Intersectional vegan advocates challenge binary ideas about veganism by arguing that caste is a factor we cannot ignore in any social justice movement in India.

Raw vegetables on display alongside a cutting boardPixabay
Voices Opinion Monday, September 19, 2022 - 13:10

The clearest memory I have of witnessing an animal that I'd be eating hours later, was in Bengaluru at a local chicken shop, when I was eleven years old. The butcher, whose face I cannot remember, had pulled out a chicken from the cage. I wandered towards the interiors of the shop. He stopped me and said, “Don’t look this way; if you do, you won’t eat your food.” Instinctually, I knew he was right. I walked back outside. I can’t remember anything else.

I grew up shuttling between the US and Bengaluru as a child and teenager. My mother is Mangalorean Catholic, and my father was a Bengali Hindu. Between these merging cultures, we ate everything: beef, chicken, mutton, fish, and seafood. I also ‘loved’ animals. It’s a contradiction that many don’t like bringing up because it confronts the most straightforward illustration of cognitive dissonance. In India, this gets weirder. Today, millions of vegetarians in India honestly believe their diet is more of compassion, rather than generational ideas of purity and caste hegemony. 

Two distinct challenges keep India from acknowledging animal rights in a meaningful way. The first is the purity politics of food via the caste system. Although India is the land of ‘veg options’ and has a sizeable number of vegetarians, they still are the minority. According to reports, only an estimated 20-39 percent of the country would call themselves vegetarian. Vegetarians in India specifically seem to be a cultural phenomenon. The particular cruelty of dairy farming in India caters to pure vegetarians in a significant way. Words like pure, wholesome and healthy are associated with foods like milk, curd and paneer. The nutritional myths built around many animal products are best left to another article. Still, it’s worth considering how our ideas of nutrition are vastly impacted by the social hierarchies we live within.

The second challenge to meaningful engagement with animal rights is the idea that being an animal advocate in India is an indulgence in itself. In a country where wealth inequality is so extreme, where labour conditions and value for life are negligible except to a few classes and castes, the response to the vegan movement is usually, ‘how elite must you be to fight for animals when so many humans are treated like them?’

The elephant in the room: Speciesism 

English philosopher Richard Ryder first used the word ‘speciesism,’ but it was Peter Singer who made the word famous in his book Animal Liberation. In essence, speciesism is the assumption that humans have the right to control other sentient beings and discriminate against them, simply because they are a different species than us. The core of everyday speciesism is based on the innate belief that humans are superior to other animals. Although the concept of speciesism is talked about online by several vegan activists, the larger resonance with animal rights has not been taken as seriously as racism, Islamophobia, caste discrimination, and other human rights issues, ironically because of the idea that our human problems are far more worthy of our attention than animals are.

But it’s more than that. Taking animal rights seriously also pushes us to acknowledge our individual consumption, and the idea of becoming vegan seems daunting, so daunting that it’s become natural to come up with arguments against it or ridicule it. I became vegan in 2016, and although I had my core reasons figured out, there seemed to be a wide gap with the Indian community of vegans I found online. There was a vacuum within which they existed, where the idea of veganism seemed pointedly binary, black and white. I felt uncomfortable with particular rhetoric and statements used to ‘spread awareness, and I tried to write about it in 2017. The result was getting trolled by fellow vegans for making a ‘joke’ out of veganism. 

Caste and animal rights 

It was only a couple of years ago that I finally saw something online that resonated and filled in the blanks for me. Till 2020, I had still relied on many minority activists who talked about veganism and the intersections of oppression and how it was different from ‘white veganism.’ These were Black vegan communities and Indigenous activists that were mostly US based. But, I hadn’t found anything in India that looked at animal rights from an Indian context. 

In 2020, Ankur Gedam started posting from an Instagram account @da.lit.vegan. His posts talked about the need to look at animal rights and veganism with nuance and a willingness to sit with discomfort simultaneously. Ankur Gedam was born in Lakhani, Maharashtra. He grew up vegetarian, but started to eat meat when he went to college. It wasn’t until 2020 that the awakening of his political self, expanded. He started to examine his identity as a Dalit man and started to form and educate himself on socio-political realities in India and the larger world. We became friends online and offered solidarity to our expanding views and need to advocate for intersectional animal rights over the past years. 

“When it comes to caste-based professions, anti-caste activists and Ambedkarites won’t talk about slaughterhouse workers. I understand why, but there is no easy way to go about it. We have to combat animal rights, and it is a hard discussion. Animal rights are not the same as Indian Brahminical vegetarianism; that’s the first thing we must realise,” Ankur said to me, as we talked about the intricacies of animal rights in India.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Ankur (@da.lit.vegan)

This is the core of Ankur’s animal rights politics that challenge both those who ignore animal rights and those who are apathetic towards it compared to the other social justice issues they fight for. It also challenges the vegans (some call them as savarna vegans or vegans who are both elite and unaware of how social location plays a massive role in how people can access, imbibe, and make space for their ways to change things they believe in). Savarna vegans, in general, can be broadly compared to white veganism, where some white vegans talk about veganism in binary, saviouristic ways that entirely negate people of colour, histories of oppression, and intersections of cultures, class and poverty. In India, caste is mainly left out of animal rights. This is why the slow, but steady emergence of voices like Ankur are potent social forces that will compel a large population of people on the internet to take notice and grapple with.

Ankur was inspired by another vegan, Sanchayita Ruth Lenin, an Adivasi editor and social advocate from Assam, who had been posting about speciesism and veganism online. They became the first two people who I found resonance with, after years of struggling with the nuances of advocacy and activism. Although there are a few more voices for animal rights which come from marginalised identities, the vegan movement is primarily pushed as a single issue problem. People from marginalised communities who talk about animal rights and veganism are especially vulnerable; some of their advocacy can seem like a betrayal to their own communities, while other more privileged vegans mock them for talking about the realities of caste. 

Sanchayita thinks veganism has been pushed as a binary way to look at a complex problem, where simply ‘turning vegan’ makes you suitable. “This kind of advocacy is easily identifiable by the black and white rhetoric, a failure to talk about caste and class, and usually takes a ‘health’ angle instead of what veganism is genuinely based on – an ethical consideration, one that all of us ought to be able to negotiate with ourselves.”

Sanchayita adds, “Why is it necessary to parade it as a health, climate or whatever issue? Veganism cannot and should not be separated from anti-speciesism. You’ll end up with posters that spread awareness by making it human-centric, like eating meat causes erectile dysfunction or eating vegan cures diabetes. This makes it about humans again; this is about animals.”

The most abused animal in the world

When it comes to farmed animals for consumption, nothing compares to the brutality and scale of abuse chickens go through to feed millions of people each day. It’s estimated that 72 billion chickens are killed every year in the world. Most of their lives are in deplorable conditions, cramped cages with antibiotics force-fed to them to gain weight quickly. Their terrible existence is short, usually about 42 days, by the time they are slaughtered. The system is such that we breed to kill. We breed to create tortured existences in the short time they can feel and experience the world. 

Butchers, caste, and worker rights

Earlier this year, Ankur and his friend Durga (a vegan animal activist) had done field interviews for a documentary on animal rights they will be a part of. They interviewed dozens of butchers in Indore in person, with workers who were enthusiastic to talk about their experiences. Ankur reported that 90% of the people they talked to did not want their children to do this work, but it was the only work they could provide for their families at the time. These slaughterhouse workers were from a mix of beef, chicken, and pork industries. Of course, religion, caste, and class are entwined into the labour norms these industries function within. 

When asked how they viewed sentience, life, and killing as their job, most said they could not compare animals' life to anything significant. Ankur expanded on this notion with me as we chatted about it weeks later. “They cannot think of their lives as significant or have any attachment, because if they did, there is no possibility they can do their job; they have to separate it.” And yet, it’s a rare few people who would be willing to kill an animal with their bare hands themselves. Forget about the cleaning, skinning, and other things you’d have to do to prepare it for cooking in a kitchen. Most meat eaters would not find the actual killing, cleaning and cutting, something they could do, forget sustaining the process to match the number of times they consume meat. Most slaughterhouse workers in India don’t have protective gear or sanitisation. Their jobs are an extension of the environment that surrounds them.  

According to Ankur’s field notes, buffalos killed for meat were solely done by poorer Muslim men, while pigs were slaughtered mostly by Dalit men. The chicken butchers seemed to have more diverse caste and religious locations. However, Ankur reported seeing predominantly Muslim merchants in Indore, unlike in Bengaluru, where you can find quite a few Hindu chicken butchers as well. 

“And it’s only the lowest caste within the Dalit population that will do the cleaning, the absolute most unhygienic work that has been given zero dignity and zero protection; there is no better example of how insidious caste is when it comes to certain labour in India. The worst work, the worst pay goes to one particular caste; it’s generational, no one escapes it except for a few who are lucky to get another opportunity or jump classes, but that’s rare,” Ankur said.

In Bengaluru, Ankur and I met a couple of chicken slaughterhouse workers to see if there were similar narratives. The man who talked to us the most, worked for the owner of a small, humble-looking chicken shop. Cages were stacked around with the 5-6 birds stuffed in each small cage. He told us he was from Hoskote and came to Bengaluru because the owner of this shop was a friend of a relative and had promised him work. “When I get married, I want to stop this work; I definitely will not allow my children to do this work,” he said confidently. When we asked him how he felt about killing them, he looked at us honestly and said, “It’s tough; I can’t look them in the eyes; that’s the hardest part. And the fear right before they die, when they struggle, that is hard, but what can I do, it’s work, I have to do it.”

I was especially disturbed by this revelation. To attach emotion to an animal, you have to kill and be aware of its pain and fear and still do it because there isn’t any other choice and this feels especially brutal to me. Perhaps, the workers who had detached themselves had found a better coping mechanism. “Business has only gone up; we get customers from homes and small restaurants, the demand is only going higher, now they have those bigger shops also…” he added. 

With the booming success of Licious and other meat vendors that employ super ‘clean’ looking animal products that further distance consumers from what they are eating, India stands to rapidly increase the amount of meat, especially chicken, in households across the country. The question of animals, their sentience, and the human ability to normalise the epic cruelty on them, is one that we will have to reckon with in our generation. What questions will progressive minds hold in their hearts as they collectively attempt to move towards a world that possesses value for equality and equity for all? Neglecting animal rights until ‘human issues’ are solved is contradictory and entrenched in how humans arbitrarily decide what life (humans included) is worthy of resources, joy and the right to exist without pain. The era of disregarding animal rights in the world of social justice advocacy online and on the ground will not hold water any longer as more voices come out and point out the potent hypocrisies we’ve been living with. 

Ankur argues the issue in India is people confusing saviourism for actual animal and pro-worker advocacy. As we walk into a comfortable cafe for coffee after the butcher visit, we are magically transported to an environment where everything we consume is pretty names and plated delicacies. The contrast and range of the many worlds India exhibits is stunning, and yet, the larger responsibility to see how we are all connected should be on the people who have the basic comforts of life, the ones like us who never have to worry about missing a meal or shelter. 

He says, “We need as many people to talk about being anti-caste and pro-animal rights no matter what social location you are, just don’t try to be a saviour. We have to sit with the uncomfortable idea that we may not have all the answers. But not taking this issue seriously, especially when we claim to be progressive individuals, is not something we can discard because the idea of changing the way we eat and think about food makes us uneasy.”

I nod my head in agreement. 

Rheea Rodrigues Mukherjee is the author of The Body Myth (Penguin India and Unnamed Press 2019) and was shortlisted for the TATA Literature Live First Book Award 2019. Her work has been featured in the Los Angeles Times, Buzzfeed, and Scroll.in, Electric Literature, Singapore Review Quarterly, Out of Print Magazine and Southern Humanities Review, among others. Her work focuses on gender, personal agency, animal rights, and mental health. Views expressed here are the author’s own.

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