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'India Is A Meat-Eating Country'

By SHOBHA WARRIER
Last updated on: February 23, 2024 09:15 IST
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'Our study finds that only about 20% of Indians are vegetarians and the rest of the 80% are non-vegetarians or meat-eaters.'

'Your eating habits have a lot to do with where you live.'

Kindly note the image has only been published for representational purposes. Photograph: Kind courtesy Bohed/Pixabay

Myth: India is a vegetarian country.

Reality: 80% of India's population are meat-eaters.

Ever since the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power, there has been a constant and determined effort to paint India as a vegetarian nation.

Though it is widely known that a majority of Indians eat 'non-vegetarian' food, the image that is carefully projected all over the world is contrary to the reality.

What anthropologist Dr Balamurali Natarajan and political economist Dr Suraj Jacob are doing through a couple of intensive studies is investigate the myth that India is a vegetarian nation.

"Differences in food habits based on geography seem to be far bigger than differences based on caste group, religious group, gender, etc," Dr Suraj Jacob tells Shobha Warrier/Rediff.com.

 

An idea that is perpetuated by the BJP is that India is largely a vegetarian nation.

The main study 'Provincialising' Vegetarianism Putting Indian Food Habits in Their Place was done in 2018 and then we updated it with another study in 2020. Both the studies were published in the Economic and Political Weekly.

The idea that is very commonly articulated both within the country and across the world, is that India is vegetarian.

So, we conducted the studies using a lot of data, mainly from NSSO, the National Family Health Survey (NFHS), and the India Human Development Survey (IHDS) to find out what large-scale survey data reveal.

Kindly note the image has only been published for representational purposes. Photograph: Kind courtesy Pixabay

Has the myth been there for a long time, or is it after the BJP came to power that the image got wide publicity?

It is an older ideam but it got a new dynamics in the last few years. The intense politicisation of the idea is a new phenomenon.

Of course, there are vegetarians in India. They typically have privileged positions in caste and power hierarchies with greater voice from the perspective of class and governance.

They always had a voice in shaping governance and policies.

Perhaps you could call them the elites -- the social elites, economic elites and political elites.

These elites are disproportionately more among those who migrate to the West.

Their presence and their articulation of vegetarianism, further reinforces the image of India as a vegetarian country.

Is the connection between caste and vegetarianism confined only to India, or did you notice it in any of the neighbouring countries?

Caste is not restricted to India alone. Historically, it is a South Asian phenomenon.

Some other South Asian countries also have vestiges of caste in their society, but caste is more prevalent in India.

Our neighbouring countries have important other groups that shape social and cultural practices like the Sinhalese in Sri Lanka and various Muslim groups in Pakistan and Bangladesh.

But if you look at Latin America or Africa for example, you don't see this kind of importance on vegetarianism.

In fact, 'non-vegetarianism' is a very Indian term.

Kindly note the image has only been published for representational purposes. Photograph: Kind courtesy Nadin Sh/Pexels

That was one thing I wanted to ask you. All over the world, people who are not vegetarians are called meat-eaters and not non-vegetarians.
Do you think the description itself gives an upper hand to the vegetarians in India?

Yes, it is very interesting to look at these terms. That's why in our first article, we write about this word, 'non-vegetarian'.

What is the default, vegetarian or non-vegetarian against which the 'non' is presented? Often the default reflects the power structures in society.

The term non-vegetarian implies that vegetarian is the default, and the rest are non-vegetarian.

When in fact, statistically speaking, the default should have been meat-eating, as it is a minority who are non-meat-eaters or meat-avoiders.

In the article, we note that continued use of the term non-vegetarian helps only to reproduce the default and the underlying power structure.


IMAGE: Dr Suraj Jacob.

You feel because the powerful elites are vegetarians, their choice even though it is not the choice of the majority, became the default?

Exactly. But let me say, I don't think this was a conscious strategy.

It happened organically through the power structure.

Those who have the power use their power without realising it.

However, with the rise of the BJP, more conscious strategies are being deployed.

You can also see that there is more value judgement about the choice now.

Look at the word 'non-vegetarian jokes' attributing to the term 'non-vegetarian' as something unsavoury, immoral or dirty.

These things show that there is something pure about one choice and impure about the other.

It also shows how the powerful create morality and values that fit their ideology.

Your study found that mostly affluent households are vegetarians and Dalits and tribals are predominantly meat-eaters. Also, 80% of the population eat meat. Did it come as a surprise, or was this on expected lines?

It did not come as a surprise as most social scientists know that we are a meat-eating nation. And many studies done before us also say so.

We used a large pool of data from multiple sources to show that statistically we are indeed a meat-eating nation.

As this idea is not new, the result that only 20% of the population are vegetarians did not come as a surprise to us.

Even among the general public, though they know there are more meat-eaters in India, the general perception that is created now is that India is a vegetarian nation...

There is a distinction between scholarly understanding and ideas held by the general public.

What is projected across the country is done by a powerful minority group. Many sections of the public accept this stereotypical image of India as vegetarian.

One of our attempts was to bust this myth using credible statistical data.

Our study finds that only about 20% of Indians are vegetarians and the rest of the 80% are non-vegetarians or meat-eaters.

Another interesting thing we found was, while there were differences along caste and wealth lines, what was more important was where you lived in India.

What you eat is determined more by geography and agro-ecology.

While there are meat eating Brahmins in India, there are also meat-avoiding Dalits in India. Historically, it depends a lot on where you live.

If you live in a coastal region, you tend to be fish eaters historically. For example, the privileged castes in Bengal eat fish, and some do not even consider fish as non-vegetarian food.

Also, Tibetan Buddhists eat meat, and that is partly because of the harsh agricultural conditions. In fact, the Dalai Lama discusses this in his autobiography.

It is true, now we live in a world where you can choose what you want to eat.

But historically, your practices were determined by your surroundings.

Thousands of years ago when people settled in the Indo-Gangetic plain and started farming, they had the need to protect their cattle.

From then on, cows gained increased importance and slowly they started getting worshipped.

So, worshipping of cows has a historical agro-ecological dimension.

On the other hand, a hunting community will not look at cows or any other animal this way.

So, your eating habits have a lot to do with where you live.

What was the most interesting revelation you found in your study?

As I mentioned, what struck me the most was that the difference between caste groups or even wealth groups or between genders is less compared to the difference between the various regions in the country.

Yes, we found that only 20% of India's population is vegetarian. But when you look at it state wise, the dramatic differences between each state are more than the differences between different caste groups.

For example, there are a lot more vegetarians in Rajasthan, but the percentage of vegetarians is extremely low in, say, Kerala or the north eastern states.

While less than 5% of the population are vegetarians in Assam, West Bengal, and Kerala, it is over 75% in Rajasthan.

Geography or where you live is a major contributing factor in your food practices.

Differences in food habits based on geography seem to be far bigger than differences based on caste group, religious group, gender, etc.

All charts: Kind courtesy Dr Suraj Jacob

You said, gender difference... Has it something to do with patriarchy?

We see that vegetarianism is reported by women more than men. And we do link it with patriarchy.

We wrote women are designated as the repositories of the so-called traditions.

In certain households, they cook only vegetarian food, but men go out and eat meat.

Men move around more, but put the weight of conforming to tradition on women. Patriarchy allows men to have greater impunity in such matters.

Another interesting thing is that this gender gap is strikingly similar across caste and religious groups.

That is, for every major caste group, there is the same approximately 10 percentage point difference between men and women.

We also found cultural politics playing a role in food habits.

In the last few years, culture has been politicised. For example, among Muslims, there is no proscription to meat-eating in general unlike Jainism where there is such a proscription.

Yet we find that Muslims in Rajasthan are less likely to admit that they eat meat compared to Muslims in, say, Bengal. But you cannot conclude that Muslims in Rajasthan don't eat meat.

We see that it is shaped by cultural politics; many people are scared to admit that they are beef eaters, even for a survey.

So we see that cultural politics affects even in how people respond to a question for a survey!

Is there a difference in the food habits of people in the northern part of India and southern part of India?

Yes, there is. We see that there is more meat eating in the east and the south of India compared to the north and west.

That is mainly because of geography and history than anything else.

Ecologically, the south and the east are closer to the coast, and different from the wide plains of the north.

As I said earlier, the geographical differences are the biggest differences we found in our study.

This is what struck me as very interesting.

How did you look at the phenomenon where Hindus in northern India abhor eating beef while religious Hindus in Kerala eat beef?

Beef eating is practised far less in the north and the west compared to the south and the east.

There is a section in our first study which we devote entirely to beef eating because that has become more controversial now.

Beef eating is even more politicised than meat-eating in general, and there is more cultural and political pressure on beef eating.

These pressures are more in some regions so that Dalits in those areas are less likely to admit to eating beef. For example the Dalits in Rajasthan.

Further, Muslims in states with greater BJP support are less likely to admit that they eat beef.

Do you think everybody should know what people of India really eat?

Yes, because many people, especially those who live in the north and west, still tend to think that meat-eating is an aberration, and that the majority of Indians are vegetarians.

In fact, as the statistics show, we are basically a meat-eating country where about 80% of the population eat meat.

India simply should not be characterised as a vegetarian nation.

 

Incidence of Vegetarianism (%), by Gender and Social Group (NFHS)

 

Religious categories

  HinduMuslimChristianSikhBuddhistJain
Women 34.03 2.22 1.18 70.01 9.25 97.39
Men 22.95 1.44 0.54 35.90 4.66 92.34
 

Mega-caste categories

  SCSTOBCOthers
All (Women) 20.66 18.09 33.10 35.51
Hindu (Women) 20.68 20.73 37.57 43.59
Buddhist (Women) 9.75      
All (Men) 10.78 11.68 22.62 26.40
Hindu (Men) 10.84 13.21 25.37 31.75
Buddhist (Men) 5.00      

Feature Presentation: Rajesh Alva/Rediff.com

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