Hindu-American Perspective On Beef Controversy In India

By Ela Dutt

Since the brutal killing of Mohammad Akhlaq, 55, by a Hindu mob in India’s Dadri village near Delhi Sept. 28, many Hindus, Muslims and Christians in India have stepped up their opposition to what they see as a growing environment of religious intolerance and the rise of Hindu nationalism before and after the election victory of Prime Minister Narendra


Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party in May 2014. That intolerance many say, is antithetical to the basic tenets of Hinduism.


Before the beef incident and after it, there have been a series of violent incidents revolving around religious beliefs or lack thereof. A leading rationalist was murdered reportedly by Hindu fundamentalists at the end of August in Karnataka; two Dalit children were killed in a house fire set by Hindu upper castes in Haryana this week.


These incidents have spurred massive public reaction in India among those for and against eating beef. Some in the intelligentsia believe minorities are becoming fearful, and also decry what they see as the one-year old government’s overreach into everything from changing school curricula to looking the other way in violence against minority religions; Those who are pro-Modi say matters are being overblown by “secularists” and “progressives” as well as an irresponsible media.


Some experts say there isn’t enough data to support the contention that there’s a rise in religious violence. Some argue the seeming rise is a function of the Internet that catapults hitherto hidden acts of violence in small villages and districts in India, to the scrutiny of the world. Ironically, this serves both fundamentalists and those against religious fundamentalism.


Isolated Incident
Several devout and activist Hindu-Americans News India Times spoke to condemned Akhlaq’s killing, but contended it was an isolated incident of a mob trying to impose its religious views on others. “It was a very extreme thing to do just for eating an animal,” said Anju Bhargava, a Hindu priest and founder of Hindu American Seva Communities, and former member of the inaugural White House Advisory Council on Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnership set up by President Obama in 2009. “As a Hindu-American, it’s not in our tradition to take this sort of action,” Bhargava continued.


Ved Chaudhary, founder of Educator’s Society for the Heritage of India, and co-founder of HASC, called the killing a “senseless act.” Even if beef eating was banned, which it was not in Uttar Pradesh, Chaudhary said, citizens should report a violation to the authorities. He blamed Akhlaq’s killing partly on lack of police protection. “This was a mob which wants to impose its religious belief on others,” Chaudhary noted, but said 900 million Hindus don’t all think the same way.


Sankar Sastri, founder of the Lakshmi Cow Sanctuary in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, said Hinduism was meant to promote love and compassion in a violent world and “This incident has nothing to do with that.”


Any incident where a mob decides to take the law into its hands, is worrying whether it is rape, murder, or caste violence, Suhag Shukla, founder and legal counsel at the Hindu American Foundation. Shukla said she was at a loss on what could be done to prevent flare-up of mob violence in India, and indicated that lessons could be learnt from a multicultural country like the U.S.


Conditions On Beef

The solution may lie in making laws that accommodated the majority, Shukla said. Shukla blamed the media and politicians for politicizing the beef issue. In America, she noted, Hindus had adjusted to the majority, just as Jews and Muslims have. Just as minorities in the U.S. such as Hindus, Jews, and Muslims, had adjusted and adapted to food habits of the majority in a Judeo-Christian setting, the same could be made into formal laws in India. Dog meat is looked down upon in the U.S., she pointed out, something that Chinese-Americans as well as those of Vietnamese or other East Asian descent could object to, but adapt to. However, she conceded that the majority not eating dog-meat was not a religious belief but rather a cultural norm, different from the violence against beef eating in India, which was driven by religion. Yet she argued, “Why don’t we make dog and cat meat a deprivation for the minority here?” She objected to other religious hallmarks that minorities have to adapt to here. “Why do I have to take a week off for Christmas and have to make adjustments during Diwali for my child?” she questioned.


Bhargava said Hindus, Muslims and Christians had each followed different food habits side by side in India for decades. But perhaps there was a need to make some rules about humane treatment of animals. “If you are going to kill an animal, have rules of engagement,” she said harking back to ancient Indian texts like the Mahabharata.


Ancient Indian Palate
Bhargava said she had read the Mahabharata in its original text and nowhere was meat eating prohibited. “When they went hunting, they had rules for killing animals – not a pregnant animal, or a young animal, etc. But it was understood that you needed to eat meat,” she said. “I understood from the direct text that people went and hunted animals and the best parts were first offered to the Brahmin. So the first lesson is that eating meat, being non-vegetarian, was not against being a Hindu.”


Her views were echoed by Professor Wendy Doniger of University of Chicago, an expert on Hinduism, whose book, The Hindus: An Alternative History, was pulled off shelves by Penguin India when it was threatened with a lawsuit by a school teacher on grounds it hurt religious sentiments.


“In the Vedic periods, cows and bulls were sacrificed and you had to eat them as part of the ritual. And Brahmins were the ones who did it,” Doniger said. Later, as the Laws of Manu began to influence practices, the movement centered on vegetarianism, something that was followed by Jains, Buddhists and some Hindus, she noted. “After the Vedic period there were some Hindus who did not eat beef or meat, but that was part of the tolerance of Hinduism,” she noted. “So (anti) beef is part of an anti-Muslim agenda,” she contended.


Intelligentsia’s Revolt
However, Doniger said what was new about today was the violence by Hindus by Hindus. Where Vaishnavs and Shaivites or other sects of Hindus tolerated each other relatively peacefully with some exceptions, the problem has become more pronounced now. “They may not have liked each other but they did not kill each other.” She pointed to the murder on Aug. 30, of a rationalist Malleshappa Kalburgi in Dharwad, Karnataka, recipient of the National Sahitya Akademi Award by India’s National Academy of Letters in 2006.


Kalburgi’s killing has led to more than a score of Indian writers and thinkers returning their Sahitya Akademi awards, citing his death as well as what they see as a spreading environment of religious intolerance in the country, including Akhlaq’s killing a month later Sept. 28.


Fundamentalism, Doniger contends however, is a global phenomena – ‘infecting’ countries like Israel and the United States, not just India. While village-level fueds against Dalits, or intermarriages, etc. were always there, she said, “What’s different now is these things at village level get broadcast and become pan-Indian events.”


In India, “There were always those who ate beef or didn’t, but the idea of violence against them was not happening in the past. There’s not a history of attacking writers in India,” she added. She accused the media as well as the rise of the BJP as part of the reason for what seemed like a rise in religious violence.


Scholars Differ
Walter Andersen, a long time researcher on the BJP and Hindutva, strongly differs. “We are not in a position to make a judgment. There’s no systematic study to show there’s been a rise in religious violence in India after the BJP came to power,” Andersen asserted. “People who don’t like the BJP say ‘yes, there’s been a rise,’ and those who support the BJP say ‘no’,” said Andersen who heads the South Asia Studies department at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. More reporting and the Internet could well be responsible for the higher number today, he said. He criticized the Indian intelligentsia for being partisan about the beef murder or other violent incidents, and questioned why they did not similarly return their literary awards when Salman Rushdie’s book was banned or when Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasrin was forced out of India or spent years trying to get a visa to enter India.


“All acts of violence and all banning of books is bad and all political parties have to come to that conclusion,” Andersen said. At the same time, he said, there was a “Tea Party” element within the BJP, which could not be controlled by the Center. “They don’t like being told what to do,” even by their own party bigwigs.

Bhargava, Shukla, and Andersen argued against blaming the political party at the top for an act that was against the law. Andersen however, called on the authrities to take immediate and stringent action and to be seen to be doing it.


“Modi has to take action, fire people,” Andersen said, for what is essentially, “a law and order” problem. Similarly, the Chief Minister of U.P. should arrest all those responsible for the killing of two Dalit children, burnt to death Oct. 20, by a group of high-caste Hindus in Faridabad, Haryana, he said. Only 2 people have been arrested so far.


He said liberals had taken the wrong approach in India. “Every such act should be labeled a crime. Once you get partisan, the argument loses its moral standing and quality.”




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