With the alarming issues of climate change and sustainability making movements such as the animal rights movement achieve precedence in increasing parts of the world, the new wave of veganism and vegetarianism is sweeping many nations. Lots of people are now opting for food options completely devoid of any animal meat or dairy products due to ethical reasons of not wanting to consume any food extracted out of animals. Even though most vegetarians in the West, for example, consider their food options to be a representative of their voice against animal cruelty and unethical consumption, this view is not universal, at least not in India.
Before anyone assumes otherwise, I’d like to make it clear that I am a vegetarian and as an adult, will continue to be so due to my own health and ethical reasons. However, many like me weren’t raised with this line of thinking. We were raised on the idea that consuming meat would make us “impure”. This feature of “purity” and “piousness” attached to vegetarian food is something prevalent only in India and why we can’t compare vegetarianism of the West with vegetarianism of India. Therefore, it’s important to look at the unseen link between vegetarianism and the hierarchies of caste and religion.
Many studies say that 70% Indians are non-vegetarians. This is in direct contradiction to the fact that the rest of the world perceives India to be a “vegetarian” country. Thus, some questions arise: why paint a false image of the country? Why is that the rest 30% population feel a sense of disgust towards non-vegetarian food and non-vegetarian people and call for distance from them? Why is it that schools and other institutes have a rule of packing “only vegetarian” food for children? Surely this is not love for animals, because if it was, then vegetarians wouldn’t be consuming dairy products either. This hate and disgust for non-vegetarian people comes from the Brahmanical idea of purity. It’s believed that to achieve purity of spirit and body, only vegetarian food must be consumed, lest a sin is committed. This false sense of security and self-righteousness is further propagated by non-Brahmins and non-Dalits as well, who want to more closely associate with this idea of purity of soul, in order to achieve a higher degree of status in the society.
However, the real answer also lies in understanding the caste structures working behind the scene. If we were to take a look at the ranking of the castes in our country, we will know that the people placed at the lowest rung in the ladder, i.e., Dalit people, are the ones who mostly consume meat. Therefore, the social alienation and discrimination faced by so many meat-eating citizens of India is due to the interest casteism and disgust meted out to Dalit people. To put it simply, the idea of impurity of soul coupled with the casteist attitudes of upper-caste citizens, makes so many poor Muslim and Dalit people the victims of lynchings. It is why beef has become a source of contention and violence in India because the vegetarian hegemony wants to assert and impose its religious values over everyone. It’s also why an urban Brahmin eating meat won’t garner the same level of backlash and hatred as a poor Dalit having the same piece of meat.
When eggs were not allowed to be introduced as a mid-day meal for deprived children in the schools of Karnataka due to the strong opposition given by vegetarian communities, it makes you wonder, whose interest is the community really serving? Its own selfish and self-serving idea of being “clean” and “pure” or really, some genuine and authentic concern for animals? Urbanisation has had a definite impact over a lot of non-vegetarians, who are increasingly shifting towards vegetarianism due to ethical reasons and concern for animal rights. However, they do come with a lot of privilege and thus, can afford to make that choice. Underprivileged Indians on the other hand, mostly Dalits, have incredibly less access to vegetarian food and thus rely on meat as a regular source of protein.
Thus, this myth that India is a largely vegetarian country when only 1/3rd of the population actually abstains from consuming meat can be extremely harmful in the long run.
The idea is not to blame vegetarians per se, but question the inherent root cause of the food choice that they make. We need to practice more ethical modes of food consumption and start focusing on sustainability and become environmentally conscious, sure, but let’s not ignore the staring loopholes within the existing system of food distribution. Unless and until we address the jarring inequality and biases in making available healthy choices of food to everyone and not base it on somebody’s caste, because let’s face it, caste dictates what you eat in this country, we truly won’t be able to spearhead a movement accessible and affordable by everyone. When words like “pure vegetarian” on a restaurant’s header don’t make you bat an eye, consider yourself privileged and question “the why” of things. Vegetarianism needs to be more about the love for animals and less about someone’s caste.