Around a month and half ago, I was sitting in a restaurant in Cherrapunjee/Sohra having lunch with my friend Raymond when a group of seven or eight tourists walked in. They asked at the counter, on their way in, if the place served vegetarian food, and on hearing it did, they took a table about 10 feet away from where we were sitting. Then someone at that table probably spotted me eating a leg of chicken. Immediately, all hell broke loose. Angrily, they summoned the waiter. “Isn’t this place pure veg?” they demanded. The manager was summoned. He tried to placate them by saying, if I recall correctly, that separate vessels are used for cooking vegetarian food. It was still not good enough. The angry vegetarians left in search of “pure veg” in Cherrapunjee. I had no problem with their doing so. They are free to eat where they like. The question is, why did they leave? What “purity” were they searching for?
There are people in many parts of the world these days who are vegetarians by choice. They concern themselves with what food they put on their plates and into their mouths – not what others put into theirs. The vegetarian of caste taboo provenance, however, is a different sort. For him, what his neighbours eat is also a matter of concern. If someone at the next table is eating meat, the restaurant itself is unclean.
The caste vegetarian may be highly educated, but his rationality fails him when it comes to this caste taboo. It is a taboo deeper than the rational; it is embedded deep in the psyche. Its basis is a notion of purity and pollution based on food.
At the apex of the pyramid of purity are those who obsessively observe their caste taboos. This, they do by religiously asking at restaurants and even 5 star resorts whether the food is cooked in separate utensils, whether any impure onion or garlic, let alone meat, has touched the utensil, whether the cook is from the right caste – a delicate question that must be asked indirectly. Nonetheless, purity must be maintained at all costs; the pure vegetarian finds a way to discover the purity of the kitchen and the cook, perhaps by demanding an inspection during which they can ask the cook his name.
The notion of purity excludes Dalits, tribals, and “impure” Hindus alike, but the most polluted in the hierarchy of pollution are the eaters of beef.
Those who do not observe the same caste taboos as the pure vegetarian are obviously polluted. Any hint of such pollution produces disgust. This gut reaction of disgust extends beyond food, to people. People who eat polluting food such as meat must unfortunately be tolerated, but not where the peaceful vegetarians are in sufficient numbers and strength to enforce their ways. There, the polluted castes who eat “non veg” must be driven to hide in ghettos, if they cannot be driven out of the state altogether.
The notion of purity excludes Dalits, tribals, and “impure” Hindus alike, but the most polluted in the hierarchy of pollution are the eaters of beef. In most places in mainland India, this means the Muslim. For the follower of the vegetarian caste taboos, the Muslim is thus the farthest outlier in the scale of polluted peoples.
The obsession with beef, cow slaughter, repeated meat bans, the killings of human beings over suspicions of transporting cows for slaughter, the hatred of Muslims, the indignities heaped on Dalits, the smaller examples of hostility towards other Hindus who are not vegetarians – for instance by denying them housing – all of these things start to make sense if you think of the states where they have occurred and the food habits of the people behind them.
The states that are central to this are Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. It is certain castes from these places that drive the whole obsessive food politics – and, perhaps not coincidentally, the most egregious intolerance towards Muslims, Christians, Dalits.
Even the obsession about “love jihad” is not an expression of sexual jealousy alone; it is an obsession with purity and pollution. In this case, what is being defiled is the body of the woman of pure caste. No wonder the reaction is murderous rage.
If lower castes adopt these obsessions about purity, they do so in an ongoing process of Sanskritization.
Gandhiji, who had his share of obsessions about food, would have understood where it was all coming from. Ram Guha, an admirer of the “Mahatma” noted in his book “Gandhi Before India” that of all the many political and social groups in London in the late 19th Century, the one he joined was an obscure one – the London Vegetarian Society.
Verrier Elwin, the great anthropologist (and lapsed missionary) who abandoned Gandhi in favour of tribal India because he saw through the man’s obsession with food, alcohol and sex, would have understood too.