What’s your beef with my freedom to eat it?

Bans on eating beef and pork are contested in India. Manav Bhuhshan discusses why this is an issue of caste discrimination and can be seen as a restriction on freedom of expression.

The case

Hindus believe cows are holy and Muslims consider pork “haram” (forbidden). Both are staple foods for India’s lower caste Dalits who consider recent bans on beef in some states a result of caste prejudice and a restriction of their fundamental right to free expression. In April 2012 some students at Osmania University in Hyderabad started a campaign to allow beef to be served in their university canteen. Members of rightwing student groups met their initiative with stiff opposition and violence. Yet the Dalit campaign spread to Jawaharlal Nehru University, which has been a bastion of leftwing student politics for decades.

Both political opinion and court verdicts have taken an increasingly conservative view on the subject of cow and bovine slaughter in recent years. Mainstream political parties and even India’s supreme court have welcomed and upheld restrictions imposed by state governments. Along with caste and religion, the debate over cow slaughter has class dimensions. The renowned academic Praful Bidwai has argued: “the absence of beef will raise the food bill for the underprivileged”. The freedom to eat what you want is thus very sensitive, and its future appears more uncertain than ever before.

Author opinion

Eating habits and customs around the world have been restricted on the basis of religious doctrines, cruelty to animals, endangering species, etc. In many cases the lines drawn to distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable foods are tenuous and arbitrary. In a multicultural society like India, allowing people to eat poultry and mutton (upper caste meats) while banning beef and pork (lower caste meats) is more than arbitrary. It is discriminatory on many different levels. The increasing tendency for states to ban cow slaughter in recent years flies in the face of caste- and identity-based politics, which have recently flourished in many states.

The only explanation for this apparent contradiction is that the Hindu right’s political rise at the national level has negated the rise of regional political parties that claim to represent lower castes. Although environmental and ethical concerns mean the right to eat what you want cannot be absolute, food practices are often a crucial way for people to express their social and cultural identities. A socially volatile country like India therefore needs a level playing field where each community’s right to choose what they eat is equally valued.

- Manav Bhushan

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Comments (4)

Automated machine translations are provided by Google Translate. They should give you a rough idea of what the contributor has said, but cannot be relied on to give an accurate, nuanced translation. Please read them with this in mind.

  1. I think to kill any species of the world for our test is not a natural way.For Example – If a lion kill any antelope then it is a natural way and then he eat it. By this way, there is no any disturbance in life cycle. But when we kill any species of the world which is not any natural way then it increases the disturbance in the natural system. Now when we are talking about Humanity, we know that human is most intelligent species of the world , then it is our responsibility to think about every species and their protection so that there is no disturbance in the nature. Now if i am talking about beef ,Killing any species for beef will generate a great disturbance in the natural system for humanity.
    Thank You!

    • I have to objections: firstly, whatever is natural is not necessarily ethical or preferable. In some denominations and religions, blood injection is prohibited because it is assumed as non-natural against the god’s will. However, is it ethically acceptable to leave a child to die in the basis of such belief? Piercing is another example. Men and women in most of the communities had used piercing throughout the history. But is piercing really natural? Then the second question will come up: what is natural and what is non-natural. While in some societies, circumcision is assumed as necessary for sexual pleasure of men and women – which is a natural desire- in some others it is defined non-natural and even brutal in case of infants. All in all, defining ‘natural’ and ‘non-natural’ not only doesn’t help us to solve the dilemma but also it leads us to more complicated dilemmas.

  2. Why does a community have to eat a particular animal? Is it only about taste or is it about their right to offend the other religion?

    Why is it almost always the case that in India an overwhelming majority of those who want to protect their right to eat beef always get violent when someone talks about his right to eat pork? Both are just animals with four legs.

    There are certain Indian cities like Haridwar that are strictly vegetarian. It has been so for centuries and no one complained about it ever. There are certain Indian cities like Deoghar where mouse traps are not sold because the little creature is supposed to be the carrier of Lord Ganesha !!!

    Why in the name of freedom do you want to hurt millions of people’s religious sentiments, as long as it is not hurting anyone in any significant way?

  3. I, for one, have no problem with ban on cow slaughter. Infact, I might even support the reasoning behind the ban only because a significant section of Hindu society considers it sacred and if banning sustains the cultural and religious kaleidoscope, which India is, then so be it. Having said that, cow slaughter was already banned by many state governments long ago and it is not a new issue. However, this ban doesn’t, shouldn’t, mean ban on slaughtering of bulls and bullock (which were included in the slaughter ban in Maharashtra recently) as they are not considered sacred and thus shouldn’t offend anyone. Another point which should be noted is that beef in India traditionally has been buffalo’s, bull’s and bullock’s meat and is known as poor man’s meat. It serves as a protein source for less privileged section of the society which can’t afford mutton or poultry. By a blanket ban, one of the very few sources of protein for malnourished in India would dry up reducing the already insufficient per capita nutrition intake of the poor.
    Another social/economical aspect which one must consider before committing ourselves’ to the blanket ban is that only old bulls , which were unfit for farming, were sold by farmers to the slaughterers. Farmer in India, who are usually under tremendous financial strain, simply can’t afford to take care of the old bulls till they die and it was a source of a small income to them. Now, after the beef ban, they would be forced to leave the beast in open and these stray cattle would further obstruct the traffic in already congested Indian roads. For tackling this, the government will have to make many shelter houses which would again cost the exchequer a fair bit.

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Free Speech Debate is a research project of the Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom at St Antony's College in the University of Oxford. www.freespeechdebate.ox.ac.uk

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