As the leaders of an informal political coalition against Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) sat down for lunch after a joint campaign event in January, they were greeted by their host, Mamata Banerjee, chief minister of the state of West Bengal. Banerjee, who is fast emerging as a possible prime ministerial candidate to oppose Modi, served the guests herself from a menu that included an array of delicacies, including fried fish, chicken tikka — and a big serving of politics.
The publicly released images of Banerjee serving other leaders helped underscore the persona of humility that she has tried to cultivate — though critics accuse her of being just as authoritarian as those she opposes. But the photos also emphasized a diet that Banerjee and her regional party, the Trinamool Congress (TMC), claim they’re trying to protect from the Hindu nationalist BJP, which they accuse of wanting to impose vegetarian food habits. As India votes in national elections over the next two months, the politics of food is emerging as an unstated subject on the ballot. And nowhere are those battle lines drawn sharper than in West Bengal, a state with a population larger than that of Germany whose choice could portend the direction of this debate nationally.
When the Modi government in May 2017 banned the sale and purchase of cattle for slaughter in India, most states embraced the law. Several BJP-ruled states went further, with Gujarat and Maharashtra in the west banning the slaughter of chicken and goats during a particular festival, and the northern state of Uttar Pradesh revoking licenses for dozens of slaughterhouses. Efforts to enforce the beef ban have since intensified — and increasingly turned violent. Of the 125 attacks by Hindu extremist vigilantes on cattle traders, mostly Muslim, since 2012, 76 — or 60 percent — have occurred in the past two years, according to data analytics site IndiaSpend. These attacks have led to 26 lynching deaths since 2017.
Eating meat is deep-rooted in Bengal’s culture.
Maidul Islam, political scientist, Centre for Studies in Social Sciences
Banerjee’s government has defied the beef ban — and more. It has rolled out vans that proactively deliver meat to homes. And the 64-year-old Banerjee has made her opposition to cow vigilante groups — whom she has labeled the “Hindu Taliban” — a central theme of her political campaign. After five instances of attacks on cattle traders in 2017, West Bengal saw no such incidents in 2018. The BJP isn’t staying quiet, though. Banerjee’s refusal to ban cow slaughter in the state is part of “appeasement politics” toward Muslims, says the BJP’s state vice president, Jay Prakash Majumdar. The state last witnessed major religion-based violence in 1964. But Banerjee, says Majumdar, has blocked Hindu religious ceremonies in Muslim-dominated neighborhoods, and festivities that coincide with the Muslim mourning rituals of Muharram. It is Banerjee — not the BJP — who is causing a religious divide, he states.
“Bengal will be voting along religious lines for the first time,” Majumdar says.
A cocktail of religion, tradition and food habits is behind the political calculations over the meat debate on both sides of the aisle. Although 70 percent of Indians eat meat, including a majority of Hindus, many upper-caste communities within the religion are vegetarian. They’re a minority, but centuries of cultural dominance give upper castes outsize political influence. By banning beef and curtailing other meat, the BJP hopes to ensure the support of these communities. Last year, Chandra Kumar Bose, a senior BJP leader in West Bengal, asked Hindus in the state to stop eating mutton. Even upper-caste Hindus who do eat meat often stay away from beef — the cow is worshipped by many Hindus, which makes beef a particularly potent political tool. In 2015, a West Bengal–based group called Hindu Samhati sought a ban on cow slaughter and the sale of beef during Durga Puja, the state’s biggest annual festival.
But Banerjee has her own math and is counting on the support of the majority of Hindus who do eat meat, apart from minorities, including Muslims and Christians, to continue her dominance of the state’s politics. She ended three decades of elected communist rule in West Bengal when she won the state legislature in 2011, and her party has only grown in strength with each passing election. Despite “right-wing efforts, cow slaughter is officially allowed and beef is sold legally,” says Saugata Roy, a TMC member of Parliament. “In Bengal, there’s no relevance [of the beef ban]. We’re always going to stand against any assault on multiculturalism and pluralism.”
West Bengal isn’t the only state not to enforce a beef ban. But most other such states, such as Kerala, either have a negligible BJP presence or have a majority Christian population, such as states in India’s northeast. In West Bengal, though, Hindus constitute 70 percent of the population, and the BJP, once a fringe player, has in the past five years emerged as Banerjee’s principal opposition. That’s making the state a particularly divisive theater for the contest over food habits.
At the moment, Banerjee appears to hold the edge in the meat debate in her state, say political and cultural analysts. That’s partly because of West Bengal’s traditional love for fish and meat. More than 98.5 percent of its population eat some form of meat, second only to Telangana, where — unlike in Bengal — the BJP is almost a nonentity politically. During British colonial rule, Kolkata also drew large numbers of traders from Jewish, Chinese, Burmese, Greeks, Zoroastrian and Armenian communities, who helped shape its cultural landscape. “The BJP does not read Bengal properly,” says Maidul Islam, a political scientist at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences. Eating meat, he adds, “is deep-rooted in Bengal’s culture.”
The BJP and extreme Hindu groups are showing signs they recognize that an emphasis on beef or meat alone may yield limited gains in West Bengal. Debtanu Bhattacharya, president of the Hindu Samhati, acknowledges that what people eat is their “personal choice.”
But Banerjee’s stance on meat, they say, is part of a larger “anti-Hindu” approach. “It’s the open slaughtering of cows, almost as if provoking Hindus, that we oppose,” says Bhattacharya. Majumdar cites incidents — the Banerjee government calls them isolated instances — where Hindu religious processions have been barred. Banerjee, he says, “is pushing Hindus to the BJP.”
And there’s mounting evidence, restaurateurs say, of growing skepticism over beef in West Bengal, suggesting that the BJP’s strategy has at least some resonance here too. For all of Banerjee’s bluster, the state government’s Haringhata Meat Plant, one of the country’s largest meat-processing units, is not producing beef, wary of feeding into the BJP’s claims that Banerjee is anti-Hindu. In Kolkata, most new-age fine dining restaurants are keeping beef off the menu. “Most restaurants don’t want to rock the boat,” says Swarnaditya Das, founder of the popular Kolkata restaurant Hondo’s, who says he has had people walk out of his restaurant after seeing beef on the menu.
How West Bengal votes could determine whether it gets easier to find a decent steak here — or becomes impossible. Equally, it will demonstrate whether the latest political divide roiling the world’s largest democracy is meaty enough to influence an election.
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