The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation enforced a two-day ban on the sale of meat and shut its slaughter-house during the Jain festival of Paryushan. Gurgaon in Haryana also has such a ban. Thankfully, I live in the jurisdiction of the Kolkata Municipal Corporation, where chickens, goats and cows can be slaughtered all the time and sold throughout the city without sensitivities being ruffled. However, the meat bans put into place in several other Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled states in response to the demands of their political backers are worrisome to my faith and me.
I belong to a clan of Shaktos (devotees of the Mother Goddess or Shakti) and we worship Ma Durga and Ma Kali. It’s my fortune that I live in Kolkata’s Chetla locality that is across the nearly-dead Adi Ganga (the original flow of the Ganga) river from the powerful divine seat of Ma Kali called Kalighat. This Shaktipeeth is one of the holiest sites of our Shakto universe. Here, our people have always offered animals as sacrifice to our divine mother. We consider this meat as Ma Kali’s prasad. For those who can’t afford to sacrifice a whole goat, the meat of animals that have been offered to the goddess are sold from small outlets near the temple.
When parts of Ma Sati’s dead body fell onto earth, each of those sites became a Shaktipeeth. Of the 51 Shaktipeeths on earth, Bengal is blessed with 16, of which West Bengal has 11. Some are in Assam and Nepal. At most of the Shaktipeeths, animal sacrifices are almost a daily affair. It‘s a part and parcel of our faith. By pushing a certain Hindi-belt consensus of certain communities on the question of animal slaughter and meat-eating, people like us are being reduced to second-grade Hindus. This is also why our practices need to be protected from this brand of virat Hinduism that privileges certain religious practices over others.
In a few days, I will travel from my city home in Kolkata to my desh in Patuligram village of West Bengal’s Hooghly district. Our clan has been Bengali shakto for as long as we can remember. Ma Durga, the mother goddess, will come alive in Patuligram as “Moter Ma” – the name by which she is known there. Many traditional Durga pujas or religious rites in Shakto families or out-of-turn personal offerings to the goddess have animal sacrifice as an integral part.
Does one not have the right to observe Shakto religious rites during the time of Paryushan of the Jains if one happens to live in of these slaughter-ban zones? When certain religious people deliver patronising sermons on vegetarianism, are our religious sensitivities not hurt? Why is that acceptable? Is it because in the virat Hindu conception of religious practice, our practices are second-class? When we are judged on the basis of other people’s attitudes towards meat and their religious sensitivity, are we to understand that our faith is something that perturbs the religious sensitivity of others?
Who are these first citizens of the Indian Union whose sensitivities take precedence over the practices of others? This Savarna-Jain halalisation of the public sphere is a creeping danger because they exert political influence far beyond their numbers. What does that tell us about the ideological currents at play in India? In this land of “unity in diversity”, some diversities are silenced or are labeled superstitious. Some diversities retain elements that bite back when trampled upon. They go much beyond the Dilli Haat sort of showcase diversities.
The regions that not not have meat bans must realise the long-range political aim of the Hindi-Hindu-Hindustani multi-headed hydra of homogeneity. It has many faces – some are about the beef ban, some are about cosmo-liberal “idea of India” and so forth. The government-run Air India serves eggless cake and onion-less paneer puffs to general passengers like me on a flight to Srinagar from Delhi. Kashmir is home to a largely meat-eating non-Muslim culture. What’s the message here? In Kolkata, I recently visited a private hospital, part of a chain owned by a vegetarian Krishna-worshipping business family. In that health-care facility, no eggs or meat or fish is allowed. Even if they are medically indicated, nutritionists working there never prescribe anything non-vegetarian. Does religious sensitivity also allow one to molest the lifestyle, health and food choices of one’s customers? What’s the nature of this emergent politics that empowers a business group to enforce its religious beliefs in health-care facilities and deny fish to a convalescing Bengali in Bengal?
The new nation-state is evolving and is attempting to beat the subcontinent into a new consensus. Our gods and goddesses aren’t unaffected and are being replaced by a set of “eternal values” – a mishmash of practices deemed to be acceptable to be lifestyle demands of an urban consumer society. These positions have wide currency among the rootless urban folk dreaming up a unified Hinduism with a national pantheon. A community is being created whose religious pantheon is dictated by that pathetic yearning for uniformity that only a non-confident nation-state continuously fans. This is where portable religion, meat bans and “Hindi nahi aati?” (Don’t you speak Hindi?) come together as symptoms of the same disease. I thank Ma Kali that this disease hasn’t yet afflicted Kolkata and I believe that my benevolent and powerful divine mother will keep it that way. We Shaktos are not worshippers of man-made gods or of dead gods. Our goddesses are alive and are on guard. As they’ve always been.