Agarwal, quite unperturbed by the storm on his Facebook page, explained over the phone that he had felt the lynching of Mohammed Akhlaq in Bisara village in Dadri was an important inflection point and the usual words and phrases wouldn’t do: He wanted to show solidarity with Akhlaq, killed by a mob over rumours that there was beef in his house; to rebut the idea that outlawing beef was a life and death matter for Hindus; to say to the “fundamentalists”, that “Enough is enough”. It seemed to him almost anodyne to just repeat the usual arguments about tolerance and moderation. Just like the economic journalist Swaminathan Aiyar, who declared himself a “beef-eating Hindu” the other day in his popular column in the Times of India, and the former Supreme Court judge Markandey Katju who announced , in Varanasi, no less, that he too was one, Agarwal decided to be direct and personal in his response to the savage lynching in Dadri.
Was he just being rhetorical in the style of John F Kennedy, who famously declared to post-war Germans, “ I am a Berliner ? He wasn’t. “ Of course I have eaten beef,” replied Agarwal nonchalantly. “In matters of food, I am a cosmopolitan, I eat everything.” For good measure, he also provided a colourful account of the inner gastronomic life of some of his male relatives, who he disclosed, were far from being strict vegetarians.
How far can such individual assertions go towards mitigating the horror of a communally motivated hate crime? How far can they counter laws that want to breach our personal spaces and police the food on our plates? Not very far, perhaps.
Yet, they inject freshness, vigour and first-person energy into the liberal discourse on beef. Thanks to scholars who have debunked the Hindutva narrative, we know that ancient Hindus including Brahmins, ate beef, that Dalit and tribal communities still eat it, that the poor, of any community, value beef as an important source of protein. There has also been a necessary reiteration of the obvious fact that India is not just for Hindus, Sikhs,Jains and Buddhists, it is also the janmabhoomi of several beef-eating communities.
What hasn’t been said, quite as forcefully nor quite as often, is that human beings are not always walking advertisements for community practices and taboos. That whether Bania or Brahmin, or Jain or Sikh, they are also individuals, who exercise the freedom to experiment, to accept some communal baggage, and to discard other bits, whether overtly or covertly.
Of course, age, rank, privilege and caste do confer immunities when it comes to blithely airing the true confessions of a Hindu beef-eater. That’s a second reason to welcome the pronouncements of an Aiyar, Katju or Agarwal, and to hope that others will follow in their wake. By doing so, they may just create more space for the likes of Gaurav Jain, beef-eater and law student,who had a bruising encounter with Delhi Police when he tried last Sunday to organise a demonstration and a “Beefy Picnic”, announced on Facebook, outside the headquarters of the Bharatiya Janata Party(BJP) to protest the Akhlaq incident. “There was nothing wrong with that, it was not a temple, it was just a party office,” he said in an interview.
The police response, however, included the detaining and harassment, with no legal grounds specified, both of Gaurav, and of Mayank Jain, a scroll.in reporter, who had only gone to cover the event. Even more telling than the searching of Gaurav’s lunch-box (which contained legally procured buffalo meat), was the castigation of the two young men – for being as, the policemen saw it, deviant Jains. According to Mayank’s report, questions were flung at them like: “Is this what your parents teach you? That you go out and eat beef?”
A third imperative for the bold and articulate to risk offending the easily offended is the unreliability of politicians and even film stars on this subject. Consider Kiran Rijiju , the junior minister for home affairs, who took a position against the bigoted comments of a ministerial colleague, when he asserted, in widely-quoted comments earlier this year: “I eat beef, I’m from Arunachal Pradesh. Can somebody stop me? So let us not be touchy about somebody’s practices. This is a democratic country.” Only too quickly, he claimed to be misquoted and issued qualifiers. Likewise, Rishi Kapoor did not mince his words when he greeted the Maharashtra beef ban in March by tweeting, “I am angry. Why do you equate food with religion?? I am a beef-eating Hindu. Does that mean I am less god fearing than a non-eater? Think!!” But then, the actor went on to hastily clarify, in the face of troll-fury, that he only ate the flesh of foreign cattle and not ‘Gau Maa’. Contrast this with Katju who had no qualms about saying last week, “Cow is an animal and I don’t consider it as mother.”