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June 17, 2012

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I wonder what you think about the caste angle to vegetarianism in India. I mean, I agree with your argument about the need to stop eating animals for humane reasons, as well as sustainability and environmental issues. However, in India, vegetarianism and especially the prohibition on beef eating is at least partially (largely) shaped by ideas of caste purity and brahminical hegemony. What do you think about the ethical issues in opposing a beef festivals organised by Dalits as a show of defiance against brahminical cultural norms?

Shanth,

That's an excellent question to which I'd respond as follows. I certainly don't like the Brahminical purity/pollution as a motivation for not eating meat, which also happens to be a key foundation for the caste system itself. So this idea of purity/pollution has to be attacked — and I fully support Dalits wanting to do so. However, while I can understand Dalits who want to organize beef/pork eating festivals to assert their civil rights and to defy the Brahminical order, I cannot emotionally get behind this particular tactic in their larger struggle. My support might increase if I could sense that this was consciously deployed only as a short term tactic to achieve the right to eat one's traditional foods, and as this right was achieved, the practice itself would reduce. But I've not seen any such vision behind this tactic.

In general, I think asserting our equal humanity ought to be done in ways that don't require the oppression and suffering of other vulnerable beings. I would enthusiastically support a Dalit stance that took the higher moral ground of opposing purity/pollution while combining it with compassion for animals. Dalit intellectuals and others can point out that compassion — and not purity/pollution — should be the right reason for not eating animals. Making more animals suffer is hardly a morally exemplary way of opposing the idea of purity/pollution.

That said, it is also worth noting that the largest consumers of animals in India today are likely not low caste people but young upper caste folks in the metros, whose consumption of meat has none of the redeeming goals that at least such politicized Dalit meat fests have. For some Dalits and adivasis, killing animals for food is also more closely linked to their survival, so we must view that differently as well.

I more or less agree with you, though I think achieving the right to eat one's traditional foods, would be seen by most as a prelude to resuming/reviving the practice of eating those foods regularly. I wonder why the mass conversions to Buddhism led by Dr Ambedkar seem to have died out.

It's a shame that the moral arguments for vegetarianism have been so thoroughly muddied by this caste purity nastiness in India.

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