09 January 2011

The Politics of Meat in India

Everyone knows that Hindus don't eat beef and Muslims don't eat pork. At least that's how it goes in theory. A lot of my South Asian friends in the States will happily eat anything that moos, oinks, quacks, bleats or scuttles across the seafloor. In the Subcontinent, the entrenchment of cultural norms means that here you rarely get the opportunity to eat beef or pork (just as, for example, it's hard to find goat meat in the US).

Of course many Indians are vegetarian for religious reasons. The concept of ahimsa (non-violence), which is a part of Hindu and other Indian traditions, can be reasonably assumed to apply to killing animals to eat them. To avoid mistakes, a national labelling system has been in place since 2001. Every food product is marked with either a green dot in a green square or a brown dot in a brown square, the former for purely vegetarian items and the latter for ones containing meat. (Vegetarian for this purpose includes milk and eggs.)

The segregation of meat is taken very seriously, for example, at Subway. Each Subway restaurant has two queues, "Veg" and "Non-Veg." The rules are strict—I saw a customer bring his veg sandwich to the non-veg guy and ask him to cut it, and he told the man to go to the veg guy. Whatever misgivings I might have about eating meat, the setup itself has a funny way of driving me towards having chicken instead of tofu. Whenever I've stopped by for a sandwich, there's always been a six-foot tall, gym-bunny "Sandwich Artist" making non-veg sandwiches and a waifish guy making veg sandwiches. The message is clear if not scientifically sound.

The only places in India where you can get pork are Ruby Tuesday and very expensive grocery stores (as far as I know). Notices at Ruby Tuesday proclaim grandly that all of their pork is imported. The reason for this is pork's association with outcastes in India. You only see pigs near the shanties of very poor people, who are so low in the social hierarchy that they literally do not have a caste. The only cuisine in India that features pork is that of the far-flung states bordering Burma, like Nagaland. Nagaland is a region of formerly isolated mountain tribes who met the outside world only when they were attacked by the Burmese and later converted by Baptist missionaries (in fact, percentage-wise it might be the most Baptist state on Earth).

I am agnostic when it comes to meat. I don't think that killing animals is inherently wrong (my reasons are complicated—suffice it to say that they do not rest on the passage in Genesis giving mankind "dominion... over every living thing that moveth upon the earth"), but I don't think it is morally defensible to inflict unnecessary suffering on animals. That of course is the problem. When you eat a steak, how do you know that the cow was well-treated? Indeed, when you drink milk, how do you know that the cow was well-treated? The only unimpeachable position is veganism (that is, not eating any animal products whatsoever).

I started to become a vegetarian because I couldn't come up with a satisfactory logic to defend eating meat. I stopped eating pork, reasoning that I rarely ate it anyway. But I stopped my conversion there, calling an uneasy truce with my misgivings. Five years later, I still don't eat pork but for no deeper reason than my own choice to give it up. (Jokes of being a crypto-Muslim aside, there is no religious component.) I don't miss it though. Each year I give up alcohol for a month and I am desperate for a nice glass of lager or Merlot by the end of week two, but I don't find myself ever wanting a bacon sandwich. Living in India is nice because I never have to ask, "Is there pork in that?"

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