Halal Food

Tensions arose in Kerala at a recent discovery that the jaggery supplied to Sabarimala temple came with a Halal (meaning permissible according to Islamic rule) certification. SJR Kumar, former president of Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) filed a petition claiming that the jaggery was prepared following Islamic traditions and hence ‘violated’ tantric rituals that typically used ‘satvik’ (pure) food items. This incident led to a hate campaign started by the right-wing in Kerala, calling for a ban on the sale of Halal food. However, the company that has been selling jaggery to Sabarimala is run by Patils and not Muslims. The Halal certification is mandatory since they export their goods to Gulf countries too.

Meanwhile BJP state president K Surendran alleged that the term Halal referred to food that had been spit into. Despite platforms like AltNews and The News Minute debunking such claims, a list of hotels that served non-Halal (‘spit free’) food started getting circulated on Whatsapp, mainly by a radical Christian group called ‘Soldiers of the Cross’. This invited a counter response urging Muslims to boycott these hotels which included Hindu owned enterprises like Paragon, Arya Bhavan and Vasantha Bhavan. Opposing the hate campaign, the Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI) conducted a food festival in several towns across Kerala. They served beef, chicken and pork to protest the communalisation of food. It is however interesting to note that several BJP politicians lauded DYFI’s progressive efforts to ‘secularise’ food from the clutches of ‘communal’ Muslims who followed Halal norms.

The latest agenda of the rightwing in Kerala attacks the source of livelihood of several Muslims and vilifies their religious practices. Without directly addressing this, the DYFI falls short in their fight against fascism. Through their fervent efforts to ‘restore’ secular humanism in an otherwise democratic nation that is getting ‘divided’ by kattar hindu nationalists on one hand and pious Muslims on the other who are ‘mixing’ religion in food, the youth wing of the ruling party exhibits a sense of regressive caste-hindu morality, as they conveniently put equal blame on both groups.

This instance is one more nail in the coffin as the caste-hindu majority strives for ‘collective harmony’ by scapegoating Muslims. Here, I attempt to trace the historical trajectory of the ‘normative’ food culture in India, which has always preserved Brahmanical interests and vilifies those who don’t adhere to them.

Dominant caste groups in India propagate only a certain kind of food (vegetarian) as ‘pure’ and therefore acceptable. The recent protests initiated by Jain and Lingayat groups in Karnataka, against the introduction of eggs as part of the mid-day meal scheme in government schools would be an apt example for this. Such anxieties stem from the Brahmanical idea that educational institutions are the abode of goddess Saraswati. Another notable example would be The Hindu newspaper’s policy of not allowing non-vegetarian food into its office dining area. Needless to say, there are elite colleges as well that reinforce casteism by segregating students based on their dietary habits. Such overt and covert practises of exclusion have always been legitimised by the state, irrespective of the party in power and various other institutions as well under the guise of safeguarding majoritarian interests.

In his book, The Myth of the Holy Cow, DN Jha elaborates on how cow meat and various other types of meat were part of both Brahmin and non-Brahmin traditions in ancient history, much to the chagrin of the right-wing who worship the cow. During the Vedic age, there were rituals conducted among the Indo-Aryans that involved sacrificing cattle so as to please the gods. Infact, Ambedkar opined how it was around the 4th century that Brahmins started appropriating the cow as a sacred symbol that had to be protected in order to counter the growing ideals of progress and egalitarianism spread by Buddhism. The Brahmins did so to demonise Buddhists, pejoratively referred to as ‘broken men’ and outcast them as ‘untouchables’, whose ‘duty’ was now to collect cow carcasses and consume that meat.

During the late 19th-early 20th century, the idea of the cow being a holy mother (gau mata) came to be the community (nation) identity of Hindus which was weaponized against Muslim gaubhakshaks (cow eaters). Charu Gupta notes how print media was extensively used, mainly in UP, to fuel the cow protection movement by propagating the imagery of the cow as a mother whose womb provides nourishment, through milk and ghee, to her Hindu sons, who would in turn build a ‘strong’ nation. The establishment of cow protection committees like the Gaurakshini Sabha in 1882 by Arya Samaj founder Dayanand Saraswati also triggered violence against Muslims, mainly in UP and Bihar, especially during the festival of Eid since it observed the sacrificing of cows for its meat, as it was cheapest. Akshaya Mukul, in his work Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India, expands on how puritanical, reformist groups like Arya Samaj, Hindu Mahasabha and the publishing enterprise Gita Press further strengthened the symbolisation of the cow as a political tool to mobilise Hindus against Muslims. Incidentally, Gita Press was run by Marwaris who were advocates of sanatan dharma and generously funded the cow protection movement.

Even MK Gandhi proclaimed, in Hind Swaraj and elsewhere, that cow protection (which he called ‘goseva’) is useful to man whether he be a Mohammedan or a Hindu and referred to the animal as ‘mother cow’. In 1941, Gandhi established the Goseva Sangh with assistance from his ardent disciple Jamnalal Bajaj, a Marwari industrialist who was later adopted by Gandhi. Rohit De observes how in 1947, Gandhi even told a prayer gathering in Delhi that there was an ‘emotional wave’ across the country demanding a law against cow slaughter. Despite the opposition of several members of the Constituent Assembly hailing from the Muslim and Tribal communities, those who wanted to preserve upper-caste interests like Pandit Thakur Das Bhargava among others, vocally demanded to criminalize cow slaughter and even wanted to declare cow protection as a Fundamental Right. Eventually, it was categorised under Article 48 titled ‘Organisation of Agriculture and Animal Husbandry’ of the Directive Principles of State Policy (DPSP).

After the Constitution was enacted, Congress ruled states like Bihar, UP, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Assam, Bombay and West Bengal were the first to pass a law banning cow slaughter. Years later in 1966, right-wing groups rallied for a national ban on cow slaughter, essentially laying siege to the Parliament building in Delhi, killing eight and leaving more injured. Another spectacle along similar lines, although less riotous, was in 1979 when Vinoba Bhave, the spiritual heir to MK Gandhi went on a hunger strike demanding a ban on cow slaughter in Kerala and West Bengal. The performance ended five days later, after the then Prime Minister Morarji Desai’s flimsy assurance that a legislation would be passed.

Contemporary times have also seen a high reportage on hate crimes against Muslims under the pretext of cow protection. In most cases, if not all, the attacks occur due to assumptions without any evidence that the victim has been involved in cow slaughter. Instances like Mohammad Akhlaq’s murder show how the hate crime occurs for mere possession of meat,  which may or may not even be cow meat. One common characteristic across all such cases is that the deceased have still not received justice. Adding to this, the complete ban on beef in several states across the country and the heckling of Muslims who run meat stalls to shut shop during Hindu festivals indicate a form of economic blockade aimed at destabilising the community.

In recent years, Dalit and Muslim student led collectives have been relentlessly fighting against brahmanism within the campuses of public universities in India. Conducting beef festivals have been one such means through which a very necessary rupture is created in the otherwise ‘sanitised’ spaces which higher education institutions that heavily reek of upper-caste hegemony have always been. Contrary to Bahujan students who receive flak and are even vilified by right-wing groups, the DYFI in Kerala amidst the Halal controversy was warmly congratulated by the BJP for their efforts, as if the ‘progressive’ Left is a messiah come to execute an orientalist civilising mission to ‘secularise’ the otherwise ‘bigoted’ Muslim. The BJP’s brazenly obvious islamophobia and their agenda to further brahmanical interests through the anti-Halal campaign can actually be seen at par with DYFI’s covert tactic of portraying themselves as the harbinger of social justice, by washing their hands off of any responsibility to associate themselves with a specific religious group, i.e Muslims. Here, there is a need to go beyond the binaries of mainstream political ideologies and condemn caste-hindu society’s islamophobia. To embrace democracy in food is not to exclude a particular religious community for following their norms, but to be inclusive of different practises.

Karthika Jayakumar is an MA student of Communication from University of Hyderabad

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