes in his annotated selection from The Untouchables, Beef, Brahmins, and Broken Men, “The clue to the worship of the cow is to be found in the struggle between Buddhism and Brahmanism and the means adopted by Brahmanism to establish its supremacy over Buddhism.” We could with ease apply his philosophy to other kinds of meat as well. Moreover, it helped those with relative social power find a mutual enemy (whether that be the Muslims or Dalits) and strengthened farcical ideas of non-violence, peace, and purity within our religious sects. The irony of bloodshed warranting bloodshed, meanwhile, seemed to be lost somewhere in the throngs of moral righteousness.

For those enjoying in the “modern day” a plate of porotta and beef fry, the historical significance of their meal, however, may not be evident. It’s a good meal and a free country, who the hell cares? Well, it’s easy for those in upper castes to invisibilize their caste identity when they dig into a plate of pork. Deepa Balkisan Tak, an assistant professor at the University of Pune’s Krantijyoti Savitribai Phule Women’s Studies Centre, states in an interview with Livemint, “Upper castes make it sound like we are dirty and that we eat things that are dirty. If I eat pig meat, I am marked a pig-eater. If an upper caste person eats it, it becomes pork, the rich man’s delicacy.” The hierarchy that Ambedkar defined so long ago, wherein those at the top do not eat flesh, those in the middle eat everything other than beef, and those at the very bottom eat beef alone, still exists in full force. Historically, meat-eating was borne out of survival for those without caste privilege. Dalits and Muslims ate the discards of the gluttonous upper castes (blood, intestines, offal). When they didn’t want it anymore, meat (beef, pork, and mutton in particular) became more easily accessible.

That is, until cow vigilantes took to the streets armed with nothing but state-sanctioned vainglory and ignorance. As recently as June 15 this year, a Muslim man was brutally thrashed when he attempted to transport cattle in Mangalore, a few kilometers away from my home in Bangalore. His assaulters were reportedly members of the Bajrang Dal. At the same time, I had heated up leftovers of Syrian beef from a Sunday brunch, delivered to me through Swiggy, as I remained safe indoors. This is not intended to be a holier-than-thou acceptance of my privilege, a display of my “woke” status, a virtue signal in the midnight sky, or an apology. There is no atonement that will suffice for the centuries-long meal of subjugation my ancestors fed the entire generations of people who built this country. This is a call to the Brahmanical upper castes: give up your seats and make room at the table. This is an invitation for those who will join us; this is my knife raised to sever the spirit of caste.

The featured image includes excerpts from BR Ambedkar’s ‘Beef, Brahmins, and Broken Men’ and Arjun Dangle’s ‘Chhavni Hilti Hai’ (The Cantonment has Begun to Shake).

Published by Chandni Ganesh

Chandni is a 20-something writer from Thrissur, Kerala. She was born and raised in Dubai and has spent the past few years in New York, Mumbai, and Bangalore. As a third-culture kid, a lot of her work revolves around living on the hyphen - being here, there, and nowhere all at once. She is also deeply inspired by women; tall ones, short ones, skinny ones, fat ones, ones that make her cry, laugh, smile, remember, forget, think, and rest. The ones that keep her world spinning madly on. While she spends her days writing about news and politics or letting her mind wander in a classroom, she finds respite in-between the verses of poems.

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