By Garga Chatterjee
Mumbai and Delhi are the sanctum sanctorum of the Indian Union`™s anglicized, privileged cool set. Apparently, these two urban areas represent that highest form of the cosmopolitan ethos with a `desi`™ touch. That ethos also is a stand in for a celebratory form of atomized individualism (whose boring moments are `artistically`™ expressed as urban ennui) and is characterized by a near-complete alienation from the street and the social life of real people (for example, people who know the name and address of their local councilor). These are precisely the kind of cities where `illegal`™ settlements of the urban poor can be removed and political processions are reduced to a `traffic problem`™. Hence, it is not surprising that beef-ban unites these two cities in their apartheid-based cosmopolitanism and that a general meat-ban can be promulgated in Mumbai and Gurgaon. The powerful classes of such cities have always made separate private provisions for themselves and hence only rarely anything public impinges of their lives. Thankfully, most urban areas of the subcontinent are not so completely dominated by such classes.
Mumbai`™s municipal corporation had promulgated a 4-day ban on the sale of all kinds of meat and working of its slaughter-houses to respect the perceived heightened religious sensitivity of the Jains during their festival of Paryushan. Strong protests from Marathi-dominated organizations like the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) and the Shiv Sena has resulted in the shortening of the ban period to 2 days. However, a 2 day meat-ban around Paryushan has been around from 1964, when the wealthy Jain business class pressured the then Mumbai municipal corporation to pass a resolution to this effect. While the wealthy business class of Mumbai has always arm-twisted the municipal corporation to serve its special interests, the 1964 resolution represents the power of a powerful group with a powerful group. It is not surprising that many of the Hindu business tycoons of Mumbai in 1962 were also vegetarians and that is still true to a significant extent. Thankfully, I don`™t live in the jurisdiction of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation but that of the Kolkata Municipal Corporation where chickens, goats and cows can be slaughtered all the time and sold throughout the city. Now that several other BJP-ruled states have also come up with meat-bans to respond to their political backers, this advancing front of animal slaughter ban and meat-selling ban to worrisome to me and my faith.
I come from a clan of Shaktos (devotees of the Mother goddess or Shakti) and we are strongly into the worshiping Ma Durga and Ma Kali. It is my fortune that I live in the locality of Chetla, in Kolkata. My home is just across the nearly-dead Adi Ganga (the original flow of the Ganga) river from the powerful divine seat of Ma Kali called Kalighat. It is one of the most important sites of our Shakto universe. Here, from time immemorial, our people have been offering animals as sacrifice to our divine mother. We consider this meat as Ma Kali`™s prasad. For those who can`™t afford to sacrifice a whole goat, meat of animals that have been offered to the goddess are sold from small outlets near the temple. When parts of Ma Sati`™s dead body fell on earth, each of those sites became a Shakti-peeth `” a space of divine significance. Of the 51 Shakti-peeths on earth, Bengal is blessed with 16, of which East Bengal has 5. Some are in Assam and some in Nepal. At almost of sites that are holy for us, animal sacrifices are almost a daily affair. It is a part and parcel of our faith. When we do an animal sacrifice, we are not perturbing other religious communities. By pushing a certain Hindustan region consensus of certain communities on the question of meat, people like us are being reduced to second grade Hindus in the `pan-Indian`™ set of things. This is also why our religion and its practises need to be protected from this brand of nationalist politics, that privileges certain religious practises over others.
In a few days, I`™ll go from my city home in Kolkata to my desh or clan-abode in Patuligram village of West Bengal`™s Hooghly district. Our clan has been Bengali shakto by faith for as long as we can remember. Ma Durga, the mother goddess, will come alive in Patuligram as `Moter Ma`™ `” the name by which she is known there. Every year on Bijoya Dashami, Ma Durga is immersed. Many traditional Durga pujas or religious rites in Shakto families or out-of-turn personal offerings to the goddess hve animal sacrifice as an integral part. Does one not have the right to observe Shakto religious rites during the time of Paryushan of the Jains if one happens to live on of these slaughter-ban zones? When certain religious types give patronizing sermons on vegetarianism, are our religious sensitivities not hurt? Why`™s that okay? Is it because in the birat Hindu conception of highbrow religious practise, our practises are second-class? When we are judged on the basis of other people`™s attitude`™s towards meat and their religious sensitivity, are we to understand that our faith is something that perturbs the religious sensitivity of others? We must remember that all attitude is reciprocal. Tanmay Mukherjee, a friend and an astute chronicler of contemporary West Bengali urban culture says, `What`s true for you, may be Vegetarian for me.`
I remember a time, not so long ago, when my very Bengali Brahmin family would travel outside Bengal. The visits would include religious places. Their attitude towards these places was clear `” these were divine all right, but it was clearly understood within the family that these places were not `ours`™. `Our`™ gods lay elsewhere. Among the creepers and water bodies of a small village in the Hooghly district of Bengal, a particular mother goddess was omnipresent in the vocabulary of our family. There was a snake goddess who sat on a precarious perch near our Kolkata home, in a makeshift `temple`™ between a bridge and a river. There is the lump-shaped Dharma Thakur, again of our village, who has steadfastly refused brahminic mediation to this day. My family has come to live intimately with their moods and powers, their vehemence and their limits. They are `our`™ gods.
Who are these first citizens of the Indian Union whose sensitivities take precedence over the practices of others? This Savarna-Jain halalization of the public sphere is a creeping danger because they now seem to exert political influence far beyond their numbers. What are the sources of their strength by which they are able to force multiply and what does that tell us about the ideological currents at play in the Indian Union`™s deep state? In `unity in diversity`™ land, some diversities are necessarily silenced or are labeled `superstitious`™. The list of the silenced and the superstitious is predictable. Not all diversities have been domesticated enough to be featured at the Mumbai airport or NOIDA`™s Great India Place for yuppie Indian consumption. Some diversities retain elements that bite back when trampled upon. They go much beyond DilliHaat-type of showcase diversities.
The no meat-ban regions have to realize the long-range political aim of the Hindi-Hindu-Hindustani multi-headed hydra of homogeneity. It has many faces `” some are about beef ban, some are about cosmo-liberal `idea of India` and so forth. New Delhi sarkar`™s Air India serves eggless cake and onion-less paneer puffs to general passengers like me on a flight to Srinagar from Delhi. Kashmir is home to a largely meat-eating non-Muslim culture. What`™s the message here? Who`™s being served by what is being served here? Even in Kolkata, I recently visited a private hospital, part of a chain owned by a vegetarian Krishna-worshipping business family. In that health-care facility, no eggs or meat or fish is allowed even if they are usually medically and nutritionally indicated in other places, like public hospitals. And even if they are medically indicated, nutritionists working there never prescribe anything non-vegetarian. Does religious sensitivity also allow one to molest the lifestyle, health and food-choice of one`™s customers? What is the nature of this emergent politics that empowers a business group to enforce its religious beliefs in health-care facilities and deny fish to a convalescing Bengali in Bengal? Who are these bosses?
A new nation-state is evolving; a new consensus is being beaten out of the badlands of the subcontinent. Our gods and goddesses are not unaffected in this scheme of things. In this new religious world view, older `superstitions`™ are avoided and even condemned, with a mishmash of scriptures and lifestyle demands of modern urban society forming the bedrock of `eternal values`™. These stances have wide currency among the rootless urban folk who may be religious or irreligious, but are Siamese twins when it comes to being self-servingly contemptuous of the rustic and the fantastic. This is the religion where certain gods have stolen a march on many other gods, creating a poor and sad `national`™ pantheon of sorts `” dreams of a `unified Hinduism`™ finally bearing some fruit. From Boston to Bombay, through idioms created and perpetuated by mass media, a community is being created whose religious pantheon is dictated by that pathetic yearning for uniformity that only a nation-state can display. This is where portable religion, meat-ban and `Hindi nahi aata?`™ come together as symptoms of the same disease. I thank Ma Kali that my municipal ward in Kolkata is not under the sway of forces of Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan and I believe that my benevolent and powerful divine mother will keep it that way. We Shaktos aren`™t worshipper of man-made gods nor of dead gods. Our goddesses are alive and are on guard. They`™ve always been.
One final question from a resident of an area that hasn`™t a major communal riot for a some time – when many followers of a uber `ahimsa`™ religion supports and funds organizations that saves cows but kills human beings of other faiths, do the religious sentiments of those vegetarians get hurt?