Open Essay

Travelling Back in Time with Beef Ban

Sunanda K Datta-Ray is a journalist and author of several books. He is an Open contributor
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Sham taboos and politics underdone

PHILIP CROSLAND WAS furious. As always when he was angry, which was often for Philip had a short fuse, his face became the colour of an over-ripe tomato about to burst. And well might he be roused. He was the only European left in the Delhi office of The Statesman, India’s last British owned and edited newspaper. He had been asking the tiffin room for days for “dum-aloo-paratha” and been served instead the usual stringy chicken or fatty buffalo masquerading as beef. Summoning the bawarchi, he demanded to know why there was no “dum-aloo-paratha” for lunch. “I can’t cook it,” was the Punjabi cook’s stolid reply. Infuriated, Philip grabbed the man by his shirt front and bawled, “And what the bloody hell do you eat at home? Roast beef and Yorkshire pudding?” Totally unruffled, the bawarchi replied, “At home I don’t cook. Bibi cooks.”

Food isn’t only a matter of religion. Class and culture influence taste. So do questions of propriety, gender, labour and the law. India is a land of miracles. Our genetic scientists created Karna outside the maternal womb. Our plastic surgeons pioneered transplanting elephant heads. The impossible becomes possible here. Sexless peacocks shed fertile tears. The linguistic revolution long ago banished famine and replaced it with scarcity. The starving are dignified as scarcity-hit. Swearing by prohibition, we classify whisky, gin, rum and vodka exports as ‘Potable Alcohol’. India invented what a Donald Trump aide famously called “alternative facts”. Alternative facts are described as Orwellian ‘Newspeak’. George Orwell must have picked it up when he was an officer in the Indian Police under his real name, Eric Blair. His mantle has descended on an astute Portia in Narendra Modi’s entourage.

Masquerading as a male lawyer, Portia urged Shylock in The Merchant of Venice not to be squeamish about hacking off his pound of flesh from Antonio’s breast. But she also warned that if he shed a single drop of Christian blood in doing so, the Venetian state would reduce him to beggary by confiscating all his lands and goods. Similarly, the notification under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act of 1960 allows one to gorge as much as one likes on beef or, for that matter, veal, buffalo meat or even camel flesh. But the environment ministry’s eight-page rule book sternly bans the sale of a single bull, bullock, cow, buffalo, steer, heifer, calf or camel for slaughter. Ill and old animals must be preserved in a land that can’t afford to maintain ill and old people. Eating without killing is the new ahimsa.

When I returned to India in 1960, Lindsay Emmerson, an Old Etonian who had been with The Statesman since 1937, advised me never to order veal. “They kill only old and diseased cows here” he warned. Another colleague told me that the cluster of little eating shops whose signboards proclaimed “No Beef” near Statesman House, the paper’s head office in Calcutta, were the first to be attacked when communal riots erupted. It was one of many indicators that Indians rightly don’t trust each other. Those humble places still exist, serving kebab, biryani, chap —not chop—and, during Ramazan, the thick soup called halim—all from beef. It says much for Malayalee emancipation that Thiruvananthapuram is the only Indian town I know (excluding former European enclaves like Goa and Pondicherry) where modest eating houses have no hang-ups about advertising their beef vindaloo which is not for the faint-hearted or beef biryani which was for kings.

“When I returned to India in 1960, Lindsay Emmerson, an Old Etonian who had been with The Statesman since 1937, advised me never to order veal. “They kill only old and diseased cows here,” he warned

It was customary in Statesman House to serve an alternative mutton dish whenever beef was the main course at lunch. But Wahid, the magisterial Oriya Muslim head khansama in white and gold turban and sash, was contemptuous of religious sensitivity. Why provide an alternative, he asked me in perfect Butler English, when all those babus (a word that dripped scorn) who didn’t get beef at home wolfed it down in the tiffin room? Wahid had spent a lifetime in the Statesman House kitchen, pantry and dining room. He had watched the complex interaction between retreating Europeans, the once large, now also disappearing, Anglo-Indian component, and the Indians surging forward. He knew food involved more weighty questions than faith. He wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that Vivian Derozio and his Young Bengal peers exulted in guzzling beef, beer and whisky not because they necessarily relished the taste but to demonstrate their freedom from the fetters of prejudice. They needed to flaunt nonconformism in the face of conformism.

It takes someone secure in his personal moorings to be dispassionate about food. An American Central Intelligence Agency report says Jawaharlal Nehru enjoyed filet mignon and ‘an occasional Scotch’—tastes his daughter shared—‘as long as it was all in private’. Keshub Chunder Sen, founder of the Brahmo Samaj, had no religious objection to beef. But as he said during his 1870 visit to England, “My flesh creeps on my bones when I see a huge piece of roast English beef on the table.” Queen Victoria considerately served him a vegetarian lunch at Osborne House.

Lesser folk who are unsure of where they stand, which probably means almost the entire upwardly mobile urban population, boast of being progressive. Their identity hinges on it. That probably explains why the Jawaharlal Nehru University’s so-called New Materialists demand the canteen cater not only to students from Kerala, Tamil Nadu and the northeast who ‘eat both beef and pork’ but also to visitors from Germany, France, Italy, Africa, Korea, China, Japan, Afghanistan, America and Russia for whom ‘beef is a basic food item’. They yell “Food fascism!” if JNU doesn’t cook for the world. It’s a fallacious charge. All JNU students are at liberty to wallow to their heart’s content in beef in the kebab stalls around Jama Masjid. There must be similar eating places for pork aficionados.

When the Young Bengal pioneers encountered “a snanshuddh Brahmin with the sacerdotal mark on his forehead, (they) danced round him, bawling in his ears, ‘We eat beef. Listen, we eat beef.’” Recently, a bunch of Kerala Youth Congress rebels demonstrated far more violent defiance by killing and eating a calf. In the excitement of culinary politics, no one asks how they or the Young Bengal pioneers liked their bovine meat. They are unlikely to have ordered Wiener Schnitzel, the thin, breaded, pan-fried veal cutlet that is one of Austria’s best known national dishes. The Escalope de Veau Milanaise that Hercule Poirot served at one of his tête-à-tête dinners is even less likely. A Chateaubriand steak seems equally remote. It’s more likely to have been beef curry as in my Calcutta college hostel where both meats were said to be cooked in the same dekchi and then separated by hand. Nobody minded.

Nirad C Chaudhuri said Westernisation meant cultivating a taste for ripe cheese. But he admitted his spoken English was poor because he hadn’t been brought up on a diet of beef broth and rare steak

Perhaps we harked back unconsciously to an ancient India that being genuinely Hindu (as opposed to the artificial political construct of ‘Hindutva’), didn’t need sham taboos. Raja Rajendralal Mitra’s scholarly monograph, ‘Beef in Ancient India’, shows that far from forbidding beef, the scriptures regarded it as desirable and essential. Bhavabhuti’s eighth century Uttara- rama-charita records that the great Valmiki entertained the sage Vasishtha with ‘the flesh of ox, or calf or goat’. Our Rashtrapatiji once confessed to eating beef. Pranab Mukherjee recounts in his memoirs how the police descended on their house one day in 1943 when his father was in the thick of the nationalist movement. Warned in advance, they had removed papers, cattle and grain to other houses. To quote Mukherjee, “Not finding much to confiscate, a sub-inspector in the police party asked me, ‘You used to have cows at home, I’ve seen them. Where have they gone now?’ Straight-faced, I replied, ‘Cows? We ate them.’ The sub-inspector was astounded. ‘What are you saying? You are Hindus and you ate your cows?’” Eight-year-old Pranab was already a consummate politician. “Actually, Father has been in jail for a long time” he said glibly. “So we sold the cows for some money to feed ourselves.”

Praveen Togadia, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s international working president (presumably there’s also a national non-working president) would have been horrified. Calcutta listeners were mystified when supposedly speaking on the virtues of cow protection, he urged them to buy more shampoo, face packs and face wash made from cow dung and urine so that sales rocketed from Rs 15 crores to Rs 15,000 crores. Then the penny dropped. Cows might not benefit from higher cow product commerce, but favoured businessmen would. That same motive explains why bands of goondas are encouraged to turn away from discos, dance halls, bars and Valentine card celebrations which are all inspired by the profit motive and turn to gau raksha instead. The victims are of as little commercial or political consequence to the Hindutva core as the northeastern politicians quitting the Bharatiya Janata Party in disgust. Exploiting the Cow Protection and Conservation Act to terrorise villagers also sharpens the communal divide with an eye to the next elections. With 10 years’ imprisonment for killing a cow and five for trading in beef, the innocent word gosht has acquired a dreaded resonance among Haryana Muslims who are especially vulnerable to gau raksha samiti tyranny. The Haryana police officer who parrots one of the many justifications for demonetisation to claim that the money earned from smuggling and killing cattle funds terrorist violence will go far like the Rajasthan judge who says peacocks are brahmacharis.

No wonder our Calcutta New Market butcher is as contemptuous of religious posturing as Wahid. “They export beef but call it buffalo!” he exploded during the BJP’s previous tenure, unconsciously highlighting another alternative fact. The US reckoned in 2013 that India had outstripped Brazil which was then the world’s biggest beef exporter. What Modi calls the Pink Revolution is worth around one lakh crore of rupees today. It earned India Rs 26,303 crore in 2016-17. Ironically, Adityanath’s Uttar Pradesh leads the market. The Chinese gobble up all the Indian beef they can lay chopsticks on which surely offers a chance of making a dent in the $23 billion deficit in bilateral trade. West Asians are clamouring for more boneless, frozen Indian hallal beef. The leather industry is another dollar earner. If illegal immigrants from Bangladesh are invading India, herds of Indian cattle are pushed across the no-man’s-land to their doom in Bangladesh. I have often wondered who rakes in the profits.

Nirad C Chaudhuri claimed Westernisation meant cultivating a taste for ripe cheese. He himself had scaled the dizzy heights of Gorgonzola. But he admitted his spoken English was poor because he hadn’t been brought up on a diet of beef broth and rare steak. The veteran CPI leader, Indrajit Gupta, who was scathing when I wanted my steak underdone at lunch at Wengers in Connaught Circus. Make it “taaza” he snapped at the waiter. “Accha se khoon lagao for this sahib from London!” Having adopted Communism in Britain, Sonny-mama (as I called him) frowned on anything obviously alien. He was entitled to for he rigorously practised the austerity many of his comrades only preached.

That can’t be said of anti-beef militants. No genuine concern for cattle welfare can explain their vicious campaign. No genuine piety can have tempered the fervour of the ardent saffron NRI who justified wolfing down a Texan steak with the argument that only Indian cows are holy, not mleccha cattle beyond the kala pani.

Also Read ‘Impact of Beef Ban in Kerala’ by Shahina KK