A 2019 report by IndiaSpend stated that since 2012 more than 133 instances of cow vigilantism have been reported, with 50 deaths and 290 injuries (Team IndiaSpend). Cow vigilantism is a form of violent, sectarian activism that aims to prohibit eating beef and/or engaging in beef-related transactions. Among the victims, 57% were Muslims, 9% Dalits and 9% Hindus. In 2016, two women in Haryana were gang-raped on the pretext of being beef-eating Muslims (BBC News). Human rights activist, Bondita Acharya, was threatened with rape and acid attacks by the fundamentalist organisation Bajrang Dal in 2017 for commenting that even “higher caste Hindus” consume beef, and Muslims should not be singled out for punishment (Wire Staff). In the light of the aforementioned statistical data on the interconnection between cow vigilantism and sexual abuse, I would like to explore two crucial questions of personal ethics: is veganism the approach to become an ecofeminist in India? Two, where do animal rights and human rights overlap within the Indian vegan movement?
While the aggression that fuels the urge to protect cows is alarming, it also raises questions as to why the violence is singularly directed against consumers or dealers of beef. Notably, it appears that instances of “goat vigilantism” or “pork vigilantism” are unheard of. Most Indians who abstain from beef-eating do indulge in pork and mutton.
Cow vigilantism is not fuelled by compassion for the non-human or to reduce the carbon footprint produced by consuming red meat, but by religious beliefs which make Hindus worship cows as their mother. Most Hindus try countering beef-eating with pork-eating, emphasising that if Muslims abstain from pork, then Hindus should abstain from beef too. Such selective environmentalism seeks to oppress religious and other social minorities whose access to basic nourishment is already severely restricted by inflation, and now by verdicts from self-proclaimed “godmen”[i] wielding their powerful tools to ostracise the non-conformists. It does not promote environmental awareness.
Where does veganism stand in this nexus of religion, caste, class, and politics? Most Indian vegans trace veganism to Hinduism and Jainism – the primary advocates of vegetarianism. However, they gloss over an important aspect of the dietary restrictions advocated by these religions: none of these ask you to switch to a plant-based diet. Hindu scriptures like Valmiki’s Ramayana and the Adi Parva of Mahabharata even talk of Kamadhenu, the Divine Mother Cow, the Hindu equivalent of the fabled golden goose, who could be milked every time her owner, Vashistha rishi, wanted material amenities. Kamadhenu was regarded to be closely related to Mother Earth or Prithivi- so harnessing the mother cow for material benefits had a subtextual implication of milking/exploiting the earth for human consumption. In fact, the history of untouchability in India is rooted in beef consumption. B.R Ambedkar, India’s pioneering anti-caste activist describes in his book The Untouchables, how Brahmins, who once ate horse-meat from Ashvamedha, beef of sacrificed cows, and honey-slathered cow and goat meat in “madhuparka”, quit meat to resist Buddhism and Jainism, – religions which staunchly advocated compassion towards nature, soil and non-human animals (Ambedkar 89). However, the Dalits or the untouchables were not allowed to practise agriculture, for fear of polluting the soil with their touch, so, to their lot, fell the carcass of the dead animals, after they had served their purpose to the caste Hindus.
As an ecofeminist, when I started experimenting with vegan foods, these were the problems that I had to grapple with. Why was nobody talking about the problematic equation of the cow with the mother? Hindu feminists like the Kailaasa.org often claim that worshipping the cow and abstaining from eating its meat is a move towards the empowerment of women, for it involves respecting the mother figure through the non-human (Kailaasa Hindu Feminism). Similarly, non-Hindu critics writing on this intersection, such as Peter Sondheim, write that feminists should protest the abuse of dairy cows (Sondheim). Such compassion for animals and protest against animal suffering can lead to an ecofeminist conversation, yet it fails to do so.
Ecofeminism primarily seeks to dispel patriarchal notions of reducing the human as well as the non-human to their reproductive functions. Greta Gaard adopts this approach of ecofeminism in her definition of vegetarian ecofeminism by saying, “Vegetarian ecofeminism puts into action the feminist insight that “the personal is political” and examines the politic of dietary choices as well as strategic and operational choices in economics” (117). When she asks about what prevents ecofeminists from giving a political direction to their compassion for animals, she commits the fallacy of assumption from a Western purview.
What Greta Gaard has overlooked in her critique, was the socio-political nuances that inform animal rights activism in the Indian subcontinent. I have always wondered if the passion for protecting cows in India would be so heightened if they did not produce milk, a main source of nourishment and financial revenue in India’s primarily agrarian economy. If vegetarianism is motivated by a utilitarian approach of not murdering the source of nourishment and keeping it alive for man’s own interests, veganism in India aims to be an elite cultural phenomenon of overpriced imported vegan alternatives to locally sourced dairy and meat.
Indian veganism cannot be scrutinised under Western eyes. One needs to assess India’s nutritional graph and economy to understand why Western veganism will fail unless modified to suit the socio-economic climate of a country whose Gross Development Product (GDP) has been steadily declining and the value of the rupee falling to an unfathomable low, and where meat-eating can lead to mob-lynching. As Rama Ganesan highlighted, “What the West knows about Hindu vegetarianism has been controlled by the upper caste narrative, which couches it in terms of Gandhian ahimsa” (Ganesan). It is a hypocritical narrative among Hindu vegetarians to proclaim themselves as followers of “Ahimsa” or “non-violence” where they murder humans for consuming meat.
Vegan foods like plant-based mock-meat and tofu, are sold, not by local farmers, but by capitalist organizations, at exorbitant rates (Sahani). In a country where the general yearly income is less than 1 lac INR per annum, can we expect mass adoption of vegan foods? Moreover, the levying of taxes on fresh produce makes the vegan diet a mirage for Indians. How shall I, an ecofeminist, then ask them to go vegan even when I know that meat-eating goes against my ecological ethics?
I cannot ask them to consume the cake of vegan alternatives to their affordable and widely accessible bread when the cake is alienated from them by capitalist monopoly on the food market. And how can I forget the history of caste-class violence that shapes the diet of the Indians who are not caste Hindus? Beef-eating, unlike in the West, does not symbolise prosperity, but a simple fare that nourishes hungry mouths deprived of the expensive vegetables. Nirmala Sitharaman, the Finance Minister of India commented in 2019 that she does not eat much onion or garlic, in response to the rising prices of these two vegetables in India (Agencies). Sitharaman can afford highly-priced vegetables, unlike the masses. Thus, asking them to adopt veganism is to ask them to starve.
As an ecofeminist, I would assert the need for sustainable living concept in India, considering the plight of the human and non-human. However, industry-produced vegan foods do no good to the marginalised whose source of meat is locally bred cattle and poultry, or locally sourced fish. Without giving the oppressed Indian a viable reason to adopt veganism, we cannot call ourselves proponents of vegan ecofeminism. And unless we demonstrate how veganism needs to be linked with ecofeminism to enunciate its benefits, we will fail to transform our ecofeminism into praxis. Our obsession with protecting a certain domesticated animal because of our (sexual) reverence for its reproductivity, while endorsing the consumptive exploitation of other animals might not make us hypocritical in the majority’s eyes, but it will certainly put into question the authenticity of our ecofeminism.
Agencies. “’I Don’t Eat Much Onion’: Sitharaman in Lok Sabha – Times of India.” The Times of India, TOI, 5 Dec. 2019, 12:28 IST, timesofindia.indiatimes.com/business/india-business/i-dont-eat-much-of-onion-says-sitharaman-in-lok-sabha/articleshow/72379267.cms.
Ambedkar, B. R. The Untouchables. Siddharth Books, 2008.
Gaard, Greta Claire. “Vegetarian Ecofeminism: A Review Essay.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, vol. 23, no. 3, 2002, pp. 117–146., doi:10.1353/fro.2003.0006.
Ganesan, Rama. “Brahminical Patriarchy & Carol Adams’ The Sexual Politics of Meat.” Feminism in India, 10 Sept. 2021, feminisminindia.com/2020/12/25/carol-adams-the-sexual-politics-of-meat-brahminical-patriarchy/.
“India Muslim Women ‘Raped’ in Fatal Attack ‘over Beef’.” BBC News, BBC, 12 Sept. 2016, www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-37336050.
Kailasa Hindu Feminism. Worshipping cow on Mother’s Day. Facebook, 10 May 2020. https://m.facebook.com/HinduFeminism/photos/a.359124804952763/606856446846263/?type=3&source=57
Shahani, Shradha. “7 Indian Mock Meat Brands to Try If You like Mutton, Chicken, Seafood.” Condé Nast Traveller India, Condé Nast Traveller India, 6 Dec. 2020, www.cntraveller.in/story/7-indian-mock-meat-brands-to-try-if-you-like-goa-mutton-chicken-seafood-mumbai-delhi-chennai-hyderabad/.
Sondheim, Peter. “Op-Ed: The Abuse of Dairy Cows Is a Feminist Issue. the ‘Moo Too’ Movement Is Here.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 4 Mar. 2020, www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2020-03-04/dairy-cows-moo-too-movement-biden.
Team, IndiaSpend. “Every Third Indian Cop Thinks Mob Violence over Cow Slaughter Is ‘Natural’: New Survey.” Indiaspend, Indiaspend, 28 Aug. 2019, www.indiaspend.com/every-third-indian-cop-thinks-mob-violence-over-cow-slaughter-is-natural-new-survey/.
Wire Staff. “Assam: Activist Threatened with Rape, Acid Attacks for Condemning Beef Arrests.” The Wire, 10 Apr. 2017, thewire.in/rights/bondita-acharya-beef-bajrang-dal.
[i] Godmen is a colloquial albeit pejorative term used to describe self-proclaimed gurus with cult following who claim that they are the only ones who have received the word of God. A Hindu godman, Sadhguru asserted in an interview taken by NDTV Consulting Editor Barkha Dutt that Indian culture has never recommended beef eating. Sadhguru’s use of Indian as a monolithic cultural label is highly debatable, due to the geopolitical diversity and his deliberate choice of the term refers to a subcontinental past prior to the rule of the Muslim emperors.
Debadrita Saha is the author of a blog post.