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Why I, A Muslim, Hosted A Pork Dinner To Counter Religious Extremism

20/10/2015 8:18 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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The lynching of a middle-aged Muslim man for allegedly consuming beef in Dadri wasn't a vicious campaign getting out of hand for the Bharatiya Janata Party. It was an inevitable outcome of their projects to forge a vote base around a religious community.

Now, it is highly preposterous to argue that all those who voted or will vote for the BJP will support 200 Hindus forming a militant mob and killing one unarmed man about to sleep at home. But politics, when done around aestheticised, emotionalised images such as the cow, does have the potential to construct communities as majority and minority. The "spurs of the moment" in the form of mob terror only consolidates these segments. Like in the Mahabharata, once into a war situation, there is no right or wrong. All that there is to it is support, protect and fight for "your people". Hence bringing people into that conflict zone is important for politics that believes in the right of the might. Even daring oppositions and ethically and constitutionally provoked responses run the risk of acting within this frame where meat is used as some kind of a short form for religious consolidation and its political narratives.

"Though there were only three or four threats, my fear of repercussions only gave me yet another reason to hold the event... "

It was this anguished awareness of the need to reject the current frame of discussion in my own personal ways that made me put up a post on my Facebook page on 5 October, in which I offered a treat of pork to the first five people who expressed an interest in doing so. Despite being a Muslim and a non-pork eater for religious, personal and cultural reasons, my point was to give the militants a lesson in respecting and living with people with different faiths, food habits and cultural practices.

The attention that my FB post got went beyond anything I had imagined. What started off as extraordinary interest among Facebook friends slowly found its way into mass media, starting with the Huffington Post and Doolnews in Malayalam. The story was eventually picked up by as many as 18 English-language media houses, many regional newspapers and some international newspapers and radio channels, including Radio France International. Tens of thousands of likes and thousands of shares from these links and the hundreds of messages and comments I received in support pointed to the possibility that the twist in the story, a Muslim offering pork to protest the lynching for eating beef, did resonate with many people.

In addition to exultation, there were three other responses: warnings of danger that could come my way, a certain silence, and dismissals and scathing criticisms that filled the online space. Though there were only three or four threats, my fear of repercussions only gave me yet another reason to hold the event -- for fear has to be addressed, not shied away from. The chosen silence of some was positive to me: pushing people into an uncomfortable domain of political confusion helps the objective of rejecting the available frames. As for the repeated and abundant criticisms, they need to be answered.

The first and most repeated allegation against me was that the whole post was a publicity stunt. My counter-question: what kind of a country do we live in where one Facebook post offering lunch could become international news? The news value of this step only proves the shallowness of our Republic's political reality today. It does not provide any window to value judge my intentions or benefits!

"[W]hat kind of a country do we live in where one Facebook post offering lunch could become international news?"

Many argued that I was creating a binary between holy cow (for Hindus) and prohibited pork (for Muslims). Aren't the reasons quite different and hence the step fallacious, I was asked. First of all, there was no attempt to position the event as beef versus pork. The attempt was against political oppositions created using these food choices. The question would have worked had I been advocating that somebody who worships the cow as holy should kill one to serve others. I wasn't saying that (nor was I killing pigs to serve -- I was merely ordering a meat I wouldn't eat for others). The point was about cultural, religious and personal differences and on keeping one's beliefs to oneself, rather than imposing them on others. Moreover, no believer, however strong his or her faith is, wants to kill people who eat meat of the genus of the animal they worship. It is a matter of rule of law getting disrupted in the politics of hatred. My critique was aimed at the impact -- not scriptural intent.

I was supporting cruelty towards animals, went another lot. Well, I would respect that argument when such people stop using sugar, medicines, leather, percussion instruments and beauty products that use animal body parts. Till then, I can only wonder about the politics of those who time their talk on animal rights for days in which people are getting killed for eating meat.

At a time when fascism is creeping in, aren't such steps through food silly? We are trapped more by lifestyle than by ideologies. Forgetting the concreteness of experience for abstract political ideas can be dangerously inadequate. To the question if it isn't too soft and benevolent a gesture to violent killing, my response is: well, there are and there must be non-violent ways to counter violence. When the political need of majoritarianism is to polarise and turn discourses entirely arbitrary, communicative actions that build towards an ethical, peaceful platform can be potent. Or so I hoped.

"To the question if it isn't too soft and benevolent a gesture to violent killing, my response is: well, there are and there must be non-violent ways to counter violence."

Some Islamists thought I was attempting to "look secular" and become a "good Muslim" -- it was not that they didn't notice what the protest was about, but they had to be cynical, for polarisation benefits them equally. Some dyed-in-the-wool progressives were critical I stated my religion as Muslim. My confusion was that, had I been a Christian or Hindu, where is the political point? I don't believe religious identity is the only identity one has. Everyone is Hindu/Muslim/Christian among many other things (be that gender, caste, region, language, race or nationality). The ones prioritised will keep changing as per the context. At this juncture of our discourses and in this particular political step, it became important to state my religious identity.

Anyways, in these strange times, the most normal of things to do like taking people with varying food preferences and cultural differences out to lunch, had to be staged. It's a time when deciding to "stay you" and refusing to recognise the unethical and violent compulsions around becomes a political critique. It was performed in its everydayness but without losing its crucial political content.

As one of us, Benston John, summed it up in his Facebook post after the event:

We had among us Hindus , Muslims, Christians and a Sikh! We are from the academia, NGOs, IT sector, banking and freelance! We ate beef, pork, lamb, chicken and vegetables but we did it together and all the while respecting each other's choices of what to eat and what not to eat! And we also share a lot more in common even with all the differences. We share concern, anguish and frustration over the fascism that is taking over this beautiful land of ours. But we did not let anything spoil our meal!

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