A rich melting pot of diverse cultures and traditions, India’s global identity has been shaped by numerous perceptions and stereotypes throughout history. Often cited as a land of spiritualism, spices and Bollywood dance-numbers, India is known for its wide range of offerings and contributions. While most of them hold true, one such longstanding perception that has been conjured up and galvanized for centuries is – how India is a “vegetarian” country. While this sounds rather harmless on the surface, this warped stereotype has a rather questionable reality to it.
A study published by Indian researchers Balmurli Natrajan and Suraj Jacob suggests only 23-37% of the population is vegetarian. 2016’s national survey found that more than half of people aged between 15 and 34 eat meat whereas National Family Health Survey found that only 30% of women and 22% of men describe themselves as vegetarian. There’s even regional variation in vegetarianism – with norther and western states having a higher level than the states in east and south, which might be a result of agro-ecological availability as well as the overall political environment.
In fact, a Mint analysis of data from National Family Health Survey (NFHS) conducted in 2005-06 and 2015-16 suggest that vegetarianism has been on the decline – with the share of meat-eaters across the country rising in the past decade, except in Rajasthan and Punjab. Even within this spectrum of consumers, we’ve varied shades – from pure vegetarians and eggetarians, to those who don’t eat meat only on Tuesday and Thursday. While Indians definitely consume lesser meat than the global average, it is far from the vegetarian nation it is deemed to be.
This global perception largely owes its history to the archaic nature of religious ideologies and the caste system. Vegetarianism in India stems from the dietary traditions and beliefs of Hindu upper caste, Brahmins. Hindu holy books have often deemed non-veg to be ‘impure’ and considered it to be the food of ‘monsters’. In fact, adopting vegetarianism has also become a norm for upward social mobility. While this communalism definitely stirred class segregation and fuelled this longstanding stereotype, it didn’t necessarily stop Indians from consuming meat.
Today, Telangana has the highest number of non-vegetarians with a whopping 98% of meat-consumers despite having 85% Hindu majority in its population. As times change, several Hindus across the country have abandoned these rigid religious beliefs. However, a lot of Indians are still not comfortable with it publicly. With taboos associated with beef among Hindus and pork among Muslims, Indians are said to under-report their meat consumption due to these religious and cultural stigmas. This has also resulted in “food schizophrenia” – individuals who might be vegetarians at home but not in public among friends and colleagues. Sadly, all of this is even misused by people in power for toxic political interests.
So, why does this matter anyway? The problem lies in the politicized intrusion and manipulation of personal choice. While in the West, vegetarianism and veganism has flourished as a form of a social justice movement for a healthier and environment friendly lifestyle, our beliefs seem to be rooted in religious and political identity. In the last few years itself, cases of cow vigilantism and mob lynching have mushroomed across the country. This rising intolerance in the form violence is definitely a result of the country’s toxic attachment to its religious identity. This does call for a need to self-reflect and be more honest with ourselves in order to foster peace and harmony. Vegetarian or not, a healthy dose of love and empathy is definitely needed in these dire times.
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