Everytime we put food on our plates, we might think about its plating or its taste. We sometimes even try to guess the spices or the ingredients that have been used in cooking a meal. Food, and conversations around food, however, do not end there. Every piece of food on your plate holds a deep cultural significance. Therefore, using food as a point of polarization becomes much easier.
This conversation is sparked by the recent meat ban by Mayors of Delhi Government on the occasion of Navratri. They cited concerns around vegetarianism and purity around the festive season as the grounds for closing meat shops. Purity is often used synonymously with food diets, but who decides purity? What does purity even mean?
The sense of purity is deeply entwined with the sense of religion around which the entire idea of current political polarization exists. Food, in many ways, represents religion and religious practices. Many religious customs are centered around food offerings and sacrosanctity of food. The recipes of delicacies travel down generations and act as a link to one’s ancestry and background. This link to background transcends food from nutrition to a symbol of identity.
Points of differences become points of polarization and communal differentiation when we change the narrative to identity from identities. Food is a cultural symbol. It means different things to different peoples. The attacks at Kaveri Hostel, JNU was not an attack on any dietary practise or religion, but on the purity of an entire lifestyle.
Meat is culturally believed to be something “not-indian”, being culturally different, it is supposedly assumed to be the direct opposite of “indian”. Since, indian is ours, it is pure and meat-eating, therefore, impure. This entire idea rests on the basic belief that meat-eating is not a traditionally Indian idea. Reports in The Conversation,and Scroll, beg to differ. India had a long history of meat and beef eating. The question therefore arises, Why now? Why purity?
Food has become synonymous with ‘identity’. It reflects the person, their caste, class, religion, background. It is as much a symbol of identity as hijab. And as a symbol of identity, it is defined in the binaries of ‘our’ and ‘other’. In an attempt to squash everything that is not “our”, food also comes under the items-to-be-squashed.
Food, however, is also different from all other aspects of polarization. It is a necessity of human life. It is not something that can be given up to please the status quo. It is a habit of a lifetime, it cannot be changed overnight. Moreover, why does it even need to be changed? To stay alive? To stay uninjured? This is the dichotomy of the situation. You cannot have food and you cannot give up food, and you need to stay alive. You need to be connected to your ancestry, your culture.
Food, for many, is the only inheritance they ever receive. Dividing food in the binary of purity, is calling an entire culture impure, when the very notion of purity is shaken within the community making the judgment. Polarizing on meat is not just religious polarization but also fuelling the age-old caste polarization. For many castes, including dalits, meat is a very important part of their diets and culture. Banning meat is also banning them under the idea of building a common Hindu nation.
Moreover, the situation is both ironic and not, because the ban and attacks are centered around communities who are both economically and socially disadvantaged. The ban is going to attack low level producers of meat who depend on it for both their financial and dietary needs. Moreover banning of such stores will affect offal production that is consumed by lower caste ‘hindus’. If on one look, the decision seems as a ban on one community’s diet, it is not. It is a move to financially, culturally, emotionally, and nutritionally affect communities of every religion.
It might seem as a shock that something as basic as food can cause riots and attacks. But food is anything but basic, yet a basic need for sustenance. If the politics of food becomes this evident and out rather than playing in subtly, we need to analyze where is our politics of polarization headed.
Lakshya Sharma is a first year undergraduate student at Ashoka University. He is an economics and media studies student. Apart from his academic interests, he has keen interest in writing and fashion.
Picture Credits: News24
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