On the hurt pride of vegetarians


Sometimes, after reading some article somewhere I get really irritated. No matter how hard I try to forget and get on with other stuff, the offending words and ideas linger… like a thorn in my side. I have no option but to sit down and write about it to understand why exactly I feel the way I do about it.

This time it was this article that appeared in The Hindu written by one Vamsee Juluri who is a professor of media studies at the University of San Francisco.

(Here is some readily accessible info about the hunger situation in India. Skip it if you have already read about it(very likely).)

I have always been shocked and dismayed by the level of malnutrition, stunting and the generally dismal level of the health and development of children of the oppressed classes. The situation looks even more dismal and desperate for girl children. According to scientists, doctors and social workers there are a combination of factors responsible for the situation. The biggest among them, from what I could understand are

1. The lack of sanitation and clean drinking water. The associated level of childhood morbidity and parasite load massively impacts physical and mental development during the most critical years of growth.

2. The lack of a balanced diet in impoverished agricultural communities which lean heavily on grains for subsistence and tribal communities which have been deprived of their tradition habitats in the forest.

3. Protein malnutrition and absence of essential trace nutrients in the diet

4. Lack of basic medical facilities and simple medicines in communities that most need them

This situation is far more dangerous than most people can imagine. Between 1/3rd and 1/2 of the future of country is growing up with serious mental and physical developmental deficits. This should give any human being with a conscience a massive jolt! The seed of our national well-being is the promise of our children and if we can’t do everything possible to ensure their access to adequate sanitation and food, then we are failing in our duty to our country.

What I have said till now is public knowledge and is widely acknowledged both nationally and internationally. India ranks near the very bottom in Global Hunger Rankings, even below countries like Sudan.

The news

The brunt of this disaster is born by the children of the low-castes and dalits of the country. The dispossessed tribals and the landless. For children from these families the mid-day meal scheme and the egg-a-day schemes are a God-send that provides them with much needed protein, cholesterol, fat and trace minerals and nutrients found only in animal products. Eggs are widely considered to be critical to child-hood nutrition, even ahead of cow-milk. This is because milk is hard to keep unspoiled, is easily diluted or contaminated and is difficult to transport and store. Also, many children, especially the older ones might have difficulty digesting milk in enough quantities to matter because of lactose intolerance.

The MP government’s professed reason for denying its starving children one of the best sources of protein is not scientific. They offer no rational explanations for why it was done. The only reason thrown in the faces of these children and the food-rights activists working on their behalf is that the chief-minister has a “sentimental objection” to serving eggs in school. He is probably supported by the Jain and the other religiously-motivated vegetarian lobbies in the state.

When capacity for subtlety blinds rather than illuminates

In this situation comes along an author writing an article that criticizes the NPR for calling out the “vegetarian elites'” attempts at enforcing their misinformed dietary concepts on people ill-equipped to voice their opinion! He thinks that the article is a mere ploy to perpetuate the myth that vegetarianism is a tool the elite use to starve the poor. I don’t know what kind of a retarded mind would read the head-line(NPR article is here) and think, “Oh! Here they go again, trying to spoil the image of the vegetarians” and not “Why are some people trying to impose their dietary preferences influenced by their privilege and religion on other people who are suffering from these impositions!” It takes a frightening lack of empathy and self-absorption to engage in this kind of abstract nit-picking!

Pretensions to intellect are more dangerous than ignorance

The author thinks that it is ironic that the western media is writing against the massive over-consumption of red-meat in developed countries and the industrial production of meat it necessitates at the same time it writes against the denial of one-egg-a-day to malnourished children from the most deprived sections of an underdeveloped society! He calls himself an intellectual and is unable to understand the simple, overwhelming and almost painfully obvious differences in context between the two sets of articles. An average indian consumes less than 2 kg of meat in a year while an average american consumes more than 120kg!! Anything in excess is probably not good. (Although, the latest research seems to be pointing to the presence of refined sugar and carbs as the cause of problems of diet related morbidity in developed societies. But, I digress!)

And if he is going to argue that eggs should be denied to poor children because american over-consumption of beef causes heart problems and adversely effects the environment then maybe rice too shouldn’t be served to them as there is robust evidence for its role in causing heart-disease, diabetes and obesity in the over-fed Indian upper-class! Maybe, they should not be fed any food at all because there is strong evidence that too much food consumption by his adopted country is wrecking the environment and health of his allegedly hypocritical american friends!

Why don’t these kids care about the fucking chickens!

He writes in a whining tone about how when it comes to writing about the stunted Indian children questions of environment and “animal-ethics”(!!!!) are being ignored. Wow!! How shocking!? How dare these poor starving children not care about the environment and how their consumption of eggs is making chickens sad!! How dare they not pay attention to the sensitivities of the well-fed dog sitting comfortably in San Francisco and thinking deeply about “what diet-issues are really all about!”? Maybe, his vegetarian diet has fucked his nervous system and as seems apparent from the article in question, rendered him incapable of clear thought. That maybe why he had to waste so many words on advertising his ignorance of what diet-issues are all about when it comes to the desperately poor struggling to keep their kids in school. Here it is. In one fucking line. It is a about survival.

It maybe disappointing to his “cultured” intellect brought to maturity in the rarefied atmosphere of scholarship and privilege to discover how little the under-privileged of India care about the rights of animals. How little they appreciate the glorious “Hindu” heritage(which includes the “invention/discovery/tradition” of vegetarianism) they can lay claim to because they had the wonderful luck to be born in this country and into their situation. How little they care about the wounded sensitivities of their privileged, upper-class, Hindu, intellectual compatriots, especially, the ones who are sitting on the other side of the earth and fighting pitched battles to ensure that the western media understands the glory of their deprivation in all its nuanced complexity! But, there goes the truth!

Environmentalism for the poor

I was reading an illuminating and stunningly humane book written by my favorite author, historian and social critic Ramachandra Guha called “How much should we consume?”. It echoed exactly what I used to think about the environment and animal rights.

Environmentalism should be less about restoring some imagined justice or virginity to nature and more about allowing the human beings who depend on our environment for survival to continue living in a sustainable way without depleting the natural capital. People who rail against the poor for not worshiping animals or for eating them are almost invariably the well-fed vegetarian(rarely even non-vegetarian) elites living in protected alcoves who don’t have to countenance the cold, hard and brutal truth of nature and survival in the pits of deprivation which is expressed in the vocabulary of hunger, sudden death and chronic morbidity without hope.

The next paragraph is almost comical when you consider that this person has at least once seen the insides of a university. There is data to prove that that the upper-castes of India who for centuries have overseen the operation of one of the most efficient and ruthless engines of oppression grinding into the dust of humiliation, hunger and loss of dignity the vast and under-privileged low-caste population of India are predominantly vegetarian. The same vile bunch of books that prescribe the system of varnas also pontificate on the relative “purity” of foods and castes! People who depend on the system of caste for privilege will also believe in these insane and unscientific pronouncements on diet. There is both data and possible explanation for it. Now you know what he is going to do, right? Cite a study which shows otherwise? Hahaha no. He tells you a fucking story about what happened when he walked into a fucking mcdonalds! He tells you about what he saw inside fucking malls in AP.

Now, you can throw away all that data and history and just sue NPR for defaming the elites who are on a roll, banning or restricting access to one food item after the other. Who fund and run organizations prepared to slaughter men to protect cows. Prepared to beat woman like dogs for partying and violating Indian Culture. Prepared to expose little children to sudden and painful deaths to give dogs justice and ensure their “right to life”(granted by whom, I sometimes wonder!). Touting yoga as the solution to the problems that are crippling India. While gleefully cutting health budgets and pumping money into promoting quackery and thugs cheating people with snake-oil.

It’s about me me me!

In the next article, he cries about how they have failed to appreciate the saints, gurus and other such holy Hindus who have given up meat because of the “innate violence involved” in it and how NPR has failed to write about the unctuous practices of the meat-consuming Hindu. (As if these practices were patented by the Brahmin and is beyond the grasp of the vegetarians in other societies.) His glorious restraint, his commendable love for the cow and other such fine aspects of “Hindu Culture”. How did they have the gall to write an entire article about starving children being denied eggs and fail to mention all these things. He finds it unbelievable. Unless, it is all part of an elaborate international conspiracy to tar Hinduism and denigrate its ancient glory and mysterious secrets!

In the next paragraph, he feels that the models that show one group as lower than another is simplistic and doesn’t account for the flux in the caste situation in India. Which is funny! Because, news articles which feature stories of caste oppression and violence continue to appear with surprising regularity. Models by necessity are simple. They are only as complex as is required to make predictions about something. Do you want to understand why some people think that the family they are born into makes them superior/inferior to another human being? Do you want to understand why even the inferior ones further perpetuate this stupidity by treating some people as even more lowly than them? Do you want to understand why they believe all this shit? Models can help you. But, if you are the sort of armchair intellectual chasing imaginary pride and glory derived from their country of birth or their ancestors(stuff which they had absolutely no say in picking) then maybe the models won’t be complex enough to salve the self-inflicted wounds of your dying self-esteem.

Vegetarianism as an Indian invention

The author then continues to beg people to make the discussion about removing eggs from mid-day meal schemes into something far more complex and fill it with subtle arguments and erudite observations about the Indian brand of vegetarianism.

It is surprising how an author with cavils against the western media for paying insufficient attention to the complex Indian situation fails to see that there are vegetarians and even vegans in other countries too. That there are communities which depend on plant-based diets in even more sophisticated ways outside India. Maybe, when you accuse people of being simplistic you should be a little more careful about what you pick to be proud about yourself. No body discovered vegetarianism. No body found a particularly superior way of being vegetarian. And refusing to let other people seek nourishment from their animals is not the same as saving the environment or being non-violent. If he thinks that a vegetarian lifestyle is superior to one than includes a reasonable quantity of animal products he is free to argue for it. But, he picked the wrong context for a back-drop.

You can listen and/or read people like Bill Gates(who recently tried vegetarianism) who while working hard to curtail the consumption of animal products in the US, is also at the same time fighting to increase its consumption in Africa and South-Asia. Despite his privilege he understands the reality of undernourishment in poor countries. People who have the widest possible variety in their diets also tend to be the healthiest. One only has to visit the peoples in the East, Europe and other such areas to discover that these people are healthier, fitter and live longer that the typical Indian vegetarian. Even the well-fed ones.

Equating  non-vegetarianism with violence

This is something that pisses me off every single time I read about it. People from the cow-belt, the scripture toting, yoga fans, who live amongst people who kill, starve and take away personal agency from girl children, who support khap-panchayats and masturbate to “ancient Indian Glory” and the village life lecturing others on what does and does not constitute violence. Here is the simple truth!

There is no justice, fairness or kindness in nature. You can’t lecture a lion or a tiger on ahimsa. Right to life and happiness, right to food, right to education and right to justice are all human inventions created for our collective well-being. Human existence is a violent act. The self-superior vegetarian guys sitting inside comfy rooms insulated against the dangers and uncertainty of the wild, pecking away furiously at their keyboards in a frenzy of self-righteous indignation against all those inhuman meat-eaters fail to see the irony of their situation. If they think that human beings are being unjustified in treating other animals as less valuable than members of their own species, then they should go and kill themselves. By lightening the burden of human existence on this planet they will definitely save the habitats of countless animals and trees.

In this vast and frighteningly empty universe there is a filament of human sentience, fragile but beautiful nevertheless floating uncertainly in ultimate futility, creating its own meaning in the strength and complexity of its internal connections. We are the ones who constitute this filament. In this tremendous loneliness the only company we have are our brothers and sisters with whom we should be standing shoulder to shoulder. We don’t owe the earth or nature any more than we owe a rock. But, we need to take care of it and its diversity to the extent that we need it for our survival. That is the only kind of compassionate environmentalism possible. And that is precisely the brand of environmental protection practiced by sections of forest-dwellers and excluded people all over the world.

What constitutes violence?

Female foeticide is violence. Misogyny is violence. Denying people basic rights is violence. Poverty and deprivation is violence!

Torture of animals is wrong. Taking pleasure from their pain is the sign of a psychopath. But, making use of animal meat for food and nourishment of human beings is not evil. That doesn’t make you prone to violence or stupidity. If anything the evidence from India seems to be to the contrary. Kerala, West Bengal and other such non-vegetarian states feature the highest HD Indices while the benighted states of the cow-belt are wallowing in ignorant misogyny, violent masculinity and poisonous superstition. If anyone in the world thinks that meat-eaters are violent people or if they have some complicated theory for why eating animals makes you an environment-hating and violent anti-social(like this other equally irritating article in The Hindu did), there is a wonderful Indian invention for the number of fucks other people give about it. 0.

Quality of commentary in the paper

The quality of the intellectual commentary in The Hindu used to be good. But, over time it is deteriorating. The fall is made even more obvious because of comparisons that people draw with other liberal sources like NYT and NPR. These people never fail to impress. The piece by NPR featured Food Rights Activists from the region in question, even one vegetarian who has never touched an egg in his life arguing for the egg program for malnourished children. But, what did the Hindu do to get comments on it? Went to a privileged professor of media studies who is living and working in the seat of the decadent and hypocritical(according to him) western civilization with obviously zero knowledge of nutrition, subsistence lifestyles and grinding poverty to comment on it! How tragic! If they could find someone, maybe a parent of a child who would have been exposed to the program to comment on why the option of eggs is a bad idea rationally and objectively, that would have served to enlighten people and expand the debate.

Instead of perverting the discussion and confusing people.

Articles like these are becoming more common every day. Maybe it is in keeping in line with the growing sentiment of revanchism infecting the euphoric Hindu upper-class egged on by the administration of the country. Who knows!?

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