Father had bought meat first thing in the morning. We generally consumed beef. Those in the neighbourhood also mostly ate beef. That was because it was cheap. There was a slaughterhouse at Gaddigodam, a short distance from our locality. Muslim butchers used to sell beef there. The doors and windows of the slaughterhouse were covered with nets. Doctor came, examined the cows and then allowed their slaughter. Servants of the British and Anglo-Indian Christians also used to purchase meat from there. My younger sister ground the spices very fine on the grinding stone. We added a lot of red chilli powder to the meat. Mother fried the masala and then kept the meat on the “chulha” for cooking. Today was a holiday. So we had rice, rotis and meat for lunch. On normal days, it was rotis and spicy dal. Sometimes, besan (gram flour) “kadhi” was prepared. Occasionally, potatoes and brinjals or “badis” were cooked in gravy. After all, gravy was needed to eat rice.
These lines are from my mother Kaushalya Baisantri’s autobiography Dohra Abhishap (Twice Cursed). Although I never saw my mother eating beef, my interactions with her have helped me understand the complexities of this issue. Also, I came to know about the food habits of Dalitbahujans across religions, including Hinduism. And what I found was painful and bitter. The intellectual class should take these realities into account while debating and discussing this issue. This will expose them to the reality of India’s cultural heritage and the role of religion.
Vedas talk of sacrifice of cows during Ashwamedha Yagnas and the share of Brahmins in the meat. But the right of the Dalits to eat what they wish to is discussed neither in society nor in religion. Despite back-breaking labour, the Dalits are not able to arrange two square meals a day for themselves. This is as true today as it was in the decades and centuries that have gone by. Dalit literature vividly and honestly describes this situation.
Dalits not only have to struggle for respect, equality and justice but also for the freedom of choice of food. Some facts regarding beef need to be recounted here. Poultry, mutton, pulses, other foodgrains, fruits, dry fruits and many vegetables are so costly that they are out of the reach of a majority of people belonging to these communities. What they can afford is beef. In villages, disposing of dead cattle falls to the Dalits’ lot even today and the meat is distributed among the Dalit families. My mother once told me that sometimes, when they got more beef than they could consume in a day, it was cut into thin, long pieces and kept on the roof to dry. The dried pieces were stored and whenever there was a shortage of food, especially in the rainy season, these pieces were roasted and eaten. This may sound repulsive to those used to consuming milk, curd and ghee but it is a fact. And imposing brahmanical culture on this section of people in the name of religion is grossly unjust. It is an assault on the culture, history, identity and struggles of the Dalits.
Whatever I learnt from my mother regarding Dalits consuming beef is a shining example of Dalit feminist thought. Dalit women usually shoulder the responsibility of feeding the family. Men have little role in bringing up children and running the household. The woman works as hard as the men, makes money and bargains hard to buy things at the lowest possible price. Once back home, she has to fetch water, clean the house, prepare food and serve it to all family members. Once in a while, she cooks beef and many a Dalit writing depict the sense of fulfilment evident on the face of the Dalit mother when she sees her kids enjoying food. Not everyone can cope with such an experience. Only those who have lived it, can. This pain is one of the key components of Dalit discourse.
In the entire world, especially in the West and in the African countries, beef is a part of the daily meals. Never has it created any controversy. In India, a row has been kicked up by linking beef with beliefs and sentiments. This may make the Dalits and the minorities vulnerable to violent attacks.
Until my mother lived with her parents, due to poverty, her family had no option but to eat beef. After her marriage (my father was a government officer) she never cooked or ate beef. That was because she had other options. In India, beef is consumed only because of poverty. Food, dress, language, dialect, arts and sculpture – all are associated with culture. They have nothing to do with religion. In a country like India, whose 1.25 billion people are divided into more than 6,500 castes and sub-castes, and profess almost all of the world’s religions, linking beef with religious beliefs or sentiments is a sure recipe for disaster.