Over 200 people squeezed into a packed IIT Madras lecture hall last Friday, October 30, in order to attend a talk by the writer and activist Dr. Anand Teltumbde, who is a professor at IIT Kharaghpur. The talk was organized by the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle and titled ‘Is Beef Eating an Anti-Hindu Psyche?’. In his talk, Dr. Teltumbde suggested that recent beef-controversies in India are a clever distraction by the ruling classes from the real need of the hour: the empowerment of the rural labour force.
Teltumbde opened with some basic questions about the nature of Hinduism: What is Hinduism? Who is a Hindu? What are the common characteristics of Hindus across India? He described Ambedkar’s response to these questions, articulated in his famous work ‘The Annihilation of Caste’. Namely, Hinduism can be divided into a set of principles and a set of rules. Over the last several thousand years, the rules have overwhelmed the principles. Moreover, Caste is the defining feature of these rules. Ambedkar further stated that there exists no ‘Hindu culture’ to speak of, but rather a collection of disparate, independent cultures defined by caste and community, between which there is a total absence of social osmosis.
After emphasizing the fundamental role of caste in any discussion of Hinduism, Teltumbde turned his attention to recent events: the beef ban in Maharashtra, the Dadri lynching, and the media flurry around Lalu Prasad Yadav’s supposedly controversial comments on beef-eating by Hindus. Teltumbde contrasted these events with quotes from ancient texts–the Rig Veda and the Manusmriti–and from more recent scholars–D D Kosambi, Narayan Jha, and Swami Vivekananda–describing the prominent role beef consumption (as well as bovine sacrifice) has played in Hinduism. Moreover, in the past, Brahmins lay claim to the choicest beef while Dalits ate the remains, and even carrion from diseased cows, reflecting the hierarchy of the caste system. The Brahmin adoption of vegetarianism was only in response to the so-called Shramanic revolt by Jains and Buddhists against animal sacrifice.
According to Teltumbde, history aside, the recent beef ban in Maharashtra also makes zero economic sense. Today, India is the largest beef exporter in the world, and the livestock sector (of which cattle is a significant part) contributes 26% of agricultural economy. Cattle rearing is mostly done by small and marginalized farmers. Since livestock is far more equitably distributed than land, the bovine economy can have a great affect on poverty alleviation. What will happen now to the 30,000-35,000 cattle that are slaughtered daily, in Maharashtra alone? Letting them loose in the countryside is a far greater disrespect to the cows, and spells economic ruin to dairy farmers. Concerning the climate, the ban will result in overgrazing, desertification, and an increase in greenhouse gasses. It will also result in a 2% drop in GDP.
In his conclusion, Teltumbde reiterated that the beef ban is morally wrong–even if just one person eats beef, you cannot ban him from eating it. In reality over 40% of Indians (i.e. Dalits, Muslims, Christians, and Adivasis) consume beef, and many rely on it as their primary source of protein. It is especially important for many poor people, being more affordable than other meats and even tur dal. However, Teltumbde emphasized that the most important issue at present is not simply Hinduism or beef, but rather the extreme disempowerment of working people, which is brought about by rising intolerance and neoliberalism. The rural workforce is in desperate need improved health, education, and access to jobs. Yet the government has slashed spending on health and education, while simultaneously pursuing neoliberal labour reforms. According to Teltumbde, “Neoliberalism discretizes everything that comes in its way. Society, space, and people are pulverized and left vulnerable. The insecurity embedded in the market is exploited by certain powerful groups. Man cannot survive if not socialized.”