A BJP leader in Meghalaya's North Garo Hills district had a novel idea to celebrate the third anniversary of the Narendra Modi government at the Centre, which is led by his party. Bachu Chambugong Marak wanted to organise a 'rice beer and beef party', in the true spirit of festive traditions followed by his community — but just the expression of such an intention has led to his resignation from the party.
In his defence, Marak claimed he was merely following the age-old practices of his people in choosing the menu for his party. But, honestly, no one in contemporary India aware of the pulse of the moment is likely to buy his argument.
India is passing through a time when a mob can break into a man's home without impunity, sniff about his fridge for signs for contraband meat (read, beef), then lynch him in broad daylight because it believes he's stored it in his home. A dairy farmer can be stopped while ferrying cattle from an animal market and beaten to death by another group on the suspicion of being a cow slaughterer. Dalits, who make a living by skinning dead cows and disposing their carcasses, are thrashed in public, again for the merest whiff of a conspiracy theory about them.
And recently there's been a modified law to ostensibly prevent cruelty to animals that prohibits the sale and purchase of cattle across the country for slaughter. It has triggered massive protests in several parts, especially in Kerala, where the opposition took an extreme step to defy the ruling government's diktat, and West Bengal.
So, no, an invitation to a 'beef party' is not an innocent affair, it cannot be, given the current political mood of the country. Rather, it was a challenge to the ruling dispensation's tall claims of inclusive governance, a provocation to take on board everything it has promised to deliver in India's Northeast, in its desperately attempt to expand its sphere of influence there.
A couple of months ago, when the country was in the throes of uproar over the BJP's crackdown on the sale and consumption of beef, the party had assured its vote bank in Kerala and the Northeast (and in other states where it is trying to gain a foothold) that it would make an exception for the sake of the popular cultures of these regions. Specifically, it meant a no-interference policy on what people eat in these parts, and have eaten for centuries, as part of their diet.
The concession was to be made, taking into consideration the "realities" of these communities — Christians in the Northeast, a cross section of Hindus (of different castes), Muslims and Christians in Kerala. But the new modification to the law against animal cruelty again instigated a surge of demand for the right to eat the food people prefer.
In Kerala, some Youth Congress workers went too far by killing a calf in public, then cooking and eating its meat. Since then, the controversy has moved from dietary choices to gratuitous cruelty to animals and, by extension, to a study of the BJP's contrasting responses to lynching of human beings and cows.
But what happened to Marak in Meghalaya was not only unexpected but also reflected the double hypocrisy of his party.
First, the BJP, which had assured its constituency in the Northeast of not meddling with their eating habits, reneged on its earlier promise. Second, he was accused of emulating the Congress's example by the party's national spokesperson and Meghalaya in-charge Nalin S Kohli. "How can slaughter of an animal be used to celebrate three years of Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas, when the act is on prevention of cruelty to animals?" he said to The Telegraph.
To set the facts straight, Marak's proposal would have been equally culpable of cruelty towards animals had it involved the cooking of a chicken stew instead of beef. If among all the popularly edible animals in India, the BJP decides to favour one over another, the problem seems to stem from its own prejudices — not from the rituals of eating and celebrations observed by certain communities for many decades.
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