Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Vegetarianism and the Saffron Agenda

I have to confess that I went to the recently concluded Vegetarian Fiesta held on the grounds of the Kala Academy with a fair deal of skepticism. For a long time now I have seen vegetarianism in India as embedded within the same conceptual framework that allows for anti-minority rightist politics in India. For example, it is perhaps only in India that the aberrant in terms of eating food, i.e. vegetarians, those who only eat vegetables, are confident enough to tar the regular folk, those who eat all foods as the aberration, i.e. NON-vegetarian. The vast majority of Indians are not, contrary to popular myth, vegetarians. They are omnivores who eat all foods ranging from vegetables to meat, and the use of the term non-vegetarian serves in fact as a means to constantly mark them as lower on a civilizational and moral ladder and mark Brahmanical culture as the civilizational and moral high point of Indian culture. My skepticism it appears was proved valid subsequent to an encounter at the Fiesta.

More than horrified by the merry use of disposable plates and cups, and plastic packaging, I mildly suggested to members of the Vegetarian Society that some thought be given to alternatives to these highly eco-unfriendly materials. The response received was nothing short of shocking. Not killing animals was the higher priority, I was informed. Think of how much more damage is done through the slaughter of animals, deforestation to create pasture lands and the pollution that results from it. Points that were very well made, for all of this is true – except that bit about innocent animals, but let us let that rest now. What was bothering was the hierarchy of priorities that was suggested, rather than suggesting that these were both priorities that should be attended to simultaneously. The proselytizing zeal that has marked Brahmanism ever since its rise seemed clearly in evidence here, since the vegetarian seemed more obsessed with a prevention of animal slaughter, than the larger principles that can structure the cause of vegetarianism.

Vegetarianism in other parts of the world finds itself in alliance with other efforts at being more sensitive to the needs of other life-forms on the planet. As such, we have the organic food movement, that seeks to prevent the use of pesticides and other chemicals in agriculture; we have the move away from non-biodegradable packaging that chokes the earth and the waters of the planet and in doing so brings death to animals that graze, forage or swim. If vegetarianism is about preventing cruelty toward animals then, it must logically go along with other movements that seek to extricate society from industrial and chemical consumerism; a consumerism that while elevating the human as a constantly consuming deity, defiles the rest of nature. It is possible that the Vegetarian society in Goa is aware of these possibilities. To be fair to them they did use paper cups and plates, rather than plastic cups and tetrapack plates. However those who take the radical step of abjuring meat and animal products altogether, should ideally also be sympathetic to taking other radical steps- such as the rejection of consumptive practices that encourage the disposal of synthetic goods that are used just once. This not because they are in a race to fight every good cause, but because the rejection of these practices will go toward their stated object of ‘living and letting others live”. To prioritize only the ban on consumption of meat would be to engage (unconsciously) in the rightist politics of Hindutva alone, and not the politics of non-violence.

In Goa, for some time now we have seen attempts to shut down ‘illegal’ slaughter houses by members of Hindu rightist groups. As always, the law is being used as a fa├žade for more sinister communal politics, while dividing the groups that would be equally impacted by a ban on animal slaughter in Goa. The reason the largely Muslim butchers run ‘illegal’ slaughter houses is because the Goa state has not been providing necessary infrastructure to conduct slaughter legally. Since the Catholics and others don’t know that, they will support the action against illegality, not realizing that they are supporting a larger movement aiming at deliberate closure of slaughter houses all around Goa. End result no meat for Goans.

The vegetarian movement is an important one for the anti-industrial and anti-consumerist message it preaches. A message that asks us to respect life and value it when taken. The Right (Reich?) however operates in sophisticated ways, drawing us in unwittingly into supporting its perverse agenda. In the Indian context where fascistic tendencies lie dormant in the most unsuspecting practices and attitudes, it is imperative that we gain consciousness of the unspoken assumptions and implications that structure our work, or risk joining the fascist bandwagon that increasingly gains in power every day.

(Published in the Gomantak Times 2nd March 2008)

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