Food as aesthetic symbol and its afterlives

The nuances of the central government’s ban on the sale of cattle for slaughter are not terribly important. The news left us some impressions and everybody from the Right to the Left worked exactly with those impressions. The announcement might have various aspects but the social impact of the jubilations of the majoritarians and the response of their oppositionists equate this new regulation to a decisive step towards a total ban in the time to come.

Whether one likes it or not, cow, beef and/or cattle have all become hugely polarising entities in the Indian political scene. You can be pro-cow/beef/cattle or anti-cow/beef/cattle; there really isn’t a third option in contemporary India. Pretty much like Donald Trump in the US.

Quite curiously, the attempt to nationalise the food habits of a certain section of the people are doing two contradictory things: on the one hand it allows consolidation of political power around the symbol of cow for the political Right, and on the other it creates resistance asserting identities of language (the resistance in the south and a TV channel’s rather outrageous labelling of Kerala as Pakistan because the majority of the state are beef eaters), religion (red meat is used as some kind of a shorthand for Muslims and all legislative measures have the possibilities to be read as ways to “show them their place, causing further assertion of identity) and caste (Una violence and the resultant Jignesh Mewani-led Dalit upheaval in Gujarat). These assertions of identity are not conversations within the Indian republic for actualising its diversity, but means of basic survival and hence weakening to the very foundations of the country.

How did we get here? Is it all done in accordance with the diktats of some majoritarian scripture? Has the cow vigilantism of ‘gaurakshaks’ created a milieu in which cow/beef/cattle has become a quick excuse to beat up or murder individuals from financially weak, socially backwards and culturally alienated groups? Or are the Left liberals, the constitutionalists and the minorities - religious, regional and social - such alarmists that they cannot understand anything in perspective? How can we begin to understand this?

I think there is merit in just keeping the notion of a grand majoritarian agenda out in our analysis. Not just because I am uncomfortable with the understanding that some maestro has all the moves on the board figured out but also because politics is the art of the impossible and the immediate and given there always are political, social and technological changes, a “pure”, “complete” and “original” master plan is highly questionable.


Two sides of the coin

We may, instead, look at both sides. There are religious (an animal considered holy by people of a religion), communitarian (a cause that concerns the pride of everyone in a community, regardless of whether they worship the animal or not), medical (newly-found health angst detailing how red meat causes many issues) and animal cruelty (this was the central concern in the latest legislation) arguments put forth by the side for the ban.

On the other hand, the side that asks for allowing beef makes their arguments in four ways. They include: democratic choice of individuals; rights of the citizen to have the food of his/her choice without being threatened, attacked or killed; the view that beef ban is a newly concocted political ploy given there is a lot of historical proof for the consumption of meat in general and beef in particular in ancient Indian history and in ‘Puranas’; and the huge problem of employment when the informal sector of the meat industry gets shut down after the current regulations.

The problem with these two battling sides is that not a single of them can be seen as antonyms.  Two sides are not differing on any matter; they simply have different sets of issues. And it can be said with some certainty that the two can never meet or come to a consensus.


Economic angle

Now that there is a bit of a dead end, can we consider creating a narrative around the life of the farmer, the point of origin? A farmer who ploughs the land using the cows and sells the milk of the same cow will understandably find it difficult to eat the meat of the cow. But there is another side to it: cows/buffalo get old and their milk dries up.  The farmer needs to sell it off and buy a new cow/buffalo for his work and food purposes. This situation in an economy allows for the aestheticisation of politics, organising people around a symbol and its spectacles.

This hollow symbol makes the sides look like battling sides when they belong to different paradigms altogether.

Unless our politics has the ability to make people get a grip on their own lives, their surroundings and their memories, we are bound to go around these symbols, used to cow down a side by the other which is getting beefed up.

(The writer is assistant professor of English at St Stephen’s College, Delhi)

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