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Food politics and identity

Amidst all the talk of India’s new-found prominence in the global world order, events back home paint a rather different, yet sordid picture. Irrespective of all advances India has made in the use of technology, social fundamentals on the ground remain unchanged. Two events in the past week are representative of the ground situation. According to a prominent news daily, a middle-aged man was lynched to death in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh, near the national capital by a mob. They suspected that the man had brought home beef to cook. News of beef consumption by the victim and his family was announced by a local temple, according to the report. Whipped up by communal passions, the mob made their way to the victim’s house, where they dragged him and his son out and beat them with bricks. The victim succumbed to his injuries while his son remains in critical condition. However, the victim’s family reportedly denied that they had any beef in the house. The meat brought home by the victim was mutton that was stored in their refrigerator. Subsequent to the lynching, the local police, according to various news reports by the vernacular press, clashed with the mob. Meanwhile, in an unrelated event, during the festival of Eid, the Jammu and Kashmir state government implemented a three-day ban on internet services in the Valley. The events preceding the government order was marked by growing anger over a High Court decision to ban cow slaughter and sale of beef in the state. Paradoxically enough, two government lawyers, who have since been relieved of their duties, secured the court order. The order has since pushed the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP)-led administration on a collision course against its coalition partner, the Bharatiya Janata Party. For the PDP, it is the largely Muslim population in the Kashmir Valley they seek to appease. Meanwhile, the BJP seeks to appease the largely Hindu population in the Jammu region. What the beef ban issue has done is to accentuate further the already fractured relationship between alliance partners and their respective regions.  

On the question of individual freedoms, the recent ban order in Kashmir has precedence in our legal system. In 2008, the Ahmedabad municipal corporation had issued an order, seeking to shut down slaughterhouses during the Jain festival of Paryushana. This order was challenged by local butchers, who felt that such a ban impinged on their right to livelihood. Although the High Court sided with the local butchers, the apex court overturned the decision. As noted social scientist, Pratap Bhanu Mehta has said, “In a modern state, it cannot be the state’s business to tell people what to eat, unless on public health or such grounds. The strength of a modern state is that it does not make rights dependent on a politics of gesture or benevolence. My liberty cannot be held hostage to someone else’s beliefs.” More than the courts, however, as a collective nation-state, India has failed to move on from the politics of caste and religious identity. Communal politics practiced by ruling parties of all shades and their sheer inability to apply the rule of law is what led to this awful mess. At this juncture, however, the unfortunate status quo will prevail, leading to further loss of human life over what is essentially the politics of identity.
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