Recently, Himachal Pradesh’s CPM state secretary, Onkar Shad, sent an outraged letter to Laxmidhar Behera, director of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Mandi, demanding he resign. The letter said, among other things, that it was finally “beyond doubt that there is no guarantee that one being in an elite technology institute has scientific vision”. I have to admit that though I agreed with Shad, and even with the reasons for his outrage, this bit made me giggle. It is as if Shad was holding out hope despite everything that you encounter in an average lifetime—and had never heard the symphony of connotations behind the term “tech bro”.
Why was Shad outraged? The IIT director had recently proclaimed to the student body that he knew why Himachal Pradesh had been ravaged by heavy rains and landslides in August. Around 80 people were killed last month alone and the larger population had been terrified by the scale of the disaster. Mandi was probably the worst hit of all the districts in the state. In this context, Behera reportedly told his students, “these are all effects of cruelty to animals...people eat meat.”
The landslides in Himachal Pradesh have many complex causes, ranging from deforestation to shifts in tectonic plates, say scientists. Did they have anything to do with meat-eating?
Recent studies have shown that food production systems, particularly meat, dairy and rice production, create a disastrous level of climate-heating emissions. And there are good, solid reasons for affluent folks with great access to nutritious food to eat less meat, dairy and rice.
Being the head of an “elite technology institute”, Behera could have quoted from several studies and talked to students at any time about ethical choices and even the complexity of these ethical choices in a country where meat-eating has a range of social implications.
When being part of a traditionally meat-eating community can mark you as “not pure” or easily make you the target of social ostracism, economic marginalisation and political violence, then meat-eating takes on all kinds of meaning (I apologise for repeating what we all know but India is largely meat-eating, not vegetarian). Having to constantly defend meat-eating sidelines the possibility of meat-eating being a deeply honoured and beloved social tradition of your caste and community. Like eating mutton for Diwali in Tamil Nadu or mutton for Holi in Bihar or beef for all kinds of inchoate feelings in Kerala. Apparently, your grandmother’s best recipe, which you long to eat all year, is now supposed to make you feel shady. Or, at the very least, some vague distaste with slivers of self-hatred. And tiny, malnourished children in many parts of India are not allowed to get one sad little boiled egg every day for school lunch, just in case sin is oval shaped.
As someone who was a vegetarian for almost a decade but isn’t any more, not a day goes by when I do not question my choices and think about what it means to eat or not eat meat in our particular (political) climate. I was enthusiastic about the cooking-progressive politics event recently where Congress leader Rahul Gandhi and Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) president Lalu Prasad cooked the famous Champaran mutton at the house of Misa, Prasad’s daughter. Just the name Champaran mutton is thrilling but then there was the tadka.
Prasad continues to be the source of what the French call the bon mot, a witty remark, and said this about the (ahem) bon mutton. Gandhi asked the RJD leader (in a widely circulated video) how Champaran mutton is like politics. Prasad replied, “Without mixing, rajneeti ho hi nahi sakta.” That is, politics is impossible without mixing.
All this is to say, we got so much metaphor chutney and symbolism bagar (tempering) going on, but Behera in Mandi was just being terribly literal-minded. His assembly could have been easily titled (like the old children’s book) Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs.
Being the head of an institution that receives considerable funding, specifically for climate change research, perhaps Behera could have thought about other dimensions of being a good human being and hit up the old karmic calculus calculator. Instead, as you will see in the (also widely circulated video), he says to the students, “To become good human beings, what do you have to do?”, and answers, “no to meat-eating”. He goes on to say, “Himachal Pradesh will have a significant downfall if the innocent animals are butchered. You are butchering them, the innocent animals.”
To really get Behera’s educational impetus, you only have to see what he does to the students from all over the country, who, whatever their specific dietary cultures, for sure have not had a decent breakfast since class VIII, given the timings of coaching institutes. He made these newly fledged adults repeat “no to meat-eating” three times.
It is when you hear him say, “ek saath, dhang se bolo (Say it in unison and say it properly),” that you know without a doubt what the bigger problem is. It is a national tendency to bheja khana (in Hindi) or thaley thinvodu (in Kannada). The most extra pure vegetarian, silver-spoon carrying lot of us specialise in eating other people’s heads.
Nisha Susan is the author of The Women Who Forgot To Invent Facebook And Other Stories. She posts @chasingiamb.