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Open Diary

Swapan Dasgupta is India's foremost conservative writer and columnist
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The beef divide, Parliamentary sessions and perceptions of India

THE EXPRESSION ‘food freedom’ has, in recent days, acquired currency in India. The context is obvious: restrictions on the slaughter of buffaloes and cows, and restrictions on the sale and consumption of beef. This is an issue that has agitated a section of the intelligentsia— not all of whom, it is fair to say, are habitually accustomed to beef eating. The notional right to eat beef has become an issue in about the same way that flaunting a keffiyeh (the black- and-white or red- and-white check scarf) in the West symbolises support for the Palestinian cause. Earlier, in the 1920s and 1930s, a small section of bohemian leftists—particularly those associated with the Fabians in Britain— distinguished themselves from the proverbial ‘lesser breeds’ through an alternative lifestyle that included vegetarianism. Today, displaying your unwavering anti-Narendra Modi credentials involves beef advocacy.

I may well be wrong, but it appears to me that beef is less an issue of personal freedom as it is an attempt to needle those who, even if they don’t worship the cow, nurture a pathological aversion to beef. There are hardly any Hindu households where beef enters the kitchen. This includes even those who regard themselves as unflinchingly ‘secular’. Equally, there are innumerable Muslim households where it is considered bad form to cook beef. In Kolkata, where beef is available without difficulty, most of the restaurants owned by Muslims have a prominent ‘No beef’ sign.

Arguably, there are Hindus who enjoy a burger or a steak when overseas. Others, who have had to adjust their dietary habits to suit their host societies, couple pragmatism with adherence to their own culture. Beef just doesn’t fit into our acceptable cultural patterns. To suddenly create a fuss and make beef eating akin to a fundamental right is to needlessly give offence.

Beef is an issue which demands a quiet, understated consensus. It doesn’t need either beef evangelists or gau vigilantes.

ANOTHER PARLIAMENT session has drawn to a close. It was a productive session overall, with the Budget, the Enemy Property Bill and all pending GST- linked legislation cleared.

For me, the past year, involving almost 80 days of Parliament and about 25 Committee meetings, has been instructive. As an opinion writer, I saw Parliament from the outside and the impressions were mixed. Seeing it from the backbenches, the mixed impressions persist. There are debates that are very instructive and there are interventions that, apart from being dreary, are uninformed. I guess that makes Parliament representative of everyday conversations.

As a non-party MP, however, I have a major grouse. The conduct of the sessions is geared towards interventions by the leaders of parties, including those that enjoy nominal representation. Other backbenchers don’t seem to get any meaningful time to speak. The maximum I can get in any debate is three to four minutes. This can be frustrating if you need time to elaborate. But I guess that is part of the game. What is important is that Parliament works, and while MPs have complaints, no one thinks the institution is dysfunctional.

THREE NIGHTS in the beautiful and largely university town of Leiden in Holland drove home the importance of perceptions. Holland is not a country with a large Indian diaspora. Neither does India figure too prominently in its intellectual discourse. There is awareness that India, along with China of course, are the countries of the future. Yet there is a certain measure of haziness over what India is all about—beyond the usual stereotypes of godmen, yoga and the Kama Sutra. The only ‘Ind’ that is familiar in the Netherlands is Indonesia, an erstwhile colony.

Of course, there are many Dutch companies doing business with India. Water management is a particular growth area. Yet, when it comes to an understanding of modern India, even the interested Dutch seem to be disproportionately influenced by the British and American media. Unfortunately, these perceptions are largely negative.

There is, for example, an increasing inclination to believe that India is experiencing a wave of Hindu intolerance. There was surprise that despite the apparent horrors of demonetisation, Narendra Modi won a handsome victory in Uttar Pradesh. The economic achievements of the Government, as in rural electrification, remain largely unknown.

This problem created by negative perceptions is real. Yet, there is nothing anyone can do about it. Not until the foreign media goes beyond its comfortable echo chamber and discovers a world outside India’s English language media.

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