Brahmanical Diet and Imperial Veganism: The ‘Ideal’ Indian Activist

On Wednesdays and Fridays, the dining halls of Tata Institute of Social Sciences are a little more crowded than usual. These are the only days students are served chicken on campus. The other days mostly follow a monotonous vegetarian diet consisting of the same yellow dal, rice, vegetables and rotis.

It is the second week of college and those who eat meat already miss their usual protein.

One enters the hall with a salivating mouth only to see two students holding up posters beside the serving counter. One poster consists of a quote by Jane Goodall that reads, “Thousands of people who say they love animals sit down once or twice to enjoy the flesh of creatures who have been utterly deprived of everything that could make their lives worth living and who endured the awful suffering and terror of abattoirs.”

The other is of a hen behind grills (prison grills, not barbecue).

They are vegan activists, the two explained, and they were protesting against the meat being served on campus. I attempted to speak to them about the social angle of food, its production and consumption; on which social group consumes what and why.

The two students responded, “You will not see any mention caste or religion on this poster. We are not being discriminatory based on anyone’s social location. We are simply reminding people to rethink their food choices.”

When one attempts to talk about the “invisibility” of caste, it is exactly this one is referring to.

Caste is not a categorisable entity, as many Indians wish it to be. Caste is not just the legal classification of SCs, STs and OBCs – as many deem it to be.

Caste is food and clothing. It is your name, the language you speak, the street you live at, the person you marry. Caste is everyday life. It is all embodying. Because caste is everywhere, one no longer sees it and assumes it to be non-existent – or worse, invisible.

The truth is that everybody sees caste, but calls it by different names, one of the most common ones being “food”.

A vegetarian diet, along with the disgust and aversion associated with meat, is not new to Indian institutes or mainstream India. In 2018, IIT-Bombay sent mails to students requesting them not to use ‘main’ plates for ‘non-vegetarian’ food. The same year, students from IIT-Madras were asked to enter the mess hall through a different door if they weren’t vegetarians. Separate basins for vegetarian and non-vegetarian students were also installed in the dining hall.

In 2015, The Hindu released a notice reminding their employees that non-veg food was not permitted in their offices, and that there were complaints from vegetarian employees who were uncomfortable with meat being brought to the office. Quoting MSS Pandian, “It does not need much of an effort to understand what ‘strictly vegetarian atmosphere’… encodes. It is caste by other means”.

To separate caste from something so crucial as food and present it as if it were a life-choice is to ignore a wider social context in which the food one eats depends on the life one is made to live, or vice-versa.

In 2016 in Gujarat’s Una, seven Dalits (of the Sarvaiya family) were assaulted by 40 men from the upper-caste Darbar community for “killing” cows. Four of the Sarvaiya brothers were stripped, tied to the back of a car and beaten with sticks and iron rods.

As is the working of caste, any work that requires the disposal of dead bodies, of excreta, of cleaning sewage tanks, drainage canals etc have been unburdened by savarnas on Dalit communities historically. Then these jobs are made to theologically seem undignified, unholy and impure so as to further sideline Dalits from society.

The Sarvaiya family was one such Dalit family who skin dead carcasses, which were used as raw materials for leather, so that products like footwear, bags and even musical instruments could be made. One needs to keep in mind that these “impure” carcasses suddenly gain outwardly holiness the minute it is made into a tabla or a mridangam as a Brahmin blesses it with his inherited “musical knowledge”.

The Sarvaiya family has left the leather tanning occupation and now lack a means of livelihood, and has still not been compensated by the Gujarat government for what they were made to go through.

In 2014, the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD), then headed by Smriti Irani, had sent letters to the directors of all IITs and Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) seeking details of cooking and catering arrangements in their institutions, and directed to these institutions to send “action taken’’ reports. In his letter, the RSS worker, who was not at all related to any of the IITs and did not have any ward studying there, had demanded separate dining halls for vegetarian and non-vegetarian students on the grounds that “these institutes are spreading bad culture from the West and causing grief to the parents”.

To talk about the moral superiority associated with vegetarianism on account of its brahminical character and origin is one thing. But to fuse veganism, another equally problematic phenomenon that recently originated as a political movement in the West, with brahmanical vegetarianism in India, is a deadly combination.

Veganism, as a political movement, is very much characterised by the social factor of race. Juliana Yazbeck, in her article ‘The Problem with White Veganism’, talks about how the vegan discourse around animal consumption rarely mentions the industrialisation of meat and food in general, and the colonial history associated with it, in particular. She questions the hunting bans for indigenous people on indigenous land in the US, and says that their way of life is already centred around a sacred agreement to “take no more than they need… and to always give back to the land themselves”.

She writes,

“For a coloniser to occupy a land, murder its people, replace them with more colonisers, impose colonial laws, and create an irreversible eco-crisis, then to turn around and point a finger at indigenous ways of hunting, gathering, eating, and living, is no more than a 21st century manifestation of white people’s colonial mindsets.”

To think that Dalits, Muslims and tribals would have chosen better “eating” options had they not been burdened with the tragedy of caste is to separate caste from savarnas, and associate it only with Dalit-Bahujan-Adivasi communities, erasing the foundation on which caste is structured and the reason on why caste still persists. A Dalit is a Dalit because a Brahmin is a Brahmin. Not the other way around. So to say, in the words of the vegan activists, that if tribals were given education, they would “reform” their diet and if Dalit-Bahujan-Adivasis were better off, they would choose the path of veganism, is to be completely ignorant about the history and social factors that shape vegan ideology, and the political economy of vegan brands that continue to exploit DBA labour and nature to run their businesses.

One other student also attempted to ask about the high cost of vegan products and how they expected everybody to afford it, to which they said, and I quote, “poor people do not always have to go through the burden of saving the environment; rich people have to sometimes step up and do it.”

The way urban upper-class, upper-caste Indians have imitated and appropriated queer activism and the Black Lives Matter movement, is simply one of the ways in which the Western media largely shapes their lifestyles. Vegan activism is another gradual extension of that. While vegetarianism is “traditional”, and made up of notions of caste purity and pollution, veganism is made up of white activism and modern concerns of the environment, and hence it modernises the neo-liberal, urban Brahmin (who can afford it) and alters their food choices to fit the modern world where concern and love for the animal is considered the highest empathetic, humane act. Their generous consumptions of vegan products puts their mind at peace as far as saving the world is concerned.

As Maneka Gandhi wrote in an article on capitalist veganism,

“Veganism now is seen as a temporary fad adopted by youthful, rebellious, teenagers in search of ‘self-expression’. Like all fads, it, unfortunately, belongs to a teenage world and will be outgrown in adulthood.”

She explains how vegans are being taken on a ride in the “consumer train”. Veganism, in her opinion, has been reduced to a movement that is trying to “spend its way into animal liberation”. It is causing further exploitation as consumers hand their money to exploiters themselves, who is simply “greenwashing” their way into profit in the name of veganism.

Even while vegan activists talk big on the environment and animal care, they remain silent and mostly ignorant on the mass land-grabbing of big multibillion dollar companies like Jindal, Arcelor Mittal, Adani Group etc which have caused the displacement of millions of tribals, and destruction of forests and the scarcity of natural resources since as early as the 1950s.

Quoting public health doctor and researcher, Dr. Sylvia Karpagam,

“Indigenous communities believe in inter-connectedness which calls for a moral responsibility to care for, live in harmony with and respect the natural world using only that much of the animal for food as required to sustain their families and communities….Listening to farmers and those working with dairy or meat on what are ethical ways of co-existing and co-dependence is a much less arrogant approach rather than defining for them what love of animals is or is not.”

Izza Ahsan is a student of Media and Cultural Studies in TISS.