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We want beef and pork: Food politics comes to JNU

New Delhi: Osmania University has become the latest theatre of the explosive politics surrounding beef-eating in India after a festival organised by Dalit and Left-wing students sparked off a minor riot on campus.

As it turns out, a similar food festival was planned by students at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) but was called off after opposition by Dalit students over the possible fallout of such an event.

The highly combustible issue of food politics has returned to the JNU campus following the recent launch of the ‘JNU Beef-Pork Eating Campaign’ by a community of students who describe themselves as a “beef and pork eaters and people who do not care about the mythic claims of ‘holy cow’ and ‘unholy pig’.

It’s credit to JNU that violence hasn’t already broken out, given how highly sensitive and political the issue of cow-slaughter has become in India.

So far the reaction on campus has been restricted to a new counter grouping called the ‘Students against beef and pork’.

 We want beef and pork: Food politics comes to JNU

The highly combustible issue of food politics has returned to the JNU campus.

“In north India, the hostility against cow slaughter is very high. But JNU being a progressive space dominated by the Left, we didn’t expect an extreme or violent reaction,” says Premjish Achari, who was among those who started the campaign. Achari is a PhD student at JNU’s School of Art and Aesthetics.

The community was formed after the recent decision by the Madhya Pradesh government to ban cow-slaughter in the state.

The reaction in the JNU campus to the Osmania episode, however, has been muted with university’s Students Union, controlled by the ultra-left All India Student’s Association (AISA), yet to formally issue a statement.

The reluctance of the Left-wing student groups to vocally support their campaign, believes Achari, has to do with class-centric politics of the Left which has remained indifferent to caste-politics.

“We are apprehensive about getting their support. They have not condemned the issue (violence on Osmania campus) till now. They haven’t openly supported this issue,” says Achari.

Responding to the allegation, JNU Students Union President Sucheta De, while condemning the ban on cow slaughter, stopped short of explicitly supporting the ‘JNU Beef-Pork Eating Campaign’ closer home.

“Firstly, a society and a country that claims to be secular should not put a ban on any food habit. It is the people’s choice what they want to eat. AISA has in the past come out with a detailed pamphlet condemning the cow slaughter bill, its politics and ideology,” she said.

The misguided fear of antagonising the Mulsim minority is also one of the reasons why the Left’s response has been muted, says Anand Krishnaraj, who is also part of the group that started beef-pork eating campaign.

“During public meeting, Prof Kancha Ilaiah asked the Muslim students – about 70 plus Muslim students attended the meeting – if they had a problem if pork was served on campus. They unanimously said ‘no’.”

Krishnaraj is referring to a public meeting that was held at the JNU campus last month where noted Dalit writer Kancha Ilaiah and feminist writer Nivedita Menon were among those who spoke.

According to Krishnaraj while the meeting saw a gathering of 600-plus students, the issue of food politics is something JNU has remained largely indifferent to, even post the Osmania episode.

With the semester ending soon, the campaigners of the beef-pork eating community says they will start a fresh debate when the new semester begins.

We are reclaiming our 'right to eat'

Firstpostspoke to Achari, one of the students behind the ‘JNU Beef-Pork Eating Campaign’ on why they started it.

Image courtesy Premjish Achari's Facebook page.

When and what led to ‘JNU Beef-Pork Eating campaign

It is hardly three months old. We formed this group after Madhya Pradesh government banned cow slaughter. We started this group online to discuss issues on cow slaughter and the politics of it, about how vegetarianism and non-vegetarianism is used by the right wing fundamentalists as an assertion to propagate cultural nationalism. The agenda of this group was to generate awareness, debate and discuss these issues.

We anticipated some reaction. In north India, the hostility against cow slaughter is very high. But JNU being a progressive space dominated by the Left, we didn’t expect much too much of an adverse reaction.

The ABVP has formed a community called ‘students against beef and pork’ in reaction to our campaign. We have organised public meetings that have been successful and it has been peaceful. So we can’t say there was a violent reaction, like what we saw at the Osmania university. But the hostility is always there. I congratulate the students of Osmania for organising the beef festival.

What is the opinion on campus on the issue of beef-pork eating?

It is mostly indifference that one finds on campus. Those against have come out openly but those in support have remained indifferent and not come out in large numbers.

Is there an active demand on campus for beef and pork to be served?

There is definitely an active demand by a group of students and through this community we are working towards it slowly. It is a highly sensitive issue and after the way the right wing has reacted in Osmania, many senior activists have requested us to be careful because anything we do in JNU can incite violence against Dalits and minorities outside campus. So we have to be very careful and strategic in handling this issue.

Our ultimate aim is that restaurants and dhabas on campus be allowed to serve beef and pork. There shouldn’t be any restrictions. In the JNU campus, beef was served earlier. It was then banned because of ABVP hooliganism in the 1990s. The canteen owner was forced to close the place and leave campus. So JNU has had a history of serving beef and we are demanding that it should be brought back. And people who want to eat and serve should be allowed to do so.

We are not demanding that it should be served in the hostel mess. We are not forcing our food on anyone and we are demanding that their food not be forced on us.

Are you expecting support from the JNU students Union which is dominated by a Left wing students group?

As you know, Left politics is class determined and does not address issues of caste politics. We are apprehensive about getting their support. They have not condemned the issue (violence on Osmania campus) till now. They haven’t openly supported this issue. They also have their prejudices. Unlike the SFI which supported the Dalit students in organising the beef festival in Osmania, the SFI here hasn’t taken a stand.

Where would you locate yourself politically?

I see myself as an independent left but part of people’s movements.

Did you grow up eating beef or is it a choice you’ve made?

I grew up eating beef. In Kerala, I never thought about the politics of it. It is only when I reached north India did I realise that it was difficult to maintain certain food habits.

A national daily had interviewed me on this. After it was published, I got calls from ISKCON activits telling why I can’t eat vegetables, aloo gobi, gulab jamun…and that cows are sacred. I then realised the politics of it. Ambedkar has written very well about how beef eating is connected with untouchabilty.

In Kerala, there is a strong Christian majority and a Muslim population and the state has maintained a secular tradition because of that. This is true of the North East as well. But in north India, it becomes quite difficult because of the Hindu Right wing assertion.

I realised how important it was to reclaim my rights to eat and to reclaim my way of living rather than surrendering myself to a monolithic cultural nationalism.

Were you expecting more support or were you surprised by the response?

I am surprised and disappointed as well. When we have meetings we don’t see as many people as there are online. It happens with all virtual forums. It is good that they generate discussion, but the real work should be done on the ground. We have the support of faculty and students. I would like to see our 334 online supporters for real.

Did you anticipate this kind of trouble in Osmania because of the beef festival?

Prof Kancha Ilaiah, who addressed students during last month’s public meeting, gave us an idea of the magnitude of right wing violence. When they had organised a smaller festival earlier, stones were thrown at them. They came with bottles of urine and poured it into the food. That was one month ago. But I didn’t expect things to take such an ugly turn.

Has there been debate on the JNU campus on this issue?

I haven’t seen a reaction from JNU students union. It hasn’t triggered a debate here. I have shared links with the students union president on facebook. I haven’t seen any reaction from her.

Has ABVP said anything to you?

When these debates happened, all they said was that I should include pork. But we had already included it. They always try to play the Muslim card.

Recently, there is a Christian fellowship in JNU and they held an Easter dinner party where pork was served. Pork has always been served in JNU campus and there hasn’t been a problem.

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Updated Date: Apr 18, 2012 13:59:18 IST