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:
“Caste violence too is almost entirely driven by political and economic factors, rather than religious ones. Not surprisingly, caste tensions often increase around election time as politicians exploit the issue to get votes. The inextricable intertwining of opposing political parties representing the interests of various castes, for instance, landlords and landless laborers, also feeds such tensions.
“Caste-based discrimination occurs among all religious communities today, including Christian and Muslim.
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.