In his columns in a national daily a very well known journalist has discussed at length the genesis of some Hindus eating the prohibited meat as a display of their liberal and progressive attitude. He flashed back to the days of the Young Bengal, focused on ‘beef festivals’ of more recent times and has concluded that beef is not an economic issue. It only symbolises cultural offensiveness. Restricting it is not an assault on minority rights; just “bowing to common decencies”. The columnist has also found justification for those Hindus who eat beef abroad, but are all for banning its consumption in India. In passing he has not forgotten his favourite barb at what he calls “Nehruvian patriotism”. Let us examine his arguments in some detail.

Beef-eating and the Young Bengal

A little over 200 years ago, the first waves of western thoughts reached the shores of India through English education. When the Hindu College – now the Presidency University – was established in Calcuttta in 1817 some of its best students were quite swept overboard by the avalanche of new ideas. They embraced everything English – be it literature, philosophy, food or liqueur. In their newfound zeal they thought modernity lay in criticising, denigrating and defying everything that was forbidden by the dictates of religion or tradition, especially when these taboos did not appear to have any ‘scientific’ explanation. These were the famous Young Bengal.

They not only took to eating beef but did many other things that went against the established religious tenets and tradition. They were strongly denounced and even hounded by the traditional Hindu majority. When Bankim Chandra Chatterjee castigated the Babus for their false notion that eating beef signified modernism or a cultured lifestyle, he was absolutely right.

As it happens when such floods recede, many of these neo-modernists gave up or scaled down their ostentatious acts of defiance. Instead, they turned to socio-religious reform movements, women’s education, and similar activities. In their pursuit of modernism – somewhat misplaced though their understanding of the concept was – they were the harbingers of a new age, a new way of looking at things, and of what we know today as Bengali Renaissance. Some of these students, who had acquired a rare mastery of the English language, penned the very best in Bengali literature, now regarded as classics of exquisite beauty!

Questioning and defying established norms of the society – some of which are worn out, unreasonable and incompatible with the modern times – is an indication of the vitality of the youth that accepts nothing that fails the acid test of reasoning. In the process they sometimes indulge in what might appear to be excesses; but their protests, in the main, change the system for the better. This happened in the case of the Young Bengal movement as well.

Abolishing of the practice of burning of “Sati”, and later, making widow remarriage legal were among the positive outcomes of this rebellion against obnoxious practices that were followed ‘as a matter of faith’ in those days. Should we cling to the cliche, ‘it is a matter of our faith’ and call for these vile practices to stage a return? Let us not forget that there still are groups in this country who are all for burning of Sati, child marriage and incarceration of widows, if not of all women! Looking at the Young Bengal only as a beef-eating bunch of drunkards, ignoring their contribution to the making of a new India, is denying historical facts.

1857 Revolt a Backlash against Young Bengal?

Was the ‘Revolt’ of 1857 a backlash against the Young Bengal’s penchant for beef, as the famed columnist would like us believe? History does not say so. The sepoys were unlikely to have any knowledge about the Young Bengal and their activities. It is difficult to see any link between the breaking of religious taboos by some young men and the 1857 uprising. There were protests, and some violence, against the Young Bengal by traditional Hindus; but to associate the conflagration of 1857 with the acts of the anti-establishment young men is indeed stretching the argument too far.

It is equally preposterous to claim that “the cow became the symbol of national honour” due to the activities of the preachers of cow protection. In fact, in colonial India the cow protection movement and “upholding the cow” (whatever that may mean) were so insignificant in their spread and appeal that they failed to have any influence except on the extreme rightist fringe.

Patriotism, Cow and Nationalism

One cannot but be amused by the unconvincing argument linking the “ethos of the national movement” with some states banning cow slaughter in the ’50s. The cow protection brigade of those days did not participate in the struggle for India’s independence. In any case, the independence movement led by the Congress was not a Hindu or Muslim religious movement. It had many shortcomings; but its worst critics won’t say that the ethos of the freedom struggle had even the remotest connection with the protection of the cow. Some states enacted laws to prohibit cow slaughter in deference to the people’s demand; but they never sent the police into people’s kitchens to carry out forensic tests on what they were cooking!

It is equally ridiculous to say that “Nehruvian Patriotism” influenced only India’s creamy layer and that this patriotism was not as genuine as the “more authentic nationalism at the grass roots”. According to the respected journalist, then, all those who followed the national leaders in their pursuit of freedom and sacrificed their lives, belonged to the “creamy layer”!

It is a shameful distortion of history and insult to our national heroes to say, as the columnist does, the patriotism of those who laid down their lives for India’s independence was spurious; only the ‘nationalism’ of those who were preaching for protection of the cow was forged in fire and the former could not “unsettle” the latter, as if the freedom struggle was being fought between the Nehruvian patriots and the cow-protecting nationalists!

This is the real spin, and will find instant approval from those whose only pastime is denouncing Nehru and Gandhi, not looking at their successes and failures in historical perspective. Obviously, all right-thinking people found that in those days shaking off the colonial shackles in order to improve the lot the Indian people was more important than protecting the cow!

Mother in India, A mere Beast abroad!

Coming to the issue of the prohibition on eating beef for the Hindus, the expressed reason for the objection is, “the Cow is holy; she is like our mother, and so we should not eat her flesh”. This is a fine sentiment – even if the analogy appears illogical to some. Let us also skip for now the pathetic condition in which we allow the revered cow to scour garbage dumps for food. But an examination of the sincerity of those who proclaim that Hindus must not partake of cow meat won’t be irrelevant.

Our learned journalist condones Hindus who eat beef abroad but not in India on the ground that other kinds of meat may be difficult to get! Leaving aside the question whether it is obligatory for a Hindu to eat flesh, having spent the better part of my life abroad across three continents I can vouch for it that there’s no place in the world where meat other than beef is not available. So, eating beef abroad and preaching the opposite in India, in plain English, is sheer hypocrisy. May I humbly ask, if the cow is our mother here, what makes her just another animal beyond the shores of Jambu Dweepa?

Modernity, Liberalism and Beef-eating

Over two centuries separate t us from the Young Bengal. To see their ghosts in some modern-day activists is a figment of imagination. When some people in the recent past ate beef in public and even organised the so-called beef festival”, that was not to advertise how modern or liberal they were, but to assert their fundamental right of choice of food. It was their way of protesting against the highhandedness of the self-appointed zealots enforcing on other people their idea of what should be eaten and what should not be.

I do not eat either beef or buffalo or even pork. I have every right not to. Equally, I have no right to dictate what my neighbour should or should not eat. Any restriction on this right has to pass the test of reasonableness. The restriction cannot be imposed simply because my sentiment is hurt, even if I am in the majority. India is not a majoritarian country; at least not yet.

That is what the public defiance of the eating ban tried to highlight.  It is not that the learned columnist, with all his erudition, is not aware of this fact. Unfortunately, adherence to truth and logic is not, in most circumstances, politically correct.