The beef over beef: A student protest devolves in India

NOAH SEELAM AFP/GETTY IMAGES A Hindu devotee makes an offering of food to a sacred cow on the eve of … Continued

NOAH SEELAM

AFP/GETTY IMAGES

A Hindu devotee makes an offering of food to a sacred cow on the eve of Gopastami in Hyderabad on November 3, 2011. The Gopastami festival, which commemorates Hindu Lord Krishna becoming a cowherder, brings devotees preparing food and offering religious rituals to cows. AFP PHOTO/Noah SEELAM

Student protests are often memorable for their creativity: Sloganeering, marches and sit-ins are often par for the course. In India, Mahatma Gandhi wielded the hunger strike so effectively, that even today social reformers gain attention–and gravitas–by giving up a meal. But what to make then of a student rally turning hunger on its head: an in-your-face beef-eating festival at a university campus in India?  

In a nation raised on bovine milk, where bullocks pulled ploughs and manure fueled hearths, a respect for cattle and proscription on beef is fundamental–even McDonalds eschews beef in India.  That centrality of animals to the agrarian economy led to Dharma spiritual tenets rooted in the veneration of life and ahimsa, or nonviolence that are unwavering.  Today, 300 million of India’s Hindus and Jains constitute the largest proportion of the vegetarian demographic in the world.  So when a few professors on the faculty of Osmania University in Hyderabad, India, goaded a group of students to demand that beef be available on the canteen menu on campus, eyebrows were raised.  

When the college authorities at Osmania agreed to continue providing non-vegetarian options not including beef and pork–out of respect to Hindu and Muslim sentiments–students identifying themselves as Dalits, protested.  “Food fascism” they cried, as if goat curry and chicken tikka were not meaty enough for their tastes, and held the beef-eating frenzy while chanting, “beef is the secret of my energy.”  The beef-eating poke-in-the-eye stung other students on campus, riots ensued, buses were torched, and one of the students protesting the beef fiesta was stabbed.

As it turns out, the sacrificial cow was laid at the altar of Dalit identity politics.  Dalits, or more accurately, those categorized within the scheduled castes (SC’s), as recognized by the Indian Constitution, once belonged to lowest rungs of Indian society.  Even today, the sad reality is that despite aggressive affirmative action and quota programs devoted to uplifting the SC’s in India, limited access to decent primary school education, clean water, sanitation, adequate nutrition and a lack of land ownership ensnare one-third of India’s Dalits in grinding poverty.  Deprivation and prejudice is real to SC’s.

Osmania University is also home to a Dalit professor, Kancha Ilaiah, whose notoriety rests on his book entitled, “Why I am not a Hindu.”  Laying blame on Hinduism for the social evil of casteism that infects all religious traditions practiced in the subcontinent, Ilaiah encouraged his students to promote beef-eating as an act of defiance against prevailing Hindu mores.  It’s a perversion to welcome violence against animals as a way to solve inequality.

Last year, the Hindu American Foundation (I am a co-founder), released a report detailing the reality of caste-based discrimination in India.  Over 160 pages, the report explains that while caste based discrimination undoubtedly exists in India, not only is it not intrinsic to Hinduism–contrary to Ilaiah’s assertion–but it fundamentally contradicts the essential teachings of Hinduism.  And over the last half century, democracy, public policies, vote banking and urbanization have wrought fundamental changes in caste equations.  Repudiating the assertion that so-called upper caste members are abusing SC’s, the report stated:

Hindus cry foul that the Ilaiahs among SC’s are not venting their fury against the casteism prevalent in all religions practiced in India–Hindu traditions seem to make for easy targets for imagined revolutions. Publicly embracing the Black Panthers as their paragons, the beef champions forget that the civil rights struggle in the United States bloomed under the Gandhian principles of non-violent resistance and civil discourse which Martin Luther King, Jr. personified.

Student agitations are common against increased greenhouse gases, against animal torture and in favor of a variety of environmental causes–all positions that complement vegetarianism.  A beef feast in a country with more vegetarians than everywhere else on the globe is bizarre enough, so here’s to hoping that if protest they must, beef boosters will find ways better for the bulge, not to mention the animals involved.

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  • MultiIndian

    This is a rather disingenuous post – this wasn’t just about a bunch of students deciding they wanted to be belligerent and demand beef on the menu. This was about a celebration of their culture and heritage, that is sadly repressed and not a proportionate component of the overall Indian identity. It is about a people who chafe at having to fit into an identity carved out by a minority unlike themselves. India is more than 300 million vegetarians, and if others want to express themselves and define an identity for themselves in a way that doesn’t take anything away from anyone else, then why should they not?

  • shocked2

    A beef festival must be accompanied by a pork festival. Progressives should really demand no less-but we all know that only hindus and their sacred traditions are fair game in “secular” India. I love how so called Dalit activists decry Hinduism for all their problems, then turn around and demand reservations for Christian Dalits, Muslim Dalits and so on. The irony is lost on all our intellectuals-who are only too happy to have yet another stick to beat Hinduism

  • Suchetausa

    ‘in a way that doesn’t take anything away from anyone else’

    Oh.. but it does.
    Because if your ‘identity making’ steps on another’s toes then it is you who has to learn to walk and not the fault of the other for having toes.

  • Suchetausa

    These so called Dalits .. and the so called journalists .. and the so called intellectuals are all anti-Hindus for they are paid heftily in terms of awards and assets to be so.

    But, the day of reckoning for the west is also approaching.

  • NonPseudoSecularist

    Historically, Beef has made good anti-hindu politics, and helps forget how pork was wiped out of India’s culinery tradition.

    Here is the additional, historical and cultural, background information which helps understand political use of beef:
    1) Every Hindu/Buddhist King, including Buddhist proselytizing Emporer Ashok, and Lord Shri Krishna himself, have declared themselves “Gau Pratipala” ( meaning Protector of Cows ). Therefore, Cow killing was the best way to rub hindus in dirt.
    2) Islamist and Portugese-Christian rulers historically used “Forcible and Accidental Beef Eating” as a way to forcibly covert Hindus.
    3) Stealing and Killing cow was the favorite anti-hindu way of humiliating Hindus. In response, Thousands of Hindus laid their lives. Hundreds of memorials of Hindu Warriors, who died protecting cows, can be seen in India’s country side. Some like, Bhathiji Maharaj, were also deitified.
    4) Cow fat was one of the major issue which sparked 1857 Indian Rebellion against British rule.

    All this does not mean that laws and culture should not change but trying to promote “beef eating and cow killing” in India is like promoting “holocoust denial” in Israel.

    Before the advent of Islam, Pork was part of India’s Culinary Tradition. Several ancient manuscript of pork recipes are found in Sanskrit and Prakrit . Lord Gautam Buddha’s last meal was pork. Today, Pork has mostly vanished from India’s culinary tradition. There are many Hindu owned and operated restaurants in NY, DC, and LA which serves beef but I am yet to find one which serves pork. Beef is easily available in India’s cities and nobody is being stopped from eating it. Most Dalits are neo-buddhist. Why they are not trying to reclaim their pork heritage and re-enact Buddha’s last meal ?

  • SODDI

    Ah, hinduism and the the caste system – another reminder of what ALL religions are really about.

    The systematic and ruthless oppression of others, sanctioned and sponsored by the state and religion walking hand ind fascist hand.

  • NonPseudoSecularist

    Only state can sponser systematic and ruthless oppression of others. That’s precisely what Indian state has done to Hinduism for several 100 years. In last 1000 years, Hinduism was not and is not the State religion. On the contrary, it is the target of state’s ire.

  • SODDI

    Maybe it’s you who need to pull back your feet.

  • Kingofkings1

    A porkophiles lament….. time to move to Manila

  • RRajgor

    Caste discrimination has no sanction in Hindu Scripture. Discrimination occurs in many forms but the drive to end it started from the point India was freed from a thousand years of oppression. It took 150 years from the Declaration of independence for the civil rights act to become law. The affirmative action programs for Daits or Scheduled Castes mandates quotas and govt budgets in India. However for those who want to compare 21st century behaviour to a labor system defined thousands of years ago and crow about haw advanced they are, it certainly makes a good ‘whipping boy’ story. Bigotry is still bigotry, whether practiced by someone with an Axe to grind against Hinduism. What do folks expect? That human beings all play nice when faced with bone crushing poverty and a struggle for survival? No. they get clannish and help people like themselves first… whether it’s called caste, clans, tribes or the top 1% of this nation in their Golf Clubs against everyone one else. It’s easy to compare the best behaviour of ones own faith against the worst behaviour of the others. To do a true comparison…. compare the worst behaviour against the worst Behaviour , It is a societal evil and erradicated amongst Hindus who are even the least educated. Does it exist in India to protect vested interests…. sure. but protecting vested interests exists everywhere. The death of the student because of hatred from Kancha Ilaiah and his ego is reprehensible. For those who don’t understand the reluctance to eat beef…. Dog or Cat burgers anyone?

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