Sharab, Shabab aur Kebab -II


Morality in Political Discourse in India

This is a three part article and each part is complete in itself. Therefore each part is being published with the same title. The Introduction will be repeated in each part for the sake of making it complete in itself.


‘We are, therefore, largely a drinking, smoking and meat-eating people’!

Dr. Kumar Suresh Singh (1935 – 2006), Director General of the Anthropological Survey of India. He initiated and completed a massive project called ‘People of India’. Published in 43 volumes, it remains the biggest anthropological survey of the Indian people.


Morality in political discourse is not unique to India. It exists all over the world. In this essay, we shall stick to India because we do not know enough about rest of the world. The three moralities that we want to discuss are:  1) Sharab (alcohol/prohibition), the best known instance of which is the prohibition experience in the US in the 1920s; 2) Shabab (youth/sexuality/celibacy) – the control of sexuality has always been an important discourse in the Indian freedom movement; 3) Kebab (meat/vegetarianism) – One may think that vegetarianism has an Indian origin. It is true that Jainism, which originated in India and is still largely practised mainly in India, talks about vegetarian practice, the only religion to do so. But they never propagated it and there is no word for vegetarianism in the Indian tradition. It is a modern-day ideology created by the ‘vegetarian societies’ in England in the 19th century, and which was brought to India by Gandhi.

It is easy to vilify Gandhi about these discourses because it was he who combined all three and made it central to his political discourse. But as we will show in the rest of this article, the origin and impetus for this morality is rooted in capitalism and the struggle against this morality is the struggle for the liberation for mankind from the oppressive structures of class society. However, nor can we avoid referring to Gandhi. So we want to make it clear that this article is not an overall assessment of Gandhi nor is there any intention of targeting him.


Several religious sects have practised celibacy. The Jesuits are probably best known among these in the world. In India, the figure of the ‘sanyasi’ – a celibate religious person – has been a familiar one throughout its history. Even today, religious heads of many sects practice celibacy. In the 20th century, Vivekananda started ‘Ramakrishna Mission’ whose sanyasis practice celibacy. They are respected in society because they are supposed to be able to curb their sexual desire. Since sexual desire is natural, curbing it is seen as a big achievement. On the other hand, every religion of celibates in the world has at some point been afflicted by some scandal related to sex, including sexual perversion.

Celibacy is respected because the ability to control natural desire is a sign of inner strength and is supposed to increase the celibate’s spiritual power. Some of the popular theories about the source of this power are rather quaint. According to one, if one could control the ejection of one’s semen, including in one’s dreams, it gave enormous spiritual power to the individual!  In the struggle against a powerful enemy like the British Empire, celibate revolutionaries became a much respected phenomenon. In the 19th century, several revolutionary groups combined Hinduism/patriotism and celibacy and earned deep respect from the masses.

The best known of them all, Gandhi, came from a deeply religious background. He grew in a small Gujarati town, far away from the metropolitan cities, and had inherited all the cultural claptrap of the day including obscurantist religious mumbo jumbo, along with a deep piety. Although later he moved to bigger cities and came into contact with deeply religious persons with much learning, he could not get rid of this background. This partially explains his deviant behaviour in the last years of his life when he slept naked with young women to prove to himself his great moral power.

Gandhi had a list of some ten moral precepts for his ashram residents. These included truth, non violence, brahmacharya (celibacy), aparigraha (not amassing wealth), vegetarianism, ‘aswad’ (not to have a taste for tempting foods), abstention from alcohol and so on. He believed that if freedom fighters practised these virtues religiously, then they would eventually acquire considerable moral power which would eventually help them win freedom.

In practice, however, very few of his compatriots could follow it. But it did succeed in giving Gandhi, coupled with his scant attire, immense popularity and a deeply respectful status among the Indian masses. This was skilfully utilised by the Indian National Congress and the Indian bourgeoisie to inherit power from the British, even as they took care to not actually practice any of Gandhi’s ideas. In his life time, most political leaders paid lip service to Gandhi but had no respect or intention to follow any of his moral precepts. There were also some leaders who openly disapproved of them. Gandhi’s ideal of celibacy came in for particularly severe criticism and ridicule from them. Many of the original freedom fighters remained bachelors by choice. After all, not marrying allowed them a lot of freedom, and they could take a lot of risks as part of their political activities. This, of course, applied more to the revolutionaries, including many communists.

Sexual morality has many aspects to it. In India, until 1956 polygamy was practised openly by the wealthy, many of whom would also keep lower caste women as mistresses. The women’s movement naturally was very concerned about it. However it was Nehru, with the help of Ambedkar, who initiated the Hindu Code Bill and made polygamy illegal for the first time in 1956. They succeeded in passing four Hindu code bills in 1955–56: the Hindu Marriage Act, Hindu Succession Act, Hindu Minority and Guardianship Act, and Hindu Adoptions and Maintenance Act.4

Like most traditional societies, Indian society too had always frowned upon sexual freedom. Till the 1970s, people hardly had girl/boyfriends openly. The scene opened up gradually and by 2012 we had dating apps like Tinder. Perhaps one reason for this may be that there is a subterranean awareness among the post-millennial generation that we are headed towards a global emergency and the bright future they were promised may have been cancelled!

So a new sensibility has come, which can best be summed up as ‘freak out’ culture. Because there is no future, love ceased to have the aim of marriage, children and assured future. The young people of today are living in a world of ‘single and child free’ culture. Many cannot afford even the marriage ceremony, which for the middle class would mean anywhere around ten lakh rupees and above. Most are still groaning under their education loans. What would be the point of bringing a child into this world, only for it to get roasted in an increasingly hotter planet?

Many people, particularly women, from just a generation ago or even just five years older than the millennial age group who know something about Tinder consider it to be shallow. I think we have grown up in a construct of love where the sexual act is considered to be the epitome, the final stage in love, which should come after a decent period of non sexual courting. So couple are expected to spend time ‘getting to know each other’ properly before they ‘consummate’!

But there’s a large body of scholarly work critiquing such conventional sexual morality. The seminal work of Wilhelm Reich, Invasion of Compulsory Sexual Morality (1931), is probably one of the first of this kind. Foucault’s four volume history of sexuality was another milestone. In the 70s and 80s, modern feminist literature covered the changing attitude towards sexuality during different crises of capitalism. Our own Indian feminist journal Manushi also played an important role in such critique. Today, most young people don’t read books, but then; people can learn the ‘truth’ the old fashioned way, through experience. The ‘tender’ people who populate ‘Tinder’ reflect this reality.

From celebrating celibacy to the proliferation of dating apps, India has come a long way. If we do have a future, it is likely to be a lot freer as a society than the one we live in now. It will be a non capitalist society based on sustainability and equity – and hopefully – a ‘free association of free people’!



Read Part I

T. Vijayendra (1943- ) was born in Mysore, grew in Indore and went to IIT Kharagpur to get a B. Tech. in Electronics (1966). After a year’s stint at the Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics, Kolkata, he got drawn into the whirlwind times of the late 60s. Since then, he has always been some kind of political-social activist. His brief for himself is the education of Left wing cadres and so he almost exclusively publishes in the Left wing journal Frontier, published from Kolkata. For the last nine years, he has been active in the field of ‘Peak Oil’ and is a founder member of Peak Oil India and Ecologise. Since 2015 he has been involved in Ecologise! Camps and in 2016 he initiated Ecologise Hyderabad. He divides his time between an organic farm at the foothills of Western Ghats, watching birds, writing fiction and Hyderabad. He has published a book dealing with resource depletions, three books of essays, two collections of short stories, a novella and an autobiography. Vijayendra has been a ‘dedicated’ cyclist all his life, meaning, he neither took a driving licence nor did he ever drive a fossil fuel based vehicle. Email: [email protected]

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