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Updated: May 18, 2012 11:44 IST

Regulating cultures through food policing

Kalpana Kannabiran
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Organising a food festival can hardly be described as an act promoting hatred between students or communities.

The controversy over the Beef Festival recently organised on the campus of Osmania University in Hyderabad and the threat of professors being investigated by the police for “instigating” the organisers needs to be understood in the context of the larger politics of food and policing of food practices.

Across the country, different communities in different regions have widely varying food habits. It is also well known that food is closely linked to ideas of the sacred and the profane — and must vary along the scale of social diversity. The dense nesting of beliefs related to food extends from what vegetables may be consumed, whether meat may be consumed or not, which kinds of meats are food and which not, which kinds of meat are deemed vegetarian, and whether animal products come within the definition of meat or not.

Ideas about eating

Ideas about food also extend to who can eat together; within a family, who consumes which parts of an animal's body; what is the sequence in which people in a family eat, depending on gender, generation and social status; whether vice chancellors, judges and peons can partake of the same feast at the same time — or in earlier times or even today in more self declaredly caste ridden locales whether the “chuhri” can even dare to ask for fresh cooked food from “chowdhriji” — to recall Omprakash Valmiki's Joothan. And further in the caste context, who must not be sighted by a Brahmin man while he is in the vulnerable state of ingesting food — the shudra, a menstruating woman, pigs, dogs — all to be equally banished from sight.

Because food is surrounded by thick religiosity, there are days and times of the year and cycles in a month or in a reproductive lifetime when certain foods are proscribed and others mandatory. There are also rigid rules around the slaughter of animals and the preparation of meat for consumption — meat consumers do not eat all meats and do not eat the same meat at any place. The acceptance of meat as food is determined by whether the slaughter of the animal has been appropriate. And there are castes who were condemned to eat only carrion, not animals freshly slaughtered for consumption. There are communities in Andhra that share the hunt with the tiger — they believe the tiger leaves enough of its prey for its human kin — with a delicate balance in mutual food security in the deep forests. When religions proscribe the killing of animals, communities of believers who live in hostile and difficult mountainous terrain may drive a herd off a cliff and strip and dry the meat to meet a year's supply of meat. Even with people and communities that eat meat, there are places and times when meat may be eaten — and these vary widely as well. While a religious occasion for some may be marked by the abstinence from meat, for others it is marked by the sacrifice of an animal, its ceremonial preparation and its distribution in a prescribed manner among kin.

Attitude

Ideas of purity, danger, potency, malevolence, uncleanness, tastes (not individual but social) and aesthetics thickly overlay our attitude to food. Faint hearted but brahmanical consumers of meat can swoon or get terribly sick at the sight of a butcher at work, or the sight of “unclean” parts of the animal body — entrails, head, hooves and so on. The same could be the case with lovers of fish when they see a beach overlaid with dry, pungent fish or the baskets of fish vendors on the train on their way to the market. Similarly too, it is not uncommon to find strong negative reactions to snake gourd, bitter gourd, and several other vegetables, not to speak of cooking oils from vegetarians. There are of course caste hierarchies in vegetables and oils too.

Its life giving and life sustaining quality also makes food the medium through which faith is expressed, through sharing on particular auspicious, festive occasions. Whom food is shared with and how is determined by status and social location ranging from “poor feeding” to mutual exchanges of festive food. There is then the renunciation of certain foods as acts of faith (temporarily or permanently) or as an acknowledgement of loss and mourning. It is not uncommon to hear of people giving up their favourite food on the death of a loved one. And of course giving up food is a way of renouncing life itself.

Change in habits

There are also histories of food habits that show that they change over time: the beef eating Vedic brahmin is a well known example.

Among the meats that are consumed in India are chicken, goat, fish and other aquatic creatures, frog, dog, pork, monkey, beef, buffalo, a variety of insects, field rats, deer, a range of birds, some reptiles and many, many more. Across this entire range of food, there are some we might love and relish, and others we might recoil at the mention of. What we relish and what we find unthinkable depends on religion, caste, tribe, and social location, after which individual taste plays a role. The diversity in food habits is part of the plurality of cultures and the right to consume, accept and share food, privately and in festivity, is part of cultural expression.

To the extent that culture is a matter of politics, food becomes the mobilising point for politics. The ubiquitous blessed food that believers partake in at places of worship now gets distributed in street-corners to believers and non-believers alike in every neighbourhood. This is part of an aggressive proclamation of religiosity demanding acceptance as an act of faith from all — often spreading tension that has the police in full force out on the streets for days.

We have sizeable communities in India who eat beef and pork — and these are the two meats on the Indian subcontinent that are used to stoke collective emotions in ways that present polarised stereotypes. Yet we know that the realities of beef and pork consumption defy these stereotypes. There is, however, a distinction between the two: beef is traditionally consumed not just by non-Hindus but by subaltern castes as well, a reality that is denied by the dominant castes.

In this context, if there is a hegemonic cultural formation across or within a religious group that proscribes or stigmatises the consumption of certain kinds of foods, a central part of resistance and of cultural assertion is to share that food publicly. Acquiescing to one proscription will pave the way for another, and the intolerance to diversity in food habits and through food to plural cultures will spiral upwards.

The choice of whether or not to partake of the feast is one an individual makes. In the recent beef festival organised on the campus of Osmania University, there were no reports of any coercion or force-feeding of beef to unwilling people. The people who were there went because they wanted to be there and were people for whom beef was not taboo. The argument on the need to take action against spreading hatred can scarcely be sustained. Even more irrelevant is the suggestion that professors were instigating students — it was a gathering of consenting, free thinking adults.

The organising of a food festival is not a matter for courts to interfere with or order an investigation into. There are more pressing matters related to life and liberty that wait endlessly to get a hearing.

(The author is Professor and Director, Council for Social Development, Hyderabad. Email: kalpana.kannabiran@gmail.com)

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This is all just a big misunderstanding. Ofcourse cows are sacred
according to Hinduism. The perception differs in just 'how' sacred. The
Keralites have the right idea: Every aspect of a cow's life -
milk,urine,manure and carcass, needs to be fully utilized in day to day
life.
Most people just leave out the last bit. Small misunderstanding.
Microscopic, even.

from:  RT Ramarao
Posted on: May 3, 2012 at 14:19 IST

Why is the Brahmin-centric view given precedence in raising an argument by the author. Are the rest non existent? When are people going to wake up?

from:  nmantri
Posted on: May 2, 2012 at 22:17 IST

Cow is sacred to Hindus, irrespective of being a majority or minority of
them.It is very well known fact that beef hurts sentiments of these
people, most of the restaurants in India including MNCs does not serve
beef and pork, then why would so called intellectuals organize
highlighting the name itself. Its just because of cheap minded ideas to
gain political mileage by spreading hatred among groups. Shame on these
intellectuals.

from:  sangath
Posted on: May 2, 2012 at 21:31 IST

I agree that anyone can eat whatever they want as long as they keep it
in their houses. But I don't want people in India to openly celebrate
beef festivals because it involves killings cows which we regard as
sacred. We live in a society and we should honor the rules in the
society when we are outside our houses.

from:  Venkat
Posted on: May 2, 2012 at 20:12 IST

I'm a vegetarian and a Hyderabadi, but I respect the right of anyone to eat anything they like in any fashion. Outsiders, please don't preach us on what we should or should not eat; beef biryani has been served in Hyderabad's restaurants for as far as I can remember.

Also, do note that cow slaughter in Andhra Pradesh is banned, just as it is in most other states in India; the beef you get in Hyderabad is buffalo meat.

from:  Avinash
Posted on: May 2, 2012 at 19:52 IST

What purpose such festival will serve ? If publicly doing such activities is hurting some one then its better to stop.. But meantime behavior shown by ABVP goons are highly objectionable also ..

from:  Najeeb
Posted on: May 2, 2012 at 19:43 IST

Ironical that students are confronting food issues than more pressing ones like quality of education, research, jobs, etc.
I agree that a college campus should respect all students and their food habits. Best way to resolve this issue would have been to have separate kitchens or designate a day of the week for non-vegetarians.
Issue here seem to be more of political than simple craving for food. One can easily satisfy their cravings beef or any food outside the campus as campus does not/cannot satisfy everyone.
In Andhra pradesh students are (mis)used as political tool, same OU witnessed huge protests and even a death of student during Telangana protests. Beef Fest or ABVP it it not simple food issue.
Regarding professor/s who supported this fest, I am sure these professors have one or the other political affiliation. I believe that is the reason why police asked them to mind their business or face prosecution. ABVP or Beef Fest both should be kept outside the campus

from:  sree
Posted on: May 2, 2012 at 19:02 IST

The issue is not about whether eating beef is healthy or unhealthy. I
am sure no one objects to what you eat or not eat.
Would it be alright to have a pork eating festival in a location
dominated by a certain community? Will then the same people say its
OK? Or will it be said that there is a deliberate attempt to provoke
the sensibilities of a certain section of the people? Why did India
ban 'Satanic Verses'? Isn't it to NOT hurt the sensibilities of a
certain section of our society?
Then why did the organisers not show the same refrain? Surely they
knew what was being done?
So politics more than food was the agenda for this food festival. And
sadly it had the desired effect of further creating a divide among
Indians!

from:  ravi
Posted on: May 2, 2012 at 18:04 IST

This is worst...

How the author (hopefully knowledgeable) is trying to convince people about the goodness of slaughter of animals .
Here one thing need to understand that there is difference between kiiling Chicken and kiiling a big animals like
Cow, when you kill Chicken it do not heart much as it is small and that can be understood by comparing
with kiiling small insects , similarly It hearts more when a person kills a big animal like Cow or Camel.
In hindu religion also there was tradition of killing Buffalo , and it was also for same reason, to make godess happy
,but now this tradition is no more practiced.
Please try to undestand that what message we are sending to naives by slaughterring animals.
I know that in india there is freedom of manythings , but it is our responsibility to use it wisely.
Cow and Camels has many good use than kiiling and eating them for food.

from:  varun kumar
Posted on: May 2, 2012 at 16:25 IST

In Kerala almost all castes of all religions consume beef; I know even Brahmins who did eat beef. This has been the scenario for quite sometime now and there were no kind of health problems reported especially for malayalees. So if somebody want to eat beef, let them. Why make fuss over it? It is not like they are eating it by holding you to watch it. Please grow up and focus on important issues.

from:  Hashim
Posted on: May 2, 2012 at 12:49 IST

This beef festival controversy,I dont think it has anything to do with
indian malnutrition level or cheap protein source or its health impacts.
While organising such events ,the organisers must have thought about the
tolerance level in india. Why to give the conservatives/narrower minded
people a chance to question the motive ,why to name it as beef
festival,why not to name it as simple food festival or something else.
On governance side ,i think officers have every right to prevent any
situation that may create problem for law and order tomorrow.

from:  Amit
Posted on: May 2, 2012 at 11:12 IST

I have always admired Kancha saheb. What a man!
I am sure now he will show his guts by organising a pork festival.
New generation may love both hamburgers and sausages.

from:  Deepak Kumar
Posted on: May 1, 2012 at 23:17 IST

I am wondering what is the hue & cry over the issue of
food,beef.Infact India is a third largest country in the world in
export behind Brazil and Aust!We are listening so many untoward
incidents on the issue food,Beef.If the festival of Beef food is motivated by vested interest then it should be blocked, if not it
should be encouraged.It is a shame on us quarreling in the name of
food.Right to food is fundamental right of the citizen of India which
should be safe guarded.It also a childish matter that two groups had
fist fight in an reputed university campus in A.Pradesh.We request all
concerned, to grow up and sail forward to the 21th century.Taking law
in to one's own hand is foolishness and not ends the issue.

from:  ISMAIL K PERINJE
Posted on: May 1, 2012 at 23:15 IST

When we talk about University life, it is not just going to classrooms
and attending lectures.
Food as kalpana righly mentions is very much a part of micro and macro
identities. But we do not have to look at this particular issue in a
very pragmatic manner. Let us understand that in order to make a
university succeed and to make the students tolerant and amicable to
each other we should devise mechanisms that bring them closer to each
other.
Call it Brahmanical or anything but those with certain set of beliefs
would not agree to the idea of beef being served in university. Same
goes with other for pork.
Why then hold events that tend to create differences rather than unite
people. The mechanism has to be something that brings people together
by bringing practises that are assimilative in nature rather than
those dividing.

from:  Shahnawaz
Posted on: May 1, 2012 at 22:37 IST

Certainly, there is no non complaince with the law and order when it comes to organize a food festival.
But was is only a food festival.I dont think so.
It was clearly maked as beef festival.Its blasphemous to the hindu religion to augument the cow slaughter by any degree or with any means.
There has been parallel comparision drawn by the author :cows with dogs and many other creatures.

from:  Sunil Kumar
Posted on: May 1, 2012 at 20:07 IST

The author meticulously avoids the explicit mention of a certain religion which proscribes the eating of pork, but waxes lyrical about Brahmanical tendencies. No major point to be made here, except that it's rather interesting that the author should have chosen to guard her comments in such a manner.

from:  Samir Mody
Posted on: May 1, 2012 at 19:57 IST

I oppose the views of the author, as to the Osmania university is concerned as i am the student of the university i do not support such type of food festivals either beef / pork, university is an educational institution where fests like books,arts,science,moot courts,seminars etc., should be encouraged and not this type of food festivals where it hurts the sentiments of the students and lead to the vertical division between the students.We are not against interest of what they eat but make it a private one like your home or any other private place but not the public institutions like university campus. And regarding courts interfering to this matter , courts have their privileges to take suo moto action as it is an independent organ ,so no need to blame judiciary in this issue..

from:  Madhan Ravindran
Posted on: May 1, 2012 at 18:05 IST

Many commenters here seem confused about why these pesky young Dalits must make
such a noise about a beef 'festival'. Do they not know their place at the fringes and margins
of the mainstream upper-caste culture? If they must live unlike 'us', can they not do it quietly
and invisibly so we cow-loving mainstream can at least ignore them?
Well, the purpose is precisely to assert one's rights over the rights of a bullying majority to
take offence. These young Dalits don't want to remain invisible like their parents and
grandparents, resigned to having ones culture seen as 'unclean' and fringe and as belonging
to the margins. They want to stand up today and say, look here we are, we've been in India
for as long as anyone and have been bullied and discriminated against for so long and we
won't take it anymore. We won't be ashamed of our culture and won't be invisible anymore
so that the majority can easily dismiss us and ignore us. It is our constitutional right to stand
up and be counted.

from:  Raamganesh
Posted on: May 1, 2012 at 17:49 IST

to Dr.V.Prasanna Rao saying " beef is one of the cheapest sources of protein and
iron."

Please check your facts--all animal rearing for food is expensive in terms of
environment and cost of resources. You will be glad to know that tremendously large
quantities of water and food resources are consumed by the animal to produced
smaller quantities of meat and milk. Hopefully, your cows do not fast!

from:  venkat
Posted on: May 1, 2012 at 17:02 IST

I agree that any "food" festival should be allowed to be held even if it "hurts" the sentiments of a vast majority of certain religious adherents, provided the same freedom is extended to all festivals "food" or otherwise. However, recently a certain "literature" festival was not allowed to invite a certain author because of a certain book that he had written that had also "hurt" the sentiments of a certain other religious adherents. Why is that certain book banned just because it hurt the sentiments of some people? Why this double standard? If some religious group's sentiments are honoured why isn't the same courtesy extended to every religious group?

from:  Sridhar
Posted on: May 1, 2012 at 16:28 IST

With due respect to the authors views I would like to
question only one thing that if eating beef was only a personal
choice than Why it was done with all the pomp and show that too in
the University campus when they could have done it at some private
places. If you justify these kind of acts than in future we can have
wine festivals, pole dance lovers festivals...n so on...
I think the article is a poor attempt to justify one's preferences
whether wrong or right.

from:  vijendra singh
Posted on: May 1, 2012 at 15:43 IST

Thanks for the article, the last paragraph was the best.People should have bigger fish to fry e.g. price rise, unemployment etc instead of rattling over what other people are eating. Also please don't try to justify saying "In Pakistan or Saudi countries its prohibited to eat beef "-- well we live in India and not Pakistan and India is a democratic country where people has right to choose what to eat and what not to eat. If someone feels compelled to change it; well he/she is welcome to raise the issue in the Parliament so that a bill may be passed to prevent eating beef/pork. Until that happened we just need to mind our own business.

from:  Ritwick
Posted on: May 1, 2012 at 15:25 IST

Beef is not all that non-brahminical. Vedic Brahmins used to eat beef. It is the latter vaishnavites and jains who are staunch vegetarians. Several brahmin communities like the kashmiri pandits ,goud saraswat brahmins, bhumihars,UP pandey's are non vegetarians. To really challenge brahminism dalits should organize and make the real dalit foods mainstream.

from:  J.S.Acharya
Posted on: May 1, 2012 at 14:52 IST

Somewhere lost in translation, seems to be the fact that the idea
behind such a festival came from the restricted menu in campus hostels.
It is a well acknowledged fact that most hostels in institutes do not
offer either beef or pork, for reasons never stated. Why this
restriction? Especially today when students are paying the full cost of
the food, without any subsidy. If I am paying the full amount, why
shouldn't I be given the choice?

from:  Saumendra
Posted on: May 1, 2012 at 14:29 IST

The author here made commendable job by creating and emphasising
diversity within country.. but she here took various issues as granted;
like she talks of believer and non believer, religion, aggressive
proclamation of religiosity demanding acceptance. She swing from culture
to religion and way back is quite confusing to me. if food is a part of
culture and religion and culture and religion part of politics; then I
assume food feast is fully part of some political motives..

from:  gaurav kumar
Posted on: May 1, 2012 at 11:46 IST

Sorry to look at mandane issues which could waste so much time and effort of our
people, India should grow bigger than 'who eats what' I will tend to agree with last
para of the article.

from:  vicky singh
Posted on: May 1, 2012 at 10:33 IST

very good article. Question is that india where every one have right to eat. why certain people make noise. If it is against any religion.then no one forcing them to do so. If it animal "cruelty". then re-think you can not focus on one thing. You have to grow up and think broadly and find solution not just creating havoc.

from:  munzir
Posted on: May 1, 2012 at 09:15 IST

I agree that the organising of a food festival is a matter of
individual choice, not of political and court interference. But it can
be matter of social discussion, and that right all of us have. Before
organizing such festival shouldn't we consider what message we are
spreading or what advantage its going to bring for society. Motive for
organising a festival is always to bring communities together and
spread awareness. So what awareness this festival will
spread:Different beef delicacies? starting killing more cow? What's
purpose its going to serve. As author said that there are more
pressing matters related to life and liberty ,doesn't it apply for
ordinary citizen too? Are we as a citizen completely devoid of issues
to organize a festival which can really arouse masses instead of
controversies? Its not a matter of enforcing rule, its a matter of
individual conscience, a conscience to consider all emotions,
sentiments and respect humanity which includes respecting all form of
life.

from:  honey bhushan
Posted on: May 1, 2012 at 08:54 IST

while,the author justifies such acts on the basis of logic that one must adhere to food habits of other people,an important point that she neglects is that eating beef or meat collectively is not good to health,it does not require a food journal to prove that,it can be easily thought by an un-biased and detached mind.it seems that authors love for meat comes in the way of clear logical thinking. the question of eating the flesh of milk producing animal must not be connected to a religion or sect rather the question demands an emotional insight :to think whether it's appropriate to kill and eat the animal which for years had served you,your family and the society in an indispensable way.
further the more emotive and thoughtful persons will find that the above logic not only fits for dairy animals but is applicable equally to other animals ,as each animal serves the society in some way or the other. such emotive appeal will not help the persons who have become disillusioned by logic.

from:  nilotpal mishra
Posted on: May 1, 2012 at 08:00 IST

Congrats Kalpana.I agree with every point you are trying to make. When I was a student in CMC,Vellore in the 70s beef was a part of the menu in our mess and no one objected to it. Now a days people raise their eye brows even at the idea of beef. Nutrition education must stress that beef is one of the cheapest sources of protein and iron. I am surprised to know that even the muslims in villages of Tamilnadu do not eat beef. Many women of this community suffer from anaemia and if we suggest beef in their diet they shy away from that idea. At the same time most of them can not afford to eat green leafy vegetables to improve their condition. Food festivals if they can attract all groups of students and if they are conducted in an appropriate manner can be a good opportunity to promote communal harmony. The youth in our country should not fall prey to the superstitious beliefs of narrow minded communities.

from:  Dr.V.Prasanna Rao
Posted on: May 1, 2012 at 06:41 IST

This reminds me of a scene in the Hollywood blockbuster "Spartacus" (old movie). Where the Roman emperor asks his slave whether he likes oysters.the slave says "yes master". "do you like snails?" and the slave says "yes master". then emperor asks "its honorable to eat Oysters", the slave says "yes". "Is it dishonorable to eat Snails?"the emperor askes and the slave replys "No". Emperor asks "Truly is it not just a matter of taste?" and the slave replies "yes master".
So this actually means it does not matter whether in food or in Politics it is not the honour that matters its rather what you prefer or rather what you would like to do given a choice to satisfy your hunger.
so it is left to the Politicians/judiciary to check is it really the honor they are interested in or their liking given a choice in this matter. Either way its opinion or just the matter of taste.

from:  senthil
Posted on: May 1, 2012 at 05:05 IST

Compare and contrast these sentences: 1) "In the recent beef festival organised on the campus of Osmania University, there were no reports of any coercion or force-feeding of beef to unwilling people. The people who were there went because they wanted to be there and were people for whom beef was not taboo." 2) "In a recent issue of a newspaper printed in Denmark, there were no reports of any coercion to view cartoons of the prophet. The people who drew the cartoons drew it because they wanted to and were people for whom cartoons were not taboo."
The in-your-face 'festival' was organized with the express purpose of conveying the right to eat beef. The in-your-face cartoons too were drawn with the express purpose of conveying the right to draw cartoons.
We should recognize the politics behind both events.

from:  Nerus
Posted on: May 1, 2012 at 02:58 IST

I agree with the general premise that organising a food festival by itself promotes hatred and also the more important assertion that people can eat what they want.
In this specific case though, I suspect your account might be biased given that you are in the group accused of instigation. Also I suspect there was more to this story than just the festival. After all why wasn't the festival about goodness of pork? Still I would have preferred the protesters had instead educated participants of goodness of giving up red meat.

from:  Kiran
Posted on: May 1, 2012 at 02:34 IST

Its hard to justify the actions of the intolerant ABVP goons. But let me speak on it purely from a health perspective, leaving aside all religious and social questions. Any nutritionist can tell you that red meat like beef are inherently unhealthy. When the new generation is increasingly coming under the grips of unhealthy junk food, wouldn't it have made far more sense to celebrate a food festival to inspire healthier living? Dishes prepared of whole grains, alternative cereals like ragi, fruits, vegetables? What possible justification did the enlightened professors find to celebrate a and promote an unhealthy meat festival? It escapes me.

from:  Vineeth
Posted on: May 1, 2012 at 02:20 IST

These matters are not restricted to India. A recent example of anger over food choices can be seen through the lens of Greenpeace. They have recently been confronting the annual whaling event in the Faroes. Viking descendants there take a portion of pilot whales one day each year. It is a bloody event. Families rely on this whale product for most of the year. Even the skin has value, since it contains vitamin C. Centuries before orange juice and vitamin pills were available for Arctic peoples whales/seals were their only source. Similar arguments have been made with Inuit, Japanese over use of whales. Food is very political. Vegans in the West argue that food animals use up too much space and resources. But proper amino acid balances are hard to accomplish with simply vegan methods. The best protien/fatty vegetables are often too expensive for the poor so they are left solely with starches that stunt growth. I do not know the answers, but anger and confrontation should not factor in.

from:  Ed Hayden
Posted on: May 1, 2012 at 01:20 IST

The fact that Both Raw and cooked Beef and Pork is freely and widely
available in and around Osmania University Campus and rest of the city
of Hyderabad is lost on the Author. Assuming that there are no
ulterior motives in organizing this event on a campus that was already
divided on regional lines is naive at best. Courts when approached,
and the governments when they see fit, have a duty to protect public
order and peace. If this event was going to create public disorder,
city policy have the duty to prevent it before the disorder actually
takes place - Your right to hold such events in a public place is no
superior to my right to peacefully pass through the campus. No one
would have any issue had these controversial events took place in a
private place.

from:  Krishna Dammanna
Posted on: May 1, 2012 at 01:19 IST
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