Magazine article New Internationalist

Captive to Their Own Myths

Magazine article New Internationalist

Captive to Their Own Myths

Article excerpt

'Call me after 9,' a professor friend at Jadavpur University in Kolkata texted me a few days ago. 'Right now, we're all going offto the beef fest.' A sort of 'eatathon', a beef fest involves the public eating of beef in protest at its government-supported banning in some states. Maharashtra has already brought in this legislation, which takes away from Muslims, Dalits, Christians and, indeed, beef-eating Hindus, an important item of food (thus denying them a basic democratic right), and scores a nationalist Hindu point, because Hindus believe the cow is sacred and should not be eaten.

Other rightwing-ruled states in India are considering following suit. Haryana, in the north, has already done so. And in Delhi's neighbouring state of Uttar Pradesh, the campaign is in full swing: slogans demanding gau mata ko rashtra pashu banao ('make mother cow the national animal') line the walls of buildings along the highway. It doesn't matter that cows know little about religion or nation; they've become important in the battle for these inter-related turfs.

A longstanding demand of the Hindu right, the ban on cow slaughter has in the past been kept in abeyance by the government, and for good reason. India is a secular country, constitutionally committed to the democratic rights of its minority populations. Food is an important aspect of this: a sense of home and belonging comes as much from what you eat as from where you live and what you do. For the 150 million Muslims who live in India, beef is a staple food and one of their main sources of protein. Other groups also eat beef: the Dalits, for one. The beef trade gives employment to hundreds of thousands of people. How, then, can it be banned?

Yet in the battle for claiming a space for the Hindu nation, such considerations do not seem to be important. A Hindu point has been scored and has been given the green light by a Hindu government - and that's enough.

The beleaguered majority

The renewed Hinduization of an already very Hindu India is a project that is rapidly gaining strength. Why this should be necessary in a country whose population is 80-per-cent Hindu anyway (even though being Hindu means different things to different people) is a question to which there are no easy answers. Why should they - or perhaps I should say we, for I am by birth a Hindu, although in the way that people's lives are messy, I am also a Sikh, and sometimes the lines between these two are quite blurred - feel marginalized? And further, why should this sense of marginalization be laid at the door of other, much smaller and less powerful groups?

In India, virtually all the important top jobs, industries, institutions, educational projects and more are headed by upper-caste Hindus, mostly men. Any number of reports have shown that, despite the unmistakable gains of positive discrimination, India has a lot of catching up to do in terms of the rights and status of its minorities. Of all the minorities in the country - and there are many - the largest, Muslims, are the ones that concern Hindus the most.

About 15 per cent of India's population today is Muslim. Yet one of the most popular and enduring myths among those Hindus who see themselves as beleaguered in their own land is that because Muslims have many children, they will soon outstrip the Hindu population. A case of simple maths would prove otherwise, but this is never deployed.

There was a time, not so many years ago, when if someone spoke of Hindu fundamentalism, we would have laughed at them, perhaps shaken our heads, and most certainly have trotted out the most enduring (and true) cliché of all: that Hinduism is not a religion, it's a philosophy; that it is full of nuance and contradiction; that there's no one book on which it is based, so there's no question of fundamentalism.

Not so now. In the past two decades so much has changed - there hasn't really been a moment when one minority or other has not come under attack. …

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