Thursday, 29 October 2015

Hindus and their Bond with the Cow

      “Don’t kill a cow or eat its meat. This is India” say many Hindu Indians to all around.  A group of persons reply: “Dietry habits are a part of our freedom.  Have tolerance, don’t impose your religious beliefs and let not government ban slaughtering of cows”.  Newspapers and television channels continue the debate and views on this issue chiefly reflect one’s religious beliefs.  What then are other key factors here?

     First, some statistics from India’s 2011 census.  Hindus make up 79.8% of the population, Muslims 14.2% and Christians 2.3%.  Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains are each in lesser numbers than Christians.

      You know that among Indians, Hindus consider the cow sacred and worship it in some way. They abhor killing of that animal or eating its meat, whoever does it.  Non-vegetarians among Hindus would also feel that way, as vegetarians do.  Muslims and Christians have no taboo with cow’s meat, and a tiny minority of Hindus also consume it by deliberate choice. Jains believe in not harming any living being or eating flesh of any variety.  As for Sikhs and Buddhists, a very large part of them would stay away from consuming cow’s meat, by their own preference and to respect dominant Hindu sentiments.

      Take a glimpse of a foreign scenario, with regard to dogs.  Americans love pets, as the world knows.  Reports say that all 50 states in the US have banned the sale of dog meat to the general public and its use in public restaurants.  According to the Humane Society, six of them – Virginia, California, Hawaii, New York, Georgia, and Michigan –  go further, specifically  prohibiting the consumption of dogs and cats, i.e., even by cooking their meat for use within the home (see  Wikipedia reveals that dog meat is considered taboo in Britain and France, has been prohibited in Germany and that it is not a feature of modern Japanese culture “because Japanese people believe that certain dogs have special powers in their religion of Shintoism and Buddhism” and that “in Japanese shrines certain animals are worshipped, such as dogs as it is believed they will give people a good luck charm”. 

      So you find a country not eating dog’s meat for religious reasons and some other countries abstaining from it for the love of the dog, one or two backing up with strict legal measures too.  Even in the hugely freedom-loving United States, disallowing the killing of dogs for their meat is not considered as violating individual freedom.

      If US dogs can win protection against destruction for meat, weathering arguments of “my freedom lost” or “religious intolerance”, Indian cows may surely butt aside similar arguments and have longer lives.

        It looks a good majority of Muslims and Christians in India, who know that butchering a cow or eating its meat offends the sensibilities of vast numbers of Hindus, would be inclined not to do such acts – to give comfort to the Hindu majority who have been inhabiting India since centuries before other religions sprouted here – and so they peacefully accept legal bans on slaughter of cows that are in place in 21 out of 28 states and in a few union territories.  In earlier periods, Mughal emperors Babur, Akbar, Jahangir, Ahmad Shah and the last of them Bahadur Shah Zafar are known to have banned slaughter of cows in their regimes in India.  So did kings Hyder Ali and Tippu Sultan who ruled from Mysore.  Maharaja Ranjt Singh, the founder of the Sikh empire in Punjab, had also prohibited cow slaughter which remained a capital offence during the Sikh reign.

       In the present day, persons of non-American origin living in the US, who could be used to dog meat, respect the American ban on that food rather than protest the law on grounds of individual freedom.

        In India, it is mainly some groups of Hindu intellectuals who claim that killing a cow or eating its meat is a matter of one’s freedom and that it should be freely allowed or that banning such acts is religious intolerance – giving a false impression to many lay persons that most Indian Muslims and Christians may have a stubborn clash of ideas with Hindus on this issue.  

      Some of those Hindu intellectuals also argue that cow’s meat was consumed by all in India during Vedic period and till Buddhism began spreading in India, to stress that Hindus need not specially protect the cow’s life today.  But I think their views are insensitive and against ground realities. 

       Even assuming cow’s meat was in the diet of Hindus of ancient India – about 2,000 to 4000 years ago - for several centuries past till now Hindus have been saying no to that food for religious reasons, which is enough to settle our issues.  And surely, history cannot be rolled back for 2000 years – not even for 200 years, as we know, for most things in life – to urge today’s Hindus to follow the diet habits of their forefathers of such hoary past.  Likewise, Indian history cannot also be unwound for a shorter length of around 1000 years for another object – that is, though Hindus of that period were converted to another religion, for that reason all their living descendants of today cannot be expected to return to the Hindu fold.  

        To Indians who still ask for cow’s meat to be allowed freely in this country, here is a question. If they were living as a religious minority of around 15% in a huge Muslim majority nation, would they reject the religious beliefs of that land and ask for liberty to eat pork which is taboo for Muslims, arguing that local Muslims could abstain from pork but others should be free to consume that meat? They would be wrong if they answer yes.

      But the issue has another dimension, and India has more sad stories about its cows. Some humans, some animals and some natural resources are to be worshiped or treated sacrosanct by Hindus – such as one’s mother (“matru devo bhava”, means “revere your mother as God”), the cow and the river Ganges.  But today they are frequently or grossly disrespected, neglected or ill-treated and defiled on our land.  Among them the cow, in most cases, is not properly fed by its owner, has no shelter, and is let loose on the streets to eat rubbish along with plastic bags containing scraps of food which damage its stomach and shorten its life.  It is also given harmful injections to induce an abnormal high yield of milk. Keeping in place a ban on cow slaughter is right.  But saying that the animal is sacred to us and yet doing all those things to the poor cow would be a a paap or sin, isn’t it?

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Copyright © R. Veera Raghavan 2015

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

The Sahitya Akademi, its Awards and Awardees

The Sahitya Akademi has never been in the news like now, not even during its awards ceremony. That is because, as you know, scores of authors who won literary awards from the Akademi have ‘returned’ the awards, citing some reasons. Are they doing the right thing?

Let me say it upfront.  No crime is to be condoned, especially by the police or the State.  If a law defining an act as crime is itself abominable or seriously unfair, you may criticise the law and demand its revocation– and that is a different issue.

More than twenty Indian writers have announced one after another they are ‘returning’ awards Sahitya Akademi conferred on them for their works in the past. They explain it is their way of denouncing recent criminal assaults on dalits, minorities and rationalists or of faulting the Akademi for not itself protesting against such incidents. Some have said they are doing it to oppose religious intolerance and to stand by freedom of expression.  Reports say seven of the returned awards were earned at least 15 years back, one of them 40 (yes, FORTY) years ago. 

What does a literary award mean? It marks the merit of an author’s work. It helps the author, and the reading public. If the award-giving body commands respect, the honour benefits the writer and the reader even more.  The publisher too gets a push. All the beneficiaries of a good award should get their due within a few years, and something more automatically flows later too.  If an author accepts an award and returns it later – 5 or 40 years later- for reasons cited now, surely the writer does not mean it was wrongly given earlier. Nor would the later act strengthen his or her condemnation of any crime occurring in society at any time.

Is returning a literary award for such reasons any sacrifice?  Certainly not, as anyone would feel. The returning, if at all, brings new media spotlight on the writer, reminding more of the public about the distinction he or she earned before. Also, an award-giving body cannot take back its award for the reasons now being stated for surrendering them.  So, the awards returned have come to stay more prominently.  For some, it is the award that returns

Keeping law and order, or even road traffic, in good shape is not something for which India is well known. Crimes are common, even notorious, in some states.  If you have not been a victim of minor or major crimes, thank your stars and not the State. This is not said flimsily.  Just look at the number and frequency of rapes of women and girl children being committed across the country, terrorist offences still taking place in some parts of India and the general nation-wide fear and distrust of the police forces by law-abiding citizens and a resultant insecure feeling in everyone - with India’s abundant poor persons trembling more in their hearts when they see a policeman near them. These scenes are enough to remind us that our freedom belongs more to the legal world than real life.  If people affected or likely to be affected in these situations cannot talk about it openly, that is the actual lack of freedom of expression in India. But the returning authors have not pointed to these long-time grave issues as the cause of their acts – not that I feel that would justify giving back their prizes.

We know that the Sahitya Akademi is not a part of the government.  It is a separate body formed and functioning under a law which regulates societies, and many apartment owners’ associations work in a similar way. If the Akademi does an act contradicting its chief functions, or if it selects some absolutely meritless book for an award, even then all writers may fault the institution, and no prior awardee need return an award.  When it is not even the job of the Akademi to prevent criminal assaults on any persons – including those committed out of religious or caste hatred - why should Akademi awards be returned, faulting the Akademi?  If such crimes are not prevented, when preventable, or if they are not swiftly and impartially investigated to bring the offenders to justice should the Akademi take the blame or should the failing police officers and the concerned state home minister or chief minister face the music?  The protesting award winners are barking up the wrong tree.

Look at this scenario.  We know all sorts of crimes are rife in some African countries, and terror freely stalks those lands.  There could be a literary society in a country over there, announcing an award for a local author.  If the writer accepts it, should he or she return the award the next week to protest some atrocity occurring nearby?  And should that literary society be busy condemning those crimes?  If it routinely denounces all criminal acts happening around, does it not expose its governing body to risk of attacks by mad men– possibly with guns and bombs?  The sense of insecurity among Indians may not be as high, but anyone serving a literary society in India would wish to be sensibly cautious.

The action of the Akademi awardees looks presumptuous and somewhat hollow, from another point of view. They have not come out with clarity on their concerns about ‘religious intolerance’ and ‘freedom of expression’ – especially about who is not tolerating, what is not being tolerated and who is curbing whose freedom.  Even if those concerns are valid and well grounded, they should be shared by other groups too who are interested in the democratic way of life, like judges, lawyers, opposition parties including their lawmakers and academicians.  Should these people also be protesting as the returning awardees do, and return all they could in like manner? Performing artistes, businessmen, doctors, chartered accountants and women and children are also vitally benefited by public order, freedom and democracy.  Should they protest too?

Come to the global situation. Without doubt, every day more injustice, suppression and horrendous criminal acts take place around the world than in India. What should the institutions awarding Nobel prizes, and the Nobel awardees, be doing amidst all this?  I hope the returning awardees of India would agree that those august bodies and the Nobel laureates should just get on with their work and leave the ills of the world to be tackled by agencies charged with fighting those maladies. If those agencies fail in their jobs the action needed is just revamping them with right officers. That is what we need to do in India, but don’t do most of the time.

        Finally, if it makes sense for Indian writers to return previously conferred literary awards, and for the reasons we learn, it should also make sense for yet-to-be-awarded writers here with similar views to declare they would not, for like reasons that always abound in our country, accept any award in future until they are firmly and permanently remedied.  But then, it does not make sense this way or that way.

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Copyright © R. Veera Raghavan 2015