India is an assimilation of a myriad of ethnic and linguistic groups, castes, tribes and religions. In a land like this, nothing is stand-alone, everything influences everything else.
Food in India, just like everything else, is an identity marker. Unlike the west where food preferences and choices are developed over time, in India, they’re inherited. The complexities of Indian culture lie at the intersection of affiliations. These affiliations are an identity marker and interconnected to overlapping identities. What you eat, how you eat and who you eat it with traditionally mark not just your food habits but also your lineage.
Unlike India, food and habits related to it are more of a deliberate choice in the west. Vegetarian movements emerged to advocate for egalitarian and environmental movements and goals. So, veganism in the west can very well be a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude all forms of exploitation and cruelty towards animals for food, clothing or other purposes. Still, when the same philosophy travels to the Indian subcontinent where food is a clearer marker of one’s affiliation and background, the cultural context becomes crucial.
Food choices in India are not to be confused with having distinct taste buds and eating habits. Food in India, cannot be independent of its affiliation, even if it’s a choice. It’s a choice that is indicative of religion, ethnicity, caste, class, affiliation to a community, and even marital status. Historically, caste and religion have consistently been reinforced through the ‘purity’ of food.
Upper-caste Hindus and Brahmins alienated, and still continue to alienate, meat eaters across the spectrum, especially for consumption of beef. This includes people following other faiths like Islam and Christianity. Within Hindus, the practice of ‘out-casting’ people for their food choices, amongst other things, manifested in the form of ‘untouchability’, a practice that alienated Hindus belonging to ‘lower castes’.
Veganism or vegetarianism, even if they are choices in the west, already has an image of moral purity attached to it. The philosophies are not new to the Indian subcontinent. For Hindu vegetarians, consuming meat is corruption. It is no coincidence that upper-caste Hindus are vegetarians and often forfeit even eating onions or garlic to maintain the purity of their food.
In reality, ‘lower-caste’ communities acquired food habits and culinary practices to adjust to poverty and dehumanisation while ‘upper-caste’ communities had the privilege of refraining from consuming meat because they could afford the vegetables and dairy products. Being told, “Paneer samaj ke kha jaa” as a joke by your non-vegetarian friends is seldom an atrocity.
The image of moral purity that associates itself with veganism granting to the narrative of a vegan lifestyle and food is cruelty-free and free of suffering falls flat when one looks at its commercialisation.
Since nothing is devoid of capitalism, the production of dairy and vegan alternatives often observes the presence of child labour, exploitation of workers, hazardous and extreme working conditions, lack of labour rights and inhumanly low wages. Some instances of non-animal products required for the production of vegan alternatives to meat and animal products that are strongly linked to labour abuse and exploitation are soy, rice, almonds, tea, coffee, cashew nuts, sugar, strawberries, melons, citrus fruits, bananas, cocoa, amongst many.
Around 500,000 people are involved in India’s cashew nut industry and are dependent on it. Boycotting the industry is not an option here but knowing where food comes from is imperative to the vegan philosophy.
Predominantly, women working under hazardous working conditions process around 60% of the cashews consumed globally. The nuts produce a caustic liquid that burns the skin during the deshelling process. Although hand protection exists, in many instances workers have to pay for it themselves and not everyone can afford it. Cashew-related injuries go as far as workers losing fingers due to cashew acid-related infections and blisters.
There has been an exponential increase in high-end vegan restaurants and vegan aisles in supermarkets in Metropolitan cities and with vegan e-commerce stores, the accessibility is broadening to even small cities and towns. However, one wonders if there is a need for such commercialisation of vegan food in a country like India where embracing veganism isn’t restricted by affordability, unlike in the West.
Since veganism is not just a food choice, even in India, veganism can be an empowering and positive switch for many and it has become increasingly popular in recent years. In fact, unlike in the west, veganism is more accessible and financially feasible in the Indian subcontinent with a culture of local markets and affordable vegetarian ingredients readily available — not to forget the pre-existing space that not just welcomes it but also culturally reinforces it.
There is no denying that people do take to vegetarianism and veganism for ethical reasons, holding animal life to be as important as human life. Still, in a country where vegetarianism emanates from self-interest and religious profit, promoting or enforcing veganism and vegetarianism in India is in many ways still a corollary of the caste system.
If you liked this article, we suggest you read: