Mohammad Ahmar Alvi (Aligarh Muslim University, India). Consuming Fear: A Case Study of Fear-based Food Politics in India

Food is part of our daily life and practice; thus eating is often taken for granted as a mundane activity needed for the well being of the body. This unstudied and passing attitude obliterates the convoluted set of ideologies, assumptions and fear which revolve around food related practices in any community or society. It becomes underlining in the caste-sensitive India where one’s food choices are not purely personal, rather determined, besides one’s place in caste hierarchy, by variety of fear where certain foods are deemed polluting, inferior, unethical and sometimes non-Indian. A case in point is the Dalits (the oppressed and the last in the Hindu caste hierarchy) who are beggared by the Brahmins (upper caste Hindus) first by not being given jobs and secondly by being denied food the Brahmins eat. Thus, pushing them into an enforced culture of hunger which then compels them into food options such as beef-eating, sometimes even dead beef, which bring them violence and brutality in the guise of religion making them experience a plethora of fear ranging from social exclusion to perennial stigma.

The fear of social exclusion concurrent with necessitated stigma of their beef-eating leaves no escape for Dalits from copying the surnames of the Brahmins; flocking to the urban centres where they can obfuscate the facts linked with their identity; and most importantly switching to food habits practiced by Brahmins and the other upper castes in the vicinity. This emulation of the practices and lifestyle of the upper or dominant caste by the Dalits in search for hegemonized higher plane of being and safer social standing is called sanskritization. To the dismay of the Dalits, even the sanskritization brings no respite for them. On the one hand, alongside the traces of their original culture cropping up to invite intermittent violence 22 23 and persecution, their obvious inability to measure up the food habits of the upper caste further adds to the fear associated with shame, rejection, embarrassment and even death; and on the other hand, the co-optation of the Dalits by Brahmin leads them to witness even a more devastating and horrifying fear for decimation of Dalit food habits. Interestingly, this fear, in order to safeguard their food culture, leads the Dalits to devise three most notable activities: organising massive beef festivals across the country; launching online ventures to promote and popularise Dalit food; and most importantly writing life-narratives documenting their food habits. Nevertheless, these attempts on the part of the Dalits, without involving the support of any activist group, entail lynching and other vehement destruction and brutality at the hands of the adherents of Hindutva (an ideology seeking to establish the hegemony of Hindus and the Hindu way of life) and Gau-raksha Andolan (Cow Protection Movement).

This paper, by taking into consideration the above discussed points, will discuss how fear operates the food politics in India. By reading through the history of beef-eating in India, Dalit life narratives, survey reports, articles and books on related issues in food politics in contemporary India, this paper will look at how vegetarianism is institutionalised as the ‘normative’ Indian diet and how fear is aroused around beef-eating by unleashing violence and lynching its consumers. The paper will also gauge whether it is the fear of demeaning their caste that Brahmins refrain from beef-eating and other Dalit food, which the West has started to embrace as most organic and healthy, or it is fear of losing oligarchy devised to maintain caste hierarchy and keep the oppressed, oppressed. To answer this question, it becomes essential to deliberate whether the natural act of eating beef, an integral part of Dalit culinary habit, revived Hindutva and Gau-raksha Andolan, or Hindutva and Gau-raksha Andolan escalated beef-eating as a counter culture. This question, keeping in mind the current scenario of the country, where Hindutva forces, along with Gau-raksha Andolan, have become all time active and brutal, becomes all more significant than ever before. Thus, this paper, while investigating when and how the fear for decimation of food culture lies heavy on the Dalits and leads them to take all exceptions against Brahmanical atrocities to preserve it, will elaborate on how the so-called transgressive food i.e. beef-eating, beating all the fear, emerges out as a marker of Dalit identity.