Saturday, April 12, 2008

Politics of food and Dalit identity

Vikram Doctor has a fascinating essay in today's Economic Times; it covers a few other things before settling down to discuss a key part of the politics of food: meat eating. Some excerpts from this part of Doctor's essay:


Doctor's essay refers to the Out-Caste blog; the quote is from a post titled "Why Is Modern India Vegetarian?"

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Dalit food issues also seem to be getting involved with the politics of meat eating in India. One example was when 10 Dalit students were rusticated from Hyderabad Central University in 2002. One of their grievances apparently was that they were treated differently in the college mess because they ate meat, which lead some activists to wonder if the push for vegetarianism had a less palatable aspect.

The Out-Caste blog noted that official determinants of dietary adequacy and the Public Distribution System that existed to ensure it was met only supplied “rice and wheat at cheap rates, but no meat, egg or nuts, or any non-vegetarian food at all. So in a country where vegetarians are a definite minority, we now plan our daily meals based on a notion of a Brahminical notion of an ‘easily available, balanced diet’, and the cultural production of modern India as vegetarian.”

The implication was that rich upper-castes could survive on such a diet since they could afford the different vegetables and milk supplements needed for proper nutrition, but the lower-castes would have to survived on just the cereals, denied the meat that could have been an easy source of nutrition for them.


What is clear though is that the Dalit identity today increasingly sees meat as an established, if not essential part of it. In his excellently provocative collection of essays Dalit Diary:1999-2003, Reflections on Apartheid in India, Chandra Bhan Prasad ends with a description of a ‘Dalit food festival’ he organises in his home.

The very idea, he admits, seemed bizarre at first, but as he started planning the menu, the better it seemed: “tender pork cooked only with water, salt and black pepper; chicken cooked only in beer; and mutton cooked only in rum... Vegetarian food was also to be cooked, but again in dalit style.” It was a highly subversive success, he says, and I only wish he had written some of the recipes too in his piece. Making food might be the best way to celebrate Ambedkar Jayanti on Monday, the festival for a man who knew all too well what not having food meant.


  1. ggop said...

    Dalit meat dishes sure sound lot healthier than the butter chickens and tikkas you see in restaurants!

  2. Anonymous said...

    >>Brahminical notion of an ‘easily available, balanced diet’, and the cultural production of modern India as vegetarian.”

    Some people might dismiss this. But the following two pieces of information seem to support this theory.

    1) The jayalalitha government (2001-06) in tamil nadu tried to do this by enforcing the Tamil Nadu Bird and animal sacrifices act of 1950 and by excluding eggs from the noon meal scheme (sathuNavu thittam) for school students. She had to backtrack after she drew a blank in the 2004 parliamentary elections.

    2) The predominantly upper caste indian diaspora in western countries does create a misleading impression (i think deliberately) that majority of the indian population doesnt eat meat..

  3. Anonymous said...

    Brahminical notion of an ‘easily available, balanced diet’

    Speak for south indian brahmins. There are many brahmins up north and especially in the east, who always used to, and still do, eat meat.

  4. Anonymous said...

    on an entirely unrelated note from your post, but something you need to peruse... some study that says girls and boys in co-ed environments tend to perform better:

  5. Anonymous said...

    isn't meat more expensive and less sustainable? my undestanding is that pulses of the same nutritional value are cheaper than meat, both for the consumer and for the enviornment.

    meat-eating as indicator of dalit identity seems wierd to me, but because almost everybody eats some kind of meat, whether bengali brahmin or thevar or jat. not to mention that dalit buddhists have taken up vegetarianism as an expression of dalit identity.

  6. gaddeswarup said...

    Symbolic meat eating is ok but I think that there are good reasons for going easy on meat consumption:

  7. Niket said...

    Wouldn't a simple answer be that rice and wheat and sugar are staple foods and meats and vegetables aren't?

    Looking bigotry when none exists, are we?

    BTW, nuts aren't non-veg. Nor are vegetables provided by PDS.

    May be the problem was with "educated" and rich folks deciding what is best for the economically weaker folks. That is a problem of socialism, not casteism.

  8. Niket said...

    My previous statement should not be construed to imply casteism does not exist.

    My argument is that PDS is not constructed by "Brahminnical elites" but by "Socialist elites".

  9. Armchair Guy said...

    Seems to me the simplest explanation is that unprocessed meat needs refrigeration, while none of the other items sold in the PDS do.