Meat in The Hindu canteen and other dreams
On Ambedkar Jayanti (April 14), sections of the commentariat on Twitter an Facebook took a break from trying to get the country to go beyond mere ceremonial mentions of Ambedkar or warning people of a Modi age, and found a new cause.
The Hindu, everyone's favourite 'leftist' newspaper1 had come out with a notice banning its employees from bringing non-vegetarian food to its canteen. The notice, a picture of which was uploaded by Dalit Camera, attracted predictable responses. Right-wingers found themselves in solidarity with their arch-enemy. Liberals to the right and left of centre were outraged (the former secretly overjoyed at 'exposing' The Hindu and the latter, disappointed). Many on the left and from across the spectrum of Dalit-Bahujan politics, who mentioned the 'c' word, kept getting responses like – 'Caste? Nothing doing. This is about individual choices and lifestyles.'
The Hindu's Editor Malini Parthasarathy on Twitter too was predictable, calling it an “internal company matter”, noting that “we are not ashamed of running a purely vegetarian canteen” and added for good measure that “Vegetarianism is part of an increased sensitivity to animals & other species. Crazy to link this to secularism debate.” But for convenience, I'd prefer Strategic Affairs Editor Praveen Swami, who went on a blitz defending the management's decision. Like Abhimanyu in the Chakravyuha (changed metaphors for changing times), he fought off everyone who challenged him, the nub of his argument being “The Hindu office is private property, and those who own it, subject to law, can make rules for it” and “no right is being denied. No-one stopped from eating meat, only to eat it in a particular place.”
The fact is, he is right. From liberal perspective, The Hindu is an organisation which can frame its own rules and since a majority may be uncomfortable with non-vegetarian food, the rule makes sense too. Thus, there were no curbs on non-vegetarians itself, only on the act of eating in a particular context. Or as Swami put it “Liberals respect individual rights. In this case, a norm is being enforced—but no right denied.”
Another 'liberal' argument against the decision is the danger of majoritarianism. How can a majority (or any group for that matter) impose their will in terms of food on another group? The answer to this of course is that The Hindu is not a public space but a private one. To quote the sharp Swami “its my right to eat what I want at home. It isn't my right to carry beef into a temple, or pork into a mosque.”
Makes sense, right? Then, why does a niggling sense of uneasiness remain as our Twitter Abhimanyu bharatanatyams his way through the battlefield? Part of it takes off from another tweet: “Eating meat is neither secular nor communal.” Perhaps, but then, Mr. Swami, it is all about caste. The history of meat consumption in India is inseparably entangled with caste. When we are talking about an organisation with a history of being staffed mainly by Tamil Brahmins, then any discussion without a reference to caste is naivete at best and #shuttingeyestosun at worst. The abhorrence of meat, as opposed to the mere refusal to eat it, stems often from a notion of pollution, which is the bedrock of the caste system itself. So let us skip the merry go-round of the majority and minority and see the move for what it is - the imposition of the values of a particular (and dominant) caste on a group of people.
But this is only half the journey. The other half lies in eliminating this easy distinction between various spaces on issues like caste, or for that matter class or gender or race. Agencies that produce/spread knowledge cannot hope to escape scrutiny, especially if they take 'progressive' stands on social issues. This goes for universities too. Swami's argument that The Hindu is a private concern is legally true. As a political argument, it is as close to bullcrap as it gets.
Perhaps, but then, Mr. Swami, it is all about caste. The history of meat consumption in India is inseparably entangled with caste. When we are talking about an organisation with a history of being staffed mainly by Tamil Brahmins, then any discussion without a reference to caste is naivete at best and #shuttingeyestosun at worst. [...]. Agencies that produce/spread knowledge cannot hope to escape scrutiny, especially if they take 'progressive' stands on social issues. This goes for universities too. Swami's argument that The Hindu is a private concern is legally true. As a political argument, it is as close to bullcrap as it gets.
For that is what it is, part of a political battle – not just an occasion for coffee table debate or an intellectual exercise. It is part of a tradition that has fought for beef in university messes and demanded meat in the celebration of festivals such as Onam. It is a recognition of the fact that vegetarianism and non-vegetarianism are not lifestyle choices that can be negotiated on an equal plane but come loaded with histories of privilege and discrimination. These spaces have to be captured, whether they be private or public because only then is a true transformation of society possible. Else, it's just a different layer of sauce. The food remains the same.
The onus is on the journalists of The Hindu. It is their space to fight for. Otherwise, this remains merely another moment in the breathless cycle of online outrage and finger exercises.