sensory, material, & digital anthropology
Inspired by an article on the BBC yesterday, I decided to re-visit the murky world of social media and look at how meat eating, specifically beef, is linked to digital electioneering in the ongoing Indian election. Shilpa Kannan’s report discussed Modi’s election promise to end beef trade. Between the interviews with activists and kebab eaters, the bulletin cut to a chromolithograph print of a large white cow overlaid with images of Indian gods. This cow protection motif has a distinct historical trajectory which links the Indian independence movement with Hindu chauvinism and chromolithograph printing. Much like my previous article on Modi and Mother India, these chromolithographic aesthetics has successfully entered digital media. This piece will unpack the cow protection image from the BBC’s report before going onto discuss its presence in social media and a few recent related stories.
Cow protection societies love Narendra Modi. The Bharatiya Janata Party prime ministerial candidate is a proud cow defender and has upheld the banning of cow slaughter in the Gujarat where he was chief minister. After declaring his support for ending the beef trade (in addition to his prominently displayed vegetarianism), there is a possibility that after decades of campaigning cow protection societies can reach their goal: banning the consumption of beef in India. However, this is strongly resisted by India’s minority communities and advocates for secularism. What’s more, India has become a global player in the beef industry. So India appears to be at a tipping point: will it go on to be the world’s great beef exporter or ban the trade altogether?
The Hindu right wing does not have a monopoly on cow protection. Or the high caste practice of vegetarianism. While the BBC article was framed within the bounds of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) versus Muslim traders, the Hindu left embraces a similar rhetoric. A recent note leaked from the Indian national paper The Hindu, banning meat eating in the staff canteen, has caused an online storm. This story has done the rounds on Twitter, Facebook, and has been heavily discussed on Reddit. The Hindu is one of the prominent voices of the Indian liberalism and secularism, and a staunch critic of Modi. But its brand of secularism apparently does not extend to dietary practices in the staff canteen. The issue focused on employees’ bringing non-vegetarian food from home and consuming it in the Hindu’s canteen. To reiterate: the Hindu canteen did not provide meat, instead it banned employees from bringing in non-veterinarian lunches from home. This practice has now been forbidden under the grounds that it offends other staff members. Meat consumption is for the home, not the workplace. Following the discussion on Reddit and Facebook, online users a blamed high caste heavy-handiness and the dominance of a regional cliques at the paper for the ban. The issue has recently been addressed by Hugo Gorringe and D. Karthikeyan (2014) who argue, that deeper questions of Indian citizenship and democratic involvement in institution such as the press, are still framed by upper-caste norms. In so far as demographics are concerned, less than 3% of Tamil Nadu populations are brahmins -the class cluster closest linked to vegetarianism- yet they are imposing their tastes and sensibilities as the norm at the Hindu’s Chennai headquarters (ibid: 21). This is caste at its most mundane and banal, embodied in small everyday acts of discrimination.
Being vegetarian in India may be a lifestyle choice, a religious observance, or increasingly an environmental choice, but it would be hard to argue that the history of vegetarianism in India is not tangled up with caste and communalism. More specifically, the history of cow protection agitation has long been entangled with Hindu Muslim conflicts. Little of the material I encountered online directly addressed the other Indian beef eaters, such as Christians, tribals, low castes, Parsis, and other small minorities. The abandonment of meat consumption within these communities is often labelled Sankritisation, a process where communities adapt their traditions to those traditionally held by high caste Hindu groups.
Recently a Beef Festival was held in Kolkata. West Bengal is one of the few Indian states where cow slaughter remains legal. The Festival was held on the birthday of the great Indian thinker B. R. Ambedkar. Ambedkar was a man with many strings to his bow, but he is best remembered for writing the Indian constitution and his Dalit (low caste/untouchable) activism. To celebrate his birthday Dalit students gathered together to eat beef and reclaim this symbol of marginality. This in turn provoked ambiguous responses from local high caste left-wing academics – eating beef with Dalits was a step too far for many of them. Choosing to eat beef, and daring to celebrate it, is a radical act of caste activism.
Cow protection movements have existed in India for over a hundred years. Born out of Hindu chauvinism in the 1880s, the sacred and emotive symbol of the mother cow was mobilised to push for the outlawing of beef consumption. The movement’s logic was simple: cows are the universal mother, the giver of milk, ghee, curds, urine, and manure; to kill a cow was matricide. When Cow Protection agitation started in India it had two distinct phases: in the Punjab the agitation was urban and linked to religious conflict with Christians and Muslims, while the later stage in Bihar, after 1891, was characterized by caste conflict. Figure 5 shows a cow surrounded by several figures. This Ravi Varma print is an early example of the cow protection motif: a cow with eighty-four deities. Beneath the udders Muslims, Europeans, and Parsees drink milk. The caption reads ‘drink milk and protect the cow’ -as opposed to dispatching it for beef. On the far right of the image, a sword wielding demon approaches the cow with murderous intentions. A Hindu man pleads with the beast for the cow’s life. The print literally demonises the beef eating communities of India but also paints an image of redemption where beef eaters can be transformed into milk drinkers and cow lovers too. The British tried to censor and confiscate these early images but to no avail (Pinney 2004: 108-9). Images are unruly things.
Figure 6 and Figure 7 are taken from Facebook groups. One image comes from a pro-Modi group and another from a cow protection society. I would suggest that cow protection images can be broken down into three types: shock images of cow cruelty, cow with deities (such as the above motif), and affectionate cow/human interactions. Figure 6 shows the modern digitsed life of the older chromeolithograph motif. And it remains popular with over five hundred shares and eight hundred likes. The most common comment ‘jai gua mata‘ praises the cower as mother, both a provider and nurturing presence.
Alongside these digitised prints are shock images which have become a common global currency in the animal rights movement on social media. Note: the example below should not be viewed by those adverse to graphic images.
The most ‘liked’ comment on the Figure 8 reads: ‘please dont post the pic just kill that person’. While calls for retribution and violence may be common responses to animal rights abuse images circulated online globally, what is different about the types of comments encountered on cow protection groups is that they are often targeted at specific communities. The retributive tendencies of animal rights activists on social media in the UK are normally targeted at individuals or organisations such as business of animal laboratories (although there are exceptions like Japanese wailing). In India, it is the country’s large Muslim community that is most frequently blamed.
And here lies the crux of the matter: what is ‘our Indian culture’ that the poster of Figure 9 refers to? As I have discussed earlier in regards to the Beef Festival, beef eating does not create a binary between Hindus and non-Hindus: caste is an important factor in beef consumption. The same can be said for working with leather. The Chamars caste of Haryana in north India are traditional leather workers. They have long been tarnished with the reputation of cow killers, an act akin to matricide and Brahminicide, that is, the act of killing Brahmins the highest caste. The Chamars were so closely associated with leather work that the British added cows to their regimental badges, a classic colonial act of divide and rule. The debate about the place of holy cows in Hinduism continues with D.N. Jha and Wendy Doniger both exploring the history of beef in Hinduism. The purpose of this article is not to look for an authentic past. However, what is certain is that the sacred cow has become a locus on modern Hindu identity, even if this is a reflection of caste bias.
Th cow protection groups on Facebook are rallying under Modi’s banner. The BJP could end the beef trade, which would be the culmination of over a century of cow protection campaigns in India. The BBC’s use of the chromeolithograph print depicting the cow with eighty-four deities was apt. That motif has helped the sustain cow protection movements since the 1880s. The British may have tried to ban it, but it has been irrepressible. In its digital form it continues to circulate and elicit strong emotions from cow protection supporters.
Finally, I will leave you with this anti-Modi meme posted by a troll/activist on a pro-Modi site. Although it had but a brief life before being removed, it was a direct challenge to cow protection supporters who endorse Modi. The rhetoric in this image lampoons the Indian State for punishing cow killing but not the man blamed for the deaths of hundreds of Muslims in the Gujarat.
by EDWARD MOON-LITTLE