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.


About 90% of vegetarians in the world live in India. However, most Indians are not vegetarians. We are, ‘largely a drinking, smoking and meat-eating people’, as Dr. Kumar Suresh Singh put it. Also, most of the vegetarians In India are concentrated in the few states of North West India – Gujarat, Rajasthan, Haryana, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Western U.P. The reason is quite simple. Vegetarians depend on milk for their source of animal protein and these states produce a lot of milk. In the whole of North Eastern India, Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand Odisha, Eastern U.P. and in Chhattisgarh, there are practically no vegetarians. In South India and in Maharashtra only traders and Brahmins are vegetarians!

Although small in number, vegetarian Indians enjoy much more power than their numbers indicate. This is mainly due to the fact they are upper caste Brahmins and Bania traders from Western India, mainly Gujaratis and Marwaris, the prime movers of Indian capitalism. There are also a powerful group of South Indian Brahmins who are important in bureaucracy and education, who are ‘pure’ vegetarians and wield considerable power. Gandhi also made it an integral part of his moral precepts and influenced the Indian public policy and behaviour vis-a-vis diet.

Vegetarians and vegetarianism

Vegetarianism is not the same as being a vegetarian. From the beginning of human evolution, man has depended upon protein from animals. It has remained an essential part of human diet till today. Vegetarian cuisine can be defined as food consisting of animal proteins derived from milk products alone, the logic being that there is no direct killing of animals. Using the same logic, some people permit eggs as vegetarian food. In India, there is even a concept of treating infertile eggs as vegetarian eggs!

Throughout history, most people had less than 15% non-vegetarian/animal protein food in their diet. However, it was a very important source of essential protein and was and has always been relished. Most of it was food from water – crabs, prawns and fish. Different ecological zones were sources of different varieties of meat. For Native Americans, it was bison. Wild boar, rabbits, game birds etc. were and are common in many parts of the world. Regular meat consumption became possible only when domestication of animals and agriculture became more important than hunting and gathering. This happened only about 10,000 years ago.

Domestication of animals made it possible to have milk and milk products as part of our diet. In some areas in India where agriculture was highly productive and domestic animals were prized as draught animals, beef eating was discouraged. That is the origin of the taboo on beef in India. Religions like Buddhism and Jainism discouraged beef eating. However, most Buddhists all over the world are not vegetarians.

Having animal proteins exclusively from milk products is relatively recent. It began about 2,600 years ago with Jainism and the Jain community that grew around it. Later some trading communities like those of the Bania caste (Gandhi was a Bania) and some Brahmin castes in the Western, central and Southern regions also became vegetarians. Historically, it is only in India that this concept seems to have taken root at least partially. Even so, today more than 80% of Indians eat non-vegetarian food at some time or the other. Vegetarianism, that is propagating and extolling it, was never an important issue even in India, historically speaking.

Today, these vegetarian communities in India, that is, the Jains, the trading castes of Banias and Marwaris, and the Brahmins of South India are socially and economically very powerful and therefore vegetarianism in India has become far more powerful than indicated by the proportion (20%) of the population that follows it. Prime real estate in busy market places all over India are now taken over by these so called ‘pure vegetarian’ eateries in Western and Southern India.

Outside India, vegetarian food was always marginal in its presence. Although domestication of animals was widespread, use of milk and milk products was not. Historically, the American and the African continents never used milk. In Asia, the Chinese and the South East Asian countries did not and even today do not use milk either. Even within India, many tribal communities do not use milk. They rear cattle mainly for production of bullocks for use as draught animals and also use the dung for fuel and farming, but don’t use the milk at all for themselves. The general logic appears to be that milk is produced by nature only for the animal’s offspring and not for other species. It is only over the last three hundred years of colonialism that European culture spread milk consumption all over the world. Today, probably 5 percent of the world population is vegetarian; that is, people in whose diet the animal protein comes exclusively from milk and its products.

With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, the production of meat, poultry and fish began to get commercialized. By twentieth century, the consumption of meat in wealthier families and working class increased enormously. At the same time, the scale of production made it highly unhygienic and unsafe. The butcheries were and still are extremely filthy and cruel to the slaughtered animals. Upton Sinclair in his book The Jungle (1906) and more recently Robin Cook in his book Toxin have documented it forcefully. Reading these books, among other things, made many give up eating meat and poultry produced by the industry and some people began to propagate the virtues of a vegetarian diet. This was the birth of present day vegetarianism in Europe and the USA. It was and still is a small movement and most people regard proselytizers of vegetarianism as cranks. There is an even subset of this group called vegans; those do not use milk products either. Gandhi tried it once and had to give up. He finally settled for goat milk.

Vegetarianism in India

In his book The Mahatma and the Ism, the communist leader E.M.S. Namboodripad described Gandhi’s first visit to England. Gandhi, being a Vaishnava Bania, was searching for vegetarian hotels/boarding places in London. In that search he came across societies which promoted the consumption of vegetarian food. These British people who were considered cranks in England were quite happy to discover a brown person who spoke good English and was actually a vegetarian! In my opinion, it was Gandhi who brought vegetarianism to India. In fact the term, vegetarian and non-vegetarian, does not exist in any Indian tradition. The Indian language terms that we use to signify vegentarian and non-vegetarian are translations of the English terms. To repeat, vegetarianism is an ideology, as against the preference for vegetarian food, which is a choice, which one may exercise as an individual or group for short or long periods without adding a value judgment to it.

Gandhi made vegetarianism an important component of his non-violence movement. It became a must in the ashram life and almost all followers of Gandhi were under pressure to become vegetarians. It also became a means of upward mobility of many ‘lower caste’ people, and in at least one case, among tribals (the Tana Bhagat movement among the Oraons of Jharkhand). Vegetarianism came to be associated with moral superiority, requiring moral courage similar to practicing non-violence in the freedom movement. However, the practice of vegetarianism never really became very popular. Lower castes and the poor could not stop eating the little protein that was available to them from home range poultry or pork. Most forest-dwelling tribals could not afford not to eat some wild meat that was easily accessible. But in those parts of India where it gained acceptance, vegetarianism did become associated with a higher value system, an ideal, which while one could not achieve in one’s own life, nevertheless was respected.

However, this was not so in areas like Bengal, Kerala, Goa and in most of the coastal regions. And it is not accidental that these areas remain relatively free from communal violence. Communal violence is by and large a Hindi heartland – or ‘cow belt,’ as it is called – phenomenon. The Muslims as a social group never accepted vegetarianism, although several Muslims, like Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan and Maulana Azad were important followers of Gandhi. This paved the way for vegetarianism to be used as a tool for majoritarianism.

Vegetarianism and majoritarianism

Wikipedia defines majoritarianism as a traditional political philosophy or agenda that asserts that a majority of the population is entitled to a certain degree of primacy in society, and has the right to make decisions that affect the society. Since vegetarians in India are almost exclusively Hindus, it allows vegetarianism to become a part of the discourse of majoritarianism. It was instrumental in ghettoising Indian Muslims in terms of housing and trading places (particularly hotels and restaurants) and in some places also helped in causing communal riots.

The image of Indian Muslims as the ‘other’ has been built upon those facts that supposedly make them different from Hindus. Because they are different, poor and have less power, therefore they are lesser human beings. That has always been the logic of racism and communalism. The specific image here is that they are beef eaters, dirty, highly charged sexually (again associated with eating beef), have four wives, ready to seduce Hindu women, to convert them and add to their harem, potential rapists and so on. Other innocent differences are added to make the picture complete. Like how Muslim men shave their moustache and keep the beard, whereas Hindu men keep their moustache and shave the beard. After the Partition of India, another addition is the charge of loyalty to Pakistan and other Islamic countries.

This stereotype has been built over a period of the last 150 years or so. The Hindu Muslim divide also has a long history; it has resulted in the partition of the country and a series of communal riots after independence. Riots and killings are possible because the larger communities on the whole believe these stereotypical images and end up endorsing the rioters. Deconstructing these images and building a saner understanding about these differences ought to be a priority for the secular agenda. In this essay, we deal with only with one part of it, namely vegetarianism.

A sane attitude

Vegetarianism, as we noted above, came as a reaction to the capitalist production of meat and poultry in the West. It is, on the one hand, an extremely cruel and unhygienic process, which also led to the overconsumption of red meat, in turn creating a health crisis.

Why can’t one have a moral attitude towards one’s choice of food? The problem with a moral attitude is that it has a tendency to become righteous. Once organized into a movement, those who hold these sentiments tend to impose it upon others. Otherwise everyone is free to have his one’s own opinion based on morality or reason or both. In this instance the vegetarians feel that killing is morally wrong. On the other hand, several communities feel that stealing milk from other species is morally wrong. Vegans agree with the both the above and reject both forms of animal protein.

There is also an ecological argument against red meat. Meat is produced by animals which eat grass and grain etc. The conversion ratio in terms of energy and nutrition is high. So, where agriculture production is relatively high, it makes sense to avoid eating meat. In grass lands and arid regions, where rearing domestic animals is the main activity, meat eating is a natural option. In coastal regions and in areas like Bengal, fish and other food from water become a natural part of the diet.

Capitalist production of agriculture and, hence, vegetarian food is not innocent either. The use of pesticides makes it highly toxic. It is capitalist production of animal feed like oil cakes that helps in production of beef and meat. The case of soybean production in India is illustrative. It reduced the acreage under dal (lentils) thus increasing the price enormously and reducing the protein intake of vegetarians. The oil cake of soybean is exported to Europe and Iran where it is fed to cattle. The export is probably handled by the vegetarian ‘oil kings’ of Gujarat. Thus, beef in Europe/Iran is supported at the cost of reduced intake of vegetarian protein by vegetarians themselves. Then, production of milk based sweets is similar to beef production in terms of load on ecology. It requires a large quantity of milk to produce these ‘mawe ki mithai ‘and ‘chhene ki mithai’. So, a sane policy would be to reduce production of soybean, restore acreage for dal and reduce production of milk.

As a naturalist or ecologist, one sees a lot of violence being carried out by all (vegetarians and non vegetarians) in our capitalist society. A large number of species are endangered and some have become extinct due to what the naturalists call habitat loss. Human society has taken over a large amount of space and resources from other living beings, resulting in this unfolding environmental and ecological disaster. In the final analysis, global warming is essentially violence done by human beings on the planet Earth. It is this over exploitation of resources of the Earth and depriving other species their habitat – place to live, access to food – that is real violence and not the eating of so called non-vegetarian food.

In sum, within the constraints of ecology, one still has choice when it comes to what one can eat. A variety of balanced diets are followed by people inhabiting different ecological regions of the world. There is absolutely no need to preach vegetarianism. In fact, one should stop using terms like vegetarian and non-vegetarian which divide people unnecessarily. Passages from the Guru Granth Sahib (the holy book of Sikhs) say that only fools argue over this issue. Guru Nanak said that any consumption of food involves a drain on the Earth’s resources and thus on life.5

References (The references include references to all the three parts)

  1. Women and anti-liquor movement in colonial Bengal, 1880-1908
  3. T. Vijayendra, Vegetarianism and Communalism, Losers Shall Inherit the World, Hyderabad, 2009. 2010 and 2012

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:

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