In this text, vegan activist Rama Ganesan describes how the ruling party in India (BJP) and Brahmanists have instrumentalized vegetarianism to deepen their commitment to structural islamophobia and casteism. She argues that the struggles for humans and animals cannot be undertaken separately.
“In myriad ways, over centuries and millennia, the oppression of humans and of other animals have been connected and intertwined […] the social changes that will lead to the liberation of both humans and other animals will and must be inseparable. The question is, how is true liberation to be achieved, particularly in a society in which stratification and oppression are inherent elements of the social structure?”
David Nibert, Animal Rights/Human Rights, 2002
There is an uneasy relationship between veganism, which is intended as part of the animal liberation movement, and vegetarianism, which is part of the oppressive system of Brahmanism. I have been a vegetarian all my life, but it was only relatively recently that I came to learn about animal rights theory. My previous vegetarianism had little to do with animal rights, and more to do with ideas of purity and pollution that are prevalent in Hindu culture. Brahmanism, which is the predecessor to current-day Hinduism, is the ideological structure that stratified the Indian subcontinent’s societies and oppressed human and animal groups, assigning to each of them prescribed roles and functions, for millennia.
Veganism is a subjective praxis, spanning from a dietary choice to an overarching multidimensional liberatory framework. The term “vegan” was coined in the 1940s by Donald Watson, and later formally defined by Leslie Cross, both of whom were from the United Kingdom. As stated by The Vegan Society, the definition of veganism is “A philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude — as far as is possible and practicable — all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of animals, humans and the environment. In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.”
Recognising sentience of non-human animals — their personhood and their rights — has not been a significant feature of human cultural development. Much of human civilization has involved the domestication of animals for labor, food and clothing. Animals, as well as many human groups, continue to face oppression today. But even as we struggle to free a number of human groups from oppression, human rights activists, in general, resist animal rights. A common rationalization is that it will take attention away from their main focus, which rightfully ought to be human suffering. But we ask: is it even possible to dismantle all human oppressions, and all paradigms of hierarchical ordering of humans, if we do not confront our supremacy over other animals and nature itself?
Yet it does seem paradoxical that much of animal activism, in seeking more animal-friendly conduct on the part of humans, takes on oppressive language and frameworks. Terms like “fur hag” used to denigrate women who wear fur reproduces sexism and misogyny. After all, men wear leather, wool and down, yet there is no similarly vicious terminology for them. Virulent hatred for those who eat dog meat poorly hides racism against East Asian people, specifically the Chinese, because dogs have a special place in Western culture. But the use of animals for food (meat, eggs, dairy) is ubiquitous. The “white veganism” of the West uses facile analogies from Black struggles to advance animal rights, without interrogating its own privilege, or working to end the oppression of marginalized humans. It is no surprise that Black people in the U.S. feel veganism is an unwelcoming space where animal lives are elevated above Black lives.
But there is also a developing framework of total liberation, which examines the fundamental structures of domination and oppression which operate in any human society. Under this framework, our goal is liberation for all humans as well as animals, rather than liberation for one group at the expense of another. Much of the work on multidimensional liberation is being forged by African American and Latinx theorists.
Veganism is a controversial subject. Just the very mention that one is vegan may be enough to send non-vegan companions into a series of unbidden explanations on why they cannot be vegan, questions on nutrients, or philosophical enquiry into hypothetical, desert-island scenarios. Psychologists have suggested that this is a form of “cognitive dissonance” — people consider themselves kind, humane, and as animal lovers; yet they enjoy using animal products, many of which are produced under the most brutal conditions. The mere presence of vegans thus triggers an automatic defensive reaction to justify non-vegan inconsistency to their values.
If veganism is controversial under normal circumstances, it engages other dimensions of contention and deep division in South Asia and among the diaspora. India has a reputation for vegetarianism, Hindu metaphysics, yoga, meditation, ahimsa (non-violence, especially as associated with Gandhi), sacred cows, and by extension a presumed respect for other animals. But in reality, only a minority of Indians practice vegetarianism. India is not only home to Hindus, but also home to a sizeable population of people of other religions, in particular Islam — in fact, no less than 182 million Indians are Muslims. Even for Hindus, the appropriateness or otherwise of eating animal flesh has more to do with purity and pollution than concern for animal life, and largely correlates with a social class structure known as caste. Specifically, it is the Brahmans and other “upper” (privileged) castes who are expected to abstain from meat to preserve their purity and moral superiority over the other caste and out-caste groups, including the Dalits (formerly derogatively called “Untouchables”). So, the idea that India is particularly concerned with animal welfare is a fabrication, a brand narrative created and sold by the dominant groups to outsiders. Within all this, the oppressed voices of India have not been heard. Considering that the ruling castes of India are of the minority population, the oppressed number around some hundreds of millions of people on the sub-continent.
The current political government in India, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has ruled the slaughter of cows as unlawful across most of the country, because, ostensibly, the Hindu religion deems the cow a sacred animal. This should, on its surface, seem aligned with an animal-rights vision for the world, but we don’t have to look far to find evidence that animal well-being is not what motivates these policies. India is the world’s top producer of dairy milk — a cruel industry that forcibly impregnates cows, separates newborn calves from their mothers and kills them both when convenient. But as privileged castes are avid consumers of dairy products, this form of exploitation and cruelty is ignored. Moreover, India remains one of the top countries with the largest export of beef and leather, indicating that a great extent of cow and buffalo slaughter has continued unabated. Finally, the ban is targeting Dalits, Muslims, and other marginalized people who have customarily eaten or traded in beef. No alternative sources of income or nutrition have been provided for the millions who depend on the slaughter industry. The ban has stoked and brought to the surface long-standing animosity and people have taken punitive measures into their own hands. Cow vigilantism and lynching of those found to eat beef have increased and perpetrators often go unpunished.
Rather than any concern for animals, cows or others, the beef ban is part of the nationalistic “Hindutva” project to bolster the state identity as a “Hindu Nation.” The function of Hindutva is to establish the hegemony of Hindus and the Hindu way of life over competing ideologies, specifically Islam. Hindutva considers that India is the land where the ancestors of Hindu people lived, and therefore the birthright of all Hindus. Hindus revere cows, ostensibly because cows produce sustenance in the form of milk. Even though India is home to over 10% of the world’s Muslims, Islam is considered the religion of violent invaders. Muslims eat beef, and many Muslims eke out a living as butchers. So, the beef ban elevates the Hindu above the Muslim way of life, to the extent of taking away what Muslims consider an important food option. Of course, the Indian State’s Islamophobia is about more than cows and beef. In 2019, the BJP government annexed the Muslim-majority states of Jammu and Kashmir and passed the Citizenship Amendment Act which makes religion the basis for acquiring Indian citizenship, both of which constitute ruthless attacks against Muslims. The assault is further compounded by the recent inauguration of Ram Mandir in Ayodhya, a Hindu temple built atop the site of an ancient Muslim mosque that was demolished in 1992 by a Hindu mob.
Despite the ideology of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and its political party, the BJP, it was not always the case that Brahmanical Hinduism eschewed beef. In fact, vegetarianism is a relatively recent adoption by Brahmans. The earliest religious scriptures for what later became Hinduism, the Vedas, describe animal (including cow) sacrifices as part of religious rituals, and speak of the priestly caste, the Brahmans, as presiding over the sacrifices and partaking in eating animal flesh. So, at that point, there was no contention over who eats meat, who is vegetarian; and further, no correlation made between animal flesh and pollution.
In fact, both archeological and genetic evidence indicates that the people who composed the Vedas and established Vedic culture did not even come from what is now known as India; they were immigrants, who settled in India around 1500 BCE, well after an indigenous Indus Valley culture had been established. Areas to the northwest of present-day India, and areas of Pakistan, have had human agricultural settlements since around 6000 BCE. The Aryans were nomadic pastoralists who rode in on horses and traded in cattle.
The ancient Vedas not only describe religious rituals, they also outline a system for dividing society into four hierarchically ordered groups. In later scriptures, specifically Manusmriti (composed between 200 BCE and 200 CE), the caste system is fully elaborated as the pre-ordained duty of Brahmans to be scholars, Kshatriyas, warriors, and Vaishyas to be farmers and merchants. The fourth varna, Shudra, were described as peasantry and slave laborers for the Brahmans, under threat of inhumane punishment were they not to comply. There are also people not included in this system. These are the outcaste groups, the so-called “Untouchables,” who live on the margins of society, and the Adivasis who live in forests outside of society. Rules and sanctions to prevent marriage outside of caste have ensured that, even to this day, genes associated with Aryan settlers are disproportionately represented in the priestly “upper” caste, the Brahmans.
Considering that the Vedic culture was imported into India, and considering that Hindus, including even the vaunted Brahmans, ate beef, it is difficult to argue that India is the land of the Hindus where cows are sacred and protected. To fit this fabricated story, actual historical events need to be manipulated. History textbook writers have been asked to amend their accounts to fit the Hindu nationalist narrative — which is that the Vedic Hindu culture is indigenous to India, that the Hindus did not eat cows, that the “lower castes” were treated well, and that Muslim invaders were violent terrorists who were out to wholly destroy Hindus and Hindu culture.
Brahmanism has deemed the cow as sacred and worthy of protection, but does not offer the same consideration to the buffalo, even though both animals are a source of milk and meat for human consumption. The cow is closely associated with the Aryan settlers who brought along their own cows for sustenance. The buffalo on the other hand, is an animal indigenous to the subcontinent. Effectively, these animals have become casteized – the cow as the upper caste and the buffalo as the lower caste. To further reinforce this distinction, cows in India are by and large light-skinned animals, and the buffalo is a dark-skinned animal, aligning with the racial distinction between the Aryan settlers and the native population.
The caste system from its inception has been an economic system. The oppressed caste and out-caste people were denied opportunities for education and advancement, sometimes through violent means. Their existence depended on the whim of the ruling castes, and they were often denied remuneration for their menial and degrading labor. Not able to afford food, they depended upon the discards of the upper castes, often dead cows and other animals that they were called upon to clear away; while at the same time reviled for eating the flesh of cows. In current day India, among the world’s top exporters of beef, people are dying of starvation. It is apparently acceptable to make money by selling cow flesh to people in other countries, but unacceptable for people in India to eat the same cow flesh. It becomes apparent that untouchability is an economic system, a framework to keep some people destitute, downtrodden, malnourished and hungry enough to continue to perform cheap or free labor.
Short-sighted vegan activism takes advantage of the beef ban. These activists seek to uncover small, illegal butcher operations, and report them to the police. But they are just reinforcing the systemic discrimination against Dalits and Muslims. In reality, the largest slaughterhouses are headed by Hindu, privileged-caste individuals who work through legal loopholes — for instance, by getting “fit-for-slaughter” certifications for cows, and by slaughtering buffaloes instead. It is always easier to attack those who are already marginalized rather than address those in power.
From these histories and realities, we can understand that Brahmanism is definitely not veganism. The Hindu religion venerates Krishna, the butter-stealing, milk-drinking god. Dairy milk, butter, and ghee are considered “pure” ingredients that are essential parts of religious ceremonies. Conversely, veganism is not Brahmanism. Veganism that is pro-intersectional, aligned with total liberation and consistent anti-oppression, is certainly not about casteist food rules and nor is it about classifying people as impure or polluted.
For Dalits and other oppressed groups, their very liberation is entwined with being able to eat meat without recrimination. In efforts of subjugation, they have long been told that their lives are worth less than a cow’s life — this is precisely the message that is being conveyed when someone is lynched for eating beef. Dalit activists take to social media to state that they will sit at the same table (as Brahmans, presumably), and eat Michelin-grade steak as an expression of their self-determination. They might take pleasure in convincing a casteist privileged person into eating meat. They might even request of someone who wants to show solidarity with the Dalit struggle to eat beef. Contemporary author and activist Kancha Iliaih Shepherd has promoted meat-eating as a tactic to abolish caste. Accordingly, many liberal and anti-caste Indians speak against vegetarianism and conflate it with veganism. So the rights of animals, which have always been ignored, are set back even further in the struggle for Dalit liberation.
It is important that veganism is not conflated with right-wing beef bans, cow vigilantism, or discriminatory practices that place animals above humans. This is really not how we have envisioned total liberation! As an anti-oppression movement, veganism needs to model its goal in its tactics. It is counter productive to our stated goal if we have to resort to coercive methods to achieve animal liberation at the expense of human liberation. Second, these methods do not really work — they merely trigger a backlash by those who are discriminated against and their allies. Finally, as we have seen, the beef ban does not even protect cows from slaughter or exploitation.
My decision to shed light on the contradiction between Hindu practices and veganism has not been popular amongst vegans. Hinduism, ahimsa, Gandhi, yoga and other related concepts have been appropriated by white veganism, and the movement is reluctant to let go of its props. Leaders of various vegan and animal rights groups in the West have adopted a Hindu façade, they sign their emails with “namaste,” call their companies “Om,” and glibly give talks on ahimsa. Vegans who are caste Hindus believe their own hype, invent vegan gods and goddesses, and posit that Krishna was in fact drinking plant milk. Many, especially those privileged by race or caste, are reluctant to have their cause of animal liberation further stymied by human struggles against caste or Islamophobia. Even those pro-intersectional vegans, who focus on dismantling white supremacy, are befuddled and frustrated by Brahman supremacy.
My understanding of the atrocities of animal agriculture began when I read Eating Animals (2009) by Jonathan Safran Foer some years ago. In the book, Foer embeds his own investigations into animals in the food industry within the context of his own Jewish identity and lineage. I also reflect on my own background and learning. As a woman from a privileged caste, I have a vegetarian upbringing, but it certainly did not include learning to love or respect other animals. Caste practices have been integral to many aspects of my life. Just as veganism prompted me to dismantle my privilege over other animals, it also made me reflect on the unearned benefits of being born Brahman. I benefit greatly from, and have been complicit in, the oppression of both humans and animals. I live in a civilization that advanced by exploiting animals, their bodies, and by plundering their habitats. I benefit from the caste oppression of people for millennia, I live on land stolen from Indigenous peoples, in a country built by the forced labor of enslaved Africans.
There remains an uncomfortable tension between my vegan advocacy and my solidarity with the anti-caste movement. The first step is that the anti-caste movement should accept staunch animal-rights vegans in its ranks. A couple of days ago, I heard this statistic from college professor Dr Balmurli Natrajan: currently, one-third of Brahmans are meat-eaters, and one-third of Dalits are vegetarian. So, however we may have been divided in the past, and however casteists still choose to discriminate, there is no actual difference between us with respect to food habits. This gives me hope that we can disentangle casteism and vegetarianism, to show that concern for humans and for non-human animals can go together, as they so naturally do. ■
RAMA’S RECIPE /// Soy yoghurt
Yoghurt is an important food in India, especially in hot South India where I am from. Traditionally, it is a way to keep dairy milk for longer when one lives in a hot climate without refrigeration. In addition, the cool temperature, sour taste and creamy texture of yoghurt are a great compliment to hot and spicy foods. When I first became a vegan, I didn’t have a replacement for yoghurt that I used to eat every day. So when we learned how to make large quantities of soy yoghurt at home it was a significant inflection point. If you already make dairy milk yoghurt, making yoghurt from soy milk is much different. The method is simple, and once mastered can be made routinely. The following recipe was first shared by Ranga Ramesh. In hot climates, yoghurt is left to ferment on countertops, but in cooler climates or in air-conditioned homes, we can use a preheated oven to keep the culture warm enough to ferment.
64 oz carton of organic soy milk, with no additives (best if ingredients list ONLY organic soy beans and filtered water)
1 packet yoghurt starter or ¼ cup non-dairy yoghurt (for culturing)
1 tsp sugar (optional)
2 tbsp coconut cream or ¼ cup lite coconut milk
Preheat the oven to about 110 deg F.
Heat soy milk on stove top until hot but not boiling, about 195 deg F.
Remove from heat, pour into a large bowl and leave to cool for about 20 minutes until just warm to the touch, 105-115 deg F.
Add your choice of culture, coconut milk, and sugar if using. Stir well and cover with lid.
Place in the oven, and turn off the temperature. Turn the oven light to maintain the warmth for longer.
Leave for 6-8 hours.
You should have some great set yoghurt! Remove from the oven and keep refrigerated.
Note: If left to culture for too long, the yoghurt will become tart. You may need to experiment with the amount of culture you use and with the amount of time it takes for the yoghurt to set.
You can do many different things with this yoghurt. Here are three ideas.
Raita is chopped cucumbers, tomatoes or onions mixed with yoghurt, and goes well as an accompaniment to rice and curries.
Lassi is a traditional Indian smoothie made by blending mango pulp and yoghurt. Just add 2:1 yoghurt to mango pulp and blend for a great lassi! You can add a little water or soy milk if too thick.
Chaat is a beloved snack and street food. It is a layered dish that is assembled on the spot.
In order, the layers are:
A savory crispy layer — potato chips work well;
A potato-chickpea layer or seasoned boiled potatoes with garbanzo beans. Look for chaat masala at the Indian store for seasoning;
A generous dash of soy yoghurt;
A dash of cilantro-chili sauce, which can be purchased or easily made at home with cilantro leaves, green chilis, lemon juice and salt.
Optional—a dash of date-tamarind sauce for sweet tanginess. This can be purchased, or made at home with blended dates, tamarind and cumin powder.