Across history, rebellion has taken innumerable forms with uprisings, boycotts, and lifestyle changes among others. And every single one of these acts of rebellion is important, because anger and how we choose to manifest it, shows us what our boundaries truly are. So, as we sit watching the politics of our lives fission into another episode of Black Mirror, it might just be a good time to familiarize ourselves with some lesser-known acts of rebellion such as the rebellion on your plate!
Some Relics from the Past
Food, identity, and politics have a rather complex relationship that can be traced to as far back as pre-colonial India. Food and our approach to it, played a very critical role when it came to the administration of kingdoms. For instance, Emperor Akbar is famously known to have banned the slaughter of cows during his rule, in order to respect the religious sentiments of his Hindu subjects.
Another famous instance of the use of food for political and administrative purposes is the uprising of 1857, also known as The First War of Independence. The reason behind the uprising taking root in the first place was the fact that the British had begun lining their cartridges with animal fat that included pork and beef. The soldiers were required to tear off this lining with their teeth, which meant that they would have to touch the animal fat to their mouths. This deeply offended and angered Muslim and Hindu soldiers and the resentment eventually culminated in a revolt. As expected, the British denied these accusations as being mere rumours. However, as stated by Vir Sanghvi, ‘... but when it comes to the politicization of food, facts often count for less than perceptions.’
Modern Politics and Food
Rebellion through food is actually a lot more prevalent than otherwise thought to be. Right this moment, as you sit reading this article on warm, nap-worthy cushions, our farmers are still protesting the Central Government’s amendments to the farm laws. As they sit on the very cusp of Haryana and New Delhi, during the onset of winter, their only source of solace and respite comes from the Langar being served every day at the protest site. A holy meal, langar is served by Gurudwaras, the place of assembly and worship for Sikhs, and has always been acclaimed for the benevolence and generosity of its function. However, given the current socio-political situation with regard to farmers in India, it has taken on a new form as the means of sustaining a rebellion.
The fact that today, beef has become such a bone of contention (all puns intended) within Indian communities, is clearly the most blatant politicization of food that there is. The divisive nature of this ban does not necessitate any testimony whatsoever. However, the socio-economic fallout of it, given that it is among the cheaper and more affordable meats, is a very clear statement of its intent. A recent national survey found that over 70% of people that eat beef are from the Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs), 21% are from other backward castes and only 7% belong to upper castes.
At the Intersection of Caste
Most of the foods that have to serve as symbols of rebellion were born of necessity, not agency. In most cases, these dishes were predicated on the experience of oppression and forced choice. They are typically a community’s way of somehow making do with whatever it is that they have access to. This is particularly true with regard to dishes specific to Dalit communities in India. For instance, the Musahari in UP and Bihar were required to clear away the carcasses of animals like rats and would have to inevitable survive off the rats and the Valmikis were known for taking joothan (leftover) food given as charity. As is evident, there exists no concept of choice or agency when it comes to most minority groups.
One of the prime examples of the nature of food being predicated on a community’s social reality is Chanya. The practice of preserving foods has been intrinsic to Dalit food practices. In fact, stocks of preserved meat were even considered a sign of wealth. Chanya essentially comprises long slices of sun-dried beef that could last for a few months. Malidas are thick wheat rotis cooked with preserved pork fat and jaggery. Mutke, a fried snack, was made in Dalit households using beef fat instead of oil because they were unable to afford oil.
Red Ant Chutney
The relatively famous red ant chutney has earned a fair amount of recognition in the form of pop culture references. It originally hails from the region of Bastar in Chattisgarh. Locally known as chaprah, it is a pungent and spicy paste made by crushing red ants and their eggs.
All of this is how the food we eat is inextricably linked to our identities and how it connects us to specific cultural sub-groups. It is a reminder of the multi-fold oppression that dominates our society, while also being an act of passive subversion.
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