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035: The Great Vegetarian Debate with Dr. Sathyamala (Day 4)

Updated: Aug 25, 2022

If ‘vegetarianism’ in India claims to align itself with principles of ‘ahimsa’ or non-violence in both its political and religious discourse, how do we make sense of the numerous lynchings across the country since 2014? Citizens have been violently killed extra-judiciously because of the diet that they follow. In turn, protesters have reclaimed their right to eat banned foods in order to salvage and celebrate their identity. Dr. C. Sathyamala, a public health physician and an epidemiologist, and currently a visiting fellow at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam, walked us through this complex question on Day 4 of the Food and Politics Studying Food workshop.

She made visible the world of ‘gastro-politics’ a term coined by the well-known socio-cultural anthropologist Arjun Appadurai in 1981, through accessible examples including the Indian menu at McDonalds (in which pork and beef have been replaced by paneer, corn and chicken), the seminal film “The Great Indian Kitchen” (where a woman becomes ‘imprisoned’ by her kitchen), ‘food porn’ images that flood advertising and social media, and the fascinating debate between Gandhi and Ambedkar in the realm of vegetarianism, Hinduism and dalit politics.

My main takeaway from the talk was that in order to understand the idea of ‘vegetarianism’ and ‘non-vegetarianism’ in India, we need to look at our own political and religious history, practise (eg. pancha-bali sacrifice in Assam) and lived experiences (the guilt and shame that some of us feel while consuming meat).

She also urged us to examine the current state of meat consumption in the country in order to question the ‘myth’ of a vegetarian India. For instance Dr. Sathyamala showed how two-thirds of Indians consume meat, and how in certain states the number is more than 90%. However the per capita consumption of meat is miniscule (3.69 kgs annually), when compared to the per capita consumption in the West (73 kgs annually). We cannot blindly superimpose Western arguments of ecological impacts and animal rights onto the Indian situation. According to Sathyamala, the discourse on vegetarianism and it's concurrent ‘moral superiority’ and ‘purity’ arguments in India lays bare violence inherent in the structure of the caste system in India.

Photo by Jonathan Borba from Pexels

Gastro- Politics In India by Dr. C. Sathyamala. Online talk on November 25, 2021 as part of the Studying Foods Workshop

Thought provoking article by C. Sathyamala:

Sathyamala, C. “Meat-Eating in India: Whose Food, Whose Politics, and Whose Rights?” Policy Futures in Education, vol. 17, no. 7, Oct. 2019, pp. 878–891, doi:10.1177/1478210318780553.

"C Sathyamala ( is currently with the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS), Erasmus University Rotterdam, The Hague, as a postdoctoral academic researcher"

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