Busting hegemony of vegetarianism: When allowed, Indians prefer eating meat, many coerced to under-report beef-eating practices

It is seen that coercive pressures of community and the state dictate food choices.

If commonly-held myths and certain government surveys are to be believed, a large number of Indians are vegetarians. For instance, the Sample Registration System Baseline Survey 2014 notes that close to 30 percent in India are vegetarians. And that the number of non-vegetarians in India has decreased from 75 percent in 2004 to 71 percent in 2014.

However, new research by anthropologist Balmurli Natrajan and political economist Suraj Jacob, published in a paper titled Provincialising Vegetarianism published in The Economic and Political Weekly's 3 March issue points to a mountain of evidence that even these are inflated estimations because of "cultural and political pressures". So people under-report eating meat — particularly beef — and over-report eating vegetarian food. Natrajan and Jacob look at data from three largescale surveys – NSSO, NFHS, IHDS – to not only underline how the extent of overall vegetarianism is much less in India than suggested by common claims and stereotypes, but also link the spatial variations in the prevalence of vegetarianism to political variations.

From the data, they conclude that overall vegetarianism in India is no more than 30 percent of the population, and likely closer to 20 percent. Even beef-eating is close to 15 percent of the population – about 180 million people — eat beef. That's a whopping 96 percent more than the official estimates.

The notion of ‘non-vegetarian’ (which the researchers state is a pejorative used against those who eat meat) and the discourse around vegetarianism, then, reflect the hegemony enjoyed (thus far) by the ‘minority’ vegetarian population. The term signals the social power of vegetarian classes, including their power to classify foods, to create a 'food hierarchy' wherein vegetarian food is the default and is having a higher status than meat. Thus it is akin to the term 'non-whites' coined by 'whites' to capture an incredibly diverse population who they colonised", the paper says.

Busting hegemony of vegetarianism: When allowed, Indians prefer eating meat, many coerced to under-report beef-eating practices

Representational image. AFP

The research paper attempts to look at what people in In India eat when “let alone”- when not pried upon by the state or coerced by political and social pressures. It draws inspiration for this idea from the Bombay High Court’s 2016 judgement which struck down Section 5D of the amendment to the Maharashtra Animal Preservation Act, 1976 and made it clear that if the state dictates food choices, it would be a clear violation of citizens’ right to privacy.

Locating Vegetarians Geographically

There is considerable regional variation in vegetarianism, although there is a pattern – states in India’s west and north have a relatively higher level of vegetarianism compared to states in the east and south. Six states (all in the northeast) have less than 2 percent incidence of vegetarianism.

Among states with at least two crore population, three have less than 5 percent (Assam, West Bengal and Kerala) and three have over 75 percent (Haryana, Rajasthan and Punjab). These regional patterns could be due to the agro-ecological availability of foods, cultural politics related to locally-dominant social groups (castes, religions) and gendered differentiation in food habits.

Political ideologies impact self-reporting of food practices

According to the study, there is evidence of cultural-political pressures affecting reported and actual food habits. For instance, on average, states with larger shares of OBCs in the population also tend to have larger vegetarianism gaps between OBCs and Hindu ‘forward castes’ – indicating a possible ideological ‘breaking free’ by OBCs. Similarly, states with larger shares of Muslims in the population also tend to have more incidence in reported beef-eating among Muslims.

It is significant that the four southern states — Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu top the list of beef-eating among Scheduled Castes in the major states; these are precisely the states with a relatively longer and stronger history of Dalit liberation movements. All of this suggests that any reported data need to account for the bias towards under-reporting of meat and beef, and over-reporting of vegetarian diets, due to the social hazards of such admissions.

Gender and Greater Moral Impunity

Natrajan and Jacob’s research finds that the incidence of vegetarianism is higher among women than among men, on an all-India scale. They say this could be partly explained by the fact that more men eat outside their homes and with "greater moral impunity than women", although eating out may not by itself result in eating meat. Patriarchy - and politics - might have something to do with it. “The burden of maintaining a tradition of vegetarianism falls disproportionately on the women," they say.

Couples are meat eaters in about 65 percent of the surveyed households and vegetarians only in 20 percent. But in 12 percent of the cases the husband was a meat eater, while the wife was a vegetarian. Only in 3 percent cases was the reverse true.

In the present politico-social climate, when vegetarianism is considered and is being increasingly promoted as an essential virtue by the government, Natrajan and Jacob’s research goes a significant distance in cautioning against dominant tropes and stereotypes.

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Updated Date: Apr 09, 2018 11:05:24 IST

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