Beef Festival organisers are foolish lambs to the slaughter

For all the disingenuous claims of the organisers of the #BeefFestival at Osmania University, the event was a foolish provocation aimed at caste-baiting. When the alliance of beef-eaters — Dalits, Muslims and Christians — resorted to this curious form of protest to advance their demand that the university hostel serve beef, it was their unstated intention to provoke upper-caste Hindus for whom the cow is an object of veneration.

Yet, the point of contention is not the beef, which is eaten all the time, including by many Hindus, although it’s perhaps done surreptitiously in certain places. In Delhi, for instance, a few Keralite restaurants that serve beef advertise their bill of fare, but the operative word ‘beef’ is written in Malayalam. This gives it a ‘private club’ feel to it, and the business thrives without any protests from right-wing political formations.

So it wasn’t about the beef. What the #Beef Festival organisers did was to make a provocative public show of their eating beef – and figuratively grind the faces of cow-worshippers in the beef biryani. The underlying motive was entirely political, so for them to cry foul over the political backlash from the ABVP is more than a little disingenuous.

But what the #BeefFestival organisers overlook is that this is a dangerous game that two sides can play, and given that food taboos and sensitivities exist in other communities too, it is a recipe for communal polarisation and worse.

A screen grab of a vehicle that was burnt during the violence at Osmania university on Monday. CNN-IBN

As Farzana Versey points out: “Dalits, Muslims, Christians can eat what they wish to. But to celebrate it is plain politics.” Pointing to the double-standards in the claims about fighting “food fascism”, she observes: “These Dalits will not have a pork festival at the Anjuman-e-Islam institute.”

Secular historian Irfan Habib, who has himself frequently challenged right-wing Hindutva elements, wondered: “What sort of festivity is this? This is pure and simple mischief clothed in ideology and freedom of choice.”

Yet, it appears that the #BeefFestival organisers may have been mere pawns who had been deliberately inflamed by stoking the deepest insecurities of their caste identity and used for bigger political games.

The Osmania University campus has in recent months been the hotbed of student political activism over the Telangana issue, and there had been near-unanimous support among the students for the cause of statehood for Telangana.

That student solidarity stands demolished today, after caste and communal identities have been whipped up. Indian Express reports that the #BeefFestival may have had its roots in a “power struggle that’s going on among student wings in the university ever since the Telangana agitation started.”

The report claimed that socially and economically backward sections among the students have accused the Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS), Telangana Joint Action Committee, ABVP and National Students Union of India of excluding or sidelining the weaker sections from the Telangana movement.

Dalit organisations had recently protested that the TRS calls for bandhs whenever an upper caste student commits suicide over the Telangana issue, but remains silent when students from Dalit or OBC background similarly commit suicide, the report added.

In fact, a Dalit student leader who did not support the festival is quoted as saying that most students who were active in the #BeefFestival do not eat it in their homes. “This is a gimmick to gain the upper hand in campus politics by creating a wedge between different castes.”

But who gains from a split in the student movement for a Telangana state? Given that the Congress is perceived to be the party that has played dirty with Telangana politics for over 50 years, it faces a near total rout in the areas that come under the Telangana region. That gives the Congress a motive to break up the student movement.

That endeavour has an ally in the form of Kancha Ilaiah, academician and Dalit activist who specialises in spewing hypercritical diatribes directed at Hinduism in general and against upper castes in particular. (In a 2006 interview, for instance, he thundered that IITs and IIMs should be shut down “as they pander to the upper-caste economy of the country. Those who pass out from these institutes use their technical and managerial skills to earn dollars abroad.”)

Ilaiah has said that he opposes the Telangana movement because its leaders had said that there was no place for others in the region. Such arguments, he said, “should be opposed” - and he was even ready to give up his life in the fight.

The #BeefFestival bears the mark of Ilaiah’s provocative politics, as outlined in his recent talk in Hyderabad on “Beef, BJP and Food Rights of People.”

Put the pieces together, and it appears that the #BeefFestival organisers have been led like sheep into launching a provocative campaign that inflames caste identities all around, but equally significantly, disrupts the students' solidarity and torpedoes the Telangana movement.

Far from being proud participants in a movement for the assertion of their “food rights”, they have been led like lambs to the slaughter – while their political patrons backstage harvest the fruits of their folly.

Updated Date: Apr 17, 2012 20:21 PM

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