On July 11, in Una, Gujarat, a video was circulated in which four Dalit tanners were assaulted by vigilantes because they were suspected of killing a cow. After the outcry that followed, reports about eight Dalit men being thrashed by vigilantes, supposedly for having stolen, killed and eaten a cow, on July 10 in Karnataka’s Chikkamagaluru district came out.
On July 26 in Madhya Pradesh, two Muslim women were assaulted by right-wingers for carrying beef and detained by police. The protests against these attacks have been wide-ranging, and Parliament too, especially the Rajya Sabha, has witnessed fury over Dalits being discriminated against for their food habits. Unlike in the rest of the country, however, the beef tactic is showing no sign of working in Tamil Nadu.
On March 18, the Madurai bench of the Madras high court put one petitioner firmly in his place. The two-judge bench was passing orders on a public interest litigation filed by K Gopinath, pleading with the court to remove small shops selling meat, especially beef, along the ‘Girivalapadhai’ (mountainous walkway) of the Murugan temple in Palani. These shops made the Hindu devotees “uncomfortable” according to the petition. The court ordered that the plea be dismissed and also said clearly — “Nowhere in the Indian Penal Code it is stated that eating non-vegetarian food is an offence. There is no law touching eating habits of any religion and in such a view of the matter, the contention of the petitioner that eating beef is an offence, cannot be accepted.” With that rather no-nonsense order, the bench closed the case, preventing any further controversy on the issue.
Tamil Nadu’s Dalit leaders too are livid at the state of affairs. “Hindu fundamentalist forces want to polarise the society into Hindus and others so they use the cow as a tool to polarise the Hindus,” D Ravikumar, author and a former legislator of Dalit party VCK (Viduthalai Siruthaigal Katchi), said. “First, they construct Muslims as the ‘other’ and now they are constructing Dalits as the ‘other’. They need the support of casteist forces now for a numerically strong violent mob. This is the reason they are using the casteist aspirations of OBCs to further their Hindutva agenda,” he said.
Political analysts in the state say that the reason beef-eating has never really been an issue here is due to its complex recent history of rationalism and atheism. “The entrenchment of the Dravidian movement in the past is a key reason for this,” N Sathiyamoorthy, a political analyst with the Observer Research Foundation, said. “The Dravidian movement may not be as relevant today as it was then, but its past influence remains. As of now, there is little chance that beef can become an issue in the major part of the state,” he said.
Suba Veerapandian, general secretary of the Dravida Iyakka Thamizhar Peravai (DITP), a pro-Dravidian outfit agrees. “What has happened in Una will not happen here in Tamil Nadu and that is solely because of the vast influence of the Dravidian movement on the Tamil society,” he said.
The Dravidian movement, launched in the 1940s by ‘Periyar’ EV Ramasamy Naicker, was a rationalist and atheist movement against the Brahmin rule in the state. The powerful social movement managed to shatter the practice of untouchability well before other states, as well as ushering in social reform in other spheres. One of the core commitments of the movement was to end discrimination on the basis of caste — this included allowing members of all communities into the sanctum sanctorum of temples, allowing everyone to become priests and stopping the usage of caste as surnames for people. Periyar publicly dropped his surname Naicker — a caste native to western Tamil Nadu.
The idea of Tamil Nadu being a heterogeneous and tolerant state is one that is still prized in political circles. “In rural areas, there are multiple folklore gods,” KS Radhakrishnan of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), a key political party in the state, said. “People would sacrifice goats historically and still do. There is a great deal of tolerance in Tamil Nadu society. Hindus go to Velankanni (a famous church in Nagapattinam) and to dargahs when they are unwell. Many Christians believe in astrology,” he said.
Tamil Nadu’s social structure is different to that of any other state in the country. Seventy percent of the population comprise what the state calls Backward Classes, the equivalent of the Centre’s OBCs (Other Backward Castes). Twenty five percent of the population, according to the 2011 Census, is made up of Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs). A mere 5% makes up the remaining Forward Castes.
The SC population is comprised of three main castes — the Pallars, Paraiyars and the Arunthathiyars. Of these, sociologists point out that the Pallars traditionally do not consume beef. Some sub-castes within the Paraiyars as well as the Arunthathiyars are traditionally beef-eaters. Some Muslims and Christian families also consume beef. Others classified as OBC, say, sociologists, traditionally do not cook beef at home. In the recent past, many of these communities may buy and eat beef outside, but cooking it at home is not a norm.
This is not to say that beef has no social connotations at all. “In Tamil Nadu beef is not served in established mainstream non-vegetarian restaurants [such as established, popular chains like Karaikudi, Anjappar which serve meat dishes],” C Lakshmanan, an associate professor at Madras Institute of Development Studies, said. “They have already restrained themselves from serving beef in these places. In Kerala, more of buffalo meat is served than cow meat. In Tamil Nadu bull meat is served and cow meat is rare. You must understand that traditionally south Indians, especially Tamils, are big meat eaters,” the Dalit studies expert said. A recent government survey indicates that only 30% of Indians over the age of 15 are vegetarian and that 97.65% of Tamil Nadu is non-vegetarian.
In August 2003, when then chief minister J Jayalalithaa imposed a ban on the sacrifice of animals and birds, a public furore erupted. Barely six months later, Jayalalithaa hurriedly repealed this law, in the face of anger from the electorate, just ahead of the 2004 general elections. The Jayalalithaa-led All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) came a cropper, not even winning a single seat. In 2006, she lost the elections to the rival DMK, with political pundits arguing at the time that her bid to stop animal sacrifice and what that implied — an ‘upper’-caste homogenising attitude — went a long way towards her loss.
If beef is used as a divisive tactic in Tamil Nadu it will be along caste lines and not in the Islamophobic moves as has been done in coastal Karnataka, for instance. As Dalit scholar, Stalin Rajangam pointed out, this is not purely speculative. “When (BJP president) Amit Shah came to Madurai before the elections (in 2015), pamphlets were distributed saying that the Pallar community is not a part of SCs because they do not eat beef. There was an attempt to divide the SC community itself. Luckily, it did not really work and is unlikely to in the near future at least,” he said.
Here is another revealing incident from April 2015: the Dravida Kazhagam (DK), an organisation founded by Periyar to propagate the ideals of the Dravidian movement, was about to hold its annual beef feast and was startled when Chennai Police refused to grant permission to hold it. The DK knocked on the doors of the Madras high court, was allowed to hold the feast, and did so amidst tight police security. “The idea of eating beef is to prove a point that beef is not the food for a few communities alone and to stop discrimination on the basis of food,” K Veeramani, president of the DK, told this reporter at that time.
“Food habits are personal and no one has the right to interfere in food choice,” Veerapandian of the Dravida Iyakka Thamizhar Peravai, which is closely aligned with the DK, said. “The beef feast is carried out in an effort to break the notion that people who eat beef are lower in some fashion. This feast is to ensure that we break caste barriers and show that everybody can eat any kind of food — that no one should be ostracised or discriminated against on the basis of what they eat,” he said. “DK has been holding this feast every year for decades now,” DMK’s KS Radhakrishnan said.
In August 2015, an issue that had been plaguing the Coimbatore region in western Tamil Nadu suddenly flared up. Animal rights activists in the area had been stopping trucks carrying cattle to neighbouring Kerala, claiming that cattle were being transported in an inhumane manner, flouting existing rules. While this pushback has been happening for at least a decade, small pro-Hindu outfits jumped into the melee that year. Cattle trucks were stopped at the border and cattle ‘rescued’ and taken to gaushalas nearby. Vexed cattle traders and beef merchants in Tamil Nadu and Kerala went on strike, downing shutters and petitioning their respective state governments.
“So many people were affected at that time,” Thendral Selvaraj, secretary of the Tamil Nadu Cattle Traders’ Association that led the protests at the time, said. “Cattle traders from Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu all ply through Coimbatore to reach Kerala. All of these people, the farmers who sell their aged cattle at markets in these states, labourers who load the cattle, those who sell hay — the entire industry was hit by these pro-Hindu outfits posing as animal rights groups,” he said. Cattle merchants in the states of Andhra, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu went to court, filing a large number of petitions, demanding that they should be allowed to continue with their livelihood in peace.
While no official figures are available on the size of the cattle trade in Tamil Nadu, Selvaraj pegs it at around Rs 35 crore in revenues annually, with over one lakh people associated with the industry. In Coimbatore, Erode, Kumbakonam and Chennai alone, he says, over 1,000 families have been in the cattle trade for generations.
A huge beef crunch in Kerala, as a result of the strike in Tamil Nadu, forced Oommen Chandy, who was Kerala chief minister at the time, to write to Jayalalithaa on August 11, 2015, requesting her to step in to resolve the issue. The Coimbatore district administration then hurriedly organised meetings between stakeholders and within a month, the problem was resolved and cattle began to ply freely once again.
“The issue is that they were transporting cattle in a cruel manner without adhering to the rules,” Senthil Kumar, a local member of the pro-Hindu fringe outfit Hindu Makkal Katchi in Coimbatore, said. “Even calves get transported to be killed and eaten. How can we allow that?” he asked. Despite the aspiration to outrage, the reality is that neither animal rights nor the pro-Hindu groups managed to stop trucks again.
The most interesting opinion on beef comes from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). “Ninety percent of the Tamil population does not eat beef. People eat other types of meat here,” N Sadagopan, spokesperson for the RSS in the state, said without explaining where these statistics are from. What is more interesting comes next. “But no one will beat another person up simply because he is eating beef. This is not an issue with the common man,” he added.
Dalit leaders remind everyone that the cow is only one tool of polarisation and Tamil Nadu should not imagine it is safe. “[Here] the cow cannot be a symbol. This is very clearly an OBC casteist society. Other symbols are used instead, like honour, and killings happen in that name. In 2019, we will see again the casteist and communal forces joining hands together just like it happened in 2016. They will come back in a stronger way,” Ravikumar of the VCK said. He warned, “This is a dangerous trend for religious minorities and Dalits.”
(In arrangement with Grist Media)