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.
Article published in The Funambulist 31 (September-October 2020) Politics of Food. Click here to access the rest of the issue.
“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.