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The Politics of Caste and Veganism

What is Veganism?

A basic definition of veganism entails a practice where human beings do not eat any living animal or any product produced from living animals. This would include — eggs, dairy, meat, poultry, seafood, honey, items made out of leather, products tested on animals and so on. The Merriam-Webster would define a vegan as a strict vegetarian who consumes no food (such as meat, eggs, or dairy products) that is derived from animals. The term ‘vegan’ was originally coined by Donald Watson, a British man horrified by the treatment of pigs in his uncle’s slaughterhouse.

With the ongoing climate crisis and conversations around sustainability and the ethics around the means of production, veganism seems to be the perfect solution to end large-scale suffering. However, the cascading effect of veganism is still unpredictable in practice. It’s a solution devoid of a space for cultural and socio-political understanding. When we delve deeper into the functioning of capitalistic structures in developing countries which have lower average income rates, the model of veganism turns sour, not of it’s benefits but in its ability to communicate and convey its principles; which could in-turn ignite deeper, complex and unexplored questions. In a BBC article published in 2018, Soutik Biswas writes, ‘Hindus, who make up 80% of the Indian population, are major meat-eaters’, and goes on to state that ‘only a third of the privileged, upper-caste Indians are vegetarian.’

The purpose of veganism is to end the suffering of sentient animals who think, feel and express emotions. Under the era of rapid capitalism, consumption of meat and dairy has led to searingly painful living conditions for animals bred to be put on a plate. Speciesism, another school of thought, denotes discrimination on the type of animal one chooses to adore and which one chooses to consume. A dog is socially adored while the chicken is heavily bred in suffocating conditions and consumed, given absolutely no choice. Ed Winters, a famous vegan educator, in his TEDx talk categorically breaks down the arguments against veganism. He questions and compares to see if the cultural practice of female genital mutilation is justified because it is a prominent aspect of some societies sense of identity to the resistance of veganism in a cultural context.

What are the benefits of veganism? 

The benefits of veganism are far and wide, it reduces the risk of heart disease, cancer and mood disorders. However, a vegan diet may also cause deficiencies in Vitamin B12 which is naturally produced in animal products. A BBC documentary on how to live longer, introduces veganism as the diet that substantially lowers age related diseases and increases life span.

Veganism is by far the best way to eradicate environmental crises and promote animal diversity. A new study by Oxford University stated that ‘the impacts of animal products can markedly exceed those of vegetable substitutes. To such a degree that meat, aquaculture, eggs, and dairy use ~83% of the world’s farmland.’ Damian Carrington writes in his article in The Guardian titled ‘Avoiding meat and dairy is the ‘single biggest way’ to reduce your impact on Earth’. For instance, he says ‘beef cattle raised on deforested land results in 12 times more greenhouse gas emission and uses 50 times more land than those grazing rich natural pasture. But the comparison of beef with plant protein such as peas is stark, with even the lowest impact beef responsible for six times more greenhouse gases and 36 times more land.’

What is the relationship between veganism and Caste? 

Sociological impacts of veganism involves agitation towards its connotations to vegetarian and casteist purity. Historically, meat was the source of food for Dalits because of it’s readily available nutritional values. Suryakant Waghmore in his book Civility Against Caste: Dalit Politics and Citizenship in Western India sheds light on the nature of the landscape of caste politics currently in India. He writes, ‘Caste as a deeply private realm constructs a form of public in India which is ex-clusionary based on the status privileges.’ Deep-rooted ideas of inferiority are linked to meat-eating, however, statistics blatantly show us that India is definitely not a vegetarian country at all. How deep-rooted is this inferiority exactly? Is it a common occurrence?

In a 2008 Livemint piece titled ‘No, vegetarianism is not growing in India,’ Arjun Srinivas states that according to the, ‘Mint analysis of data from two successive rounds of the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) conducted in 2005-06 and 2015-16, vegetarianism has in fact been on the decline over the past decade.’ He also goes on to state that, ‘Among social groups, meat consumption is the highest among Muslims and Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (SCs and STs). More than 80% of SCs, STs and Muslims are meat-eaters.

Among the general category (including upper castes), this proportion is much lower at 57%.

The highest increase in meat-consumption over the past decade has been among the other backward classes (excluding Muslims). The share of meat-eaters among OBCs has risen 3 percentage points over the past decade to 68% in 2015-16.’ Meat consumption is a common occurrence and at the same time a marker for cultural identity and class privileges. Vikram Doctor in his article in the Economic Times about the history and politics of Dalit food, scathingly states that it is not ‘correct to equate all upper-castes with vegetarianism and all Dalits with eating meat. Ambedkar’s father, for example, was vegetarian. Yet there is a long tradition of holding up a twisted argument against Dalits on the grounds of eating meat: because Dalits stood outside the traditional religious and social structure and because they were allowed little other foods, it was accepted that they ate meat, and specifically beef; but when Dalits tried to integrate with religion and society, their eating meat was held against them.’

The sheer complexity of the issue that veganism presents to developing countries such as ours can be easily contested with philosophical reasoning and stern morality, however to influence policy and public nutrition beliefs at the grassroots, an unearthing of facts and repercussions on the world we hopefully want to live in in the future needs to be implemented through conversations and also an empathetic response to the cognitive dissonance and fury that will be received if veganism is naively preached. We know about the artificial insemination of cows, chickens and other animals is petrifying, inhumane and unhygienic, however, lower class and caste children who go to public schools may want to eat eggs full of protein rather than starve because of the quality of the tasteless food. The complexity of the issue at both ends is a blatant failure of the choicelessness our economic and public systems inherently possess. In an extensive piece about the crisis in public nutrition relating to the mid-day meal scheme in schools in Karnataka, Archana Nathan includes statements from Siddharth Joshi a researcher involved with the Right to Food Campaign and states that, “If we examine the food traditions in Karnataka, we realise that only 15% of the people are vegetarian”. However, there appears to be a widespread belief that vegetarianism is superior, possibly because of its association with upper caste customs. And, as Joshi said, to say that “the government, in its schemes to mitigate hunger, will only serve a dominant caste group’s food is terribly unfair and deeply problematic. What about the cultures and food traditions of the children actually eating these meals?” There is clearly a divide between opinionated public nutrition practices and what the hungry children themselves want. Clearly, destroying all types of discriminating practices will also lead to a more sustainable future where it is easier to see the repercussions of diet and lifestyle.

We also know that animal husbandry and mass cultivation of animals leads to a problematic cycle of exploitation that capitalism is all too familiar with. The trickling effect of eating meat in the time we live in today is far worse and will only get worse from here if consumption patterns are not redirected. The veins of the systems in place should be filled with alternative sustainable practices rather than the most polluting methods. Population, demand and all the rigid hands of economic functions all meet to determine the future of the world and the outlook of each individual person it will influence. Veganism might not be a solution without the consideration of the basic fundamentals of a diverse society, country and the world; but it is surely a component of a more cognisant, healthier and sustainable future.

Manogni T is an Editorial Intern at One Future Collective.

Disclaimer: Views shared in this article are personal and may not represent that of the organisation’s.

Featured image source: Camaradiant

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