Myth of the Indian vegetarian nation

Published: April 05, 2018 15:57:39 | Updated: April 12, 2018 12:30:03

Photo Courtesy: BBC

What are the most common myths and stereotypes about what Indians eat?

The biggest myth, of course, is that India is a largely vegetarian country.

But that's not the case at all. Past "non-serious" estimates have suggested that more than a third of Indians ate vegetarian food.

If you go by three large-scale government surveys, 23-37 per cent of Indians are estimated to be vegetarian. By itself this is nothing remarkably revelatory.

But new research by US-based anthropologist Balmurli Natrajan and India-based economist Suraj Jacob, points to a heap of evidence that even these are inflated estimations because of "cultural and political pressures". So people under-report eating meat - particularly beef - and over-report eating vegetarian food.

Taking all this into account, say the researchers, only about 20 per cent of Indians are actually vegetarian - much lower than common claims and stereotypes suggest.

Hindus, who make up 80 per cent of the Indian population, are major meat-eaters. Even only a third of the privileged, upper-caste Indians are vegetarian.

The government data shows that vegetarian households have higher income and consumption - are more affluent than meat-eating households. The lower castes, Dalits (formerly known as untouchables) and tribes-people are mainly meat eaters.

According to a survey by National Family Health, vegetarian cities in India counts as Indore – 49 per cent, Meerut – 36 per cent, Delhi – 30 per cent, Nagpur – 22 per cent, Mumbai – 18 per cent, Hyderabad – 11 per cent, Chennai – 6 per cent and Kolkata – 4 per cent.

On the other hand, Dr Natrajan and Dr Jacob find the extent of beef eating is much higher than claims and stereotypes suggest.

At least 7 per cent of Indians eat beef, according to government surveys.

But there is evidence to show that some of the official data is "considerably" under-reported because beef is "caught in cultural political and group identity struggles in India".

Narendra Modi's ruling Hindu nationalist BJP promotes vegetarianism and believes that the cow should be protected, because the country's majority Hindu population considers them holy. More than a dozen states have already banned the slaughter of cattle. And during Mr Modi's rule, vigilante cow protection groups, operating with impunity, have killed people transporting cattle.

The truth is millions of Indians, including Dalits, Muslims and Christians, consume beef. Some 70 communities in Kerala, for example, prefer beef to the more expensive goat meat.

Dr Natrajan and Dr Jacob conclude that in reality, closer to 15 per cent of Indians - or about 180 million people - eat beef. That's a whopping 96 per cent more than the official estimates, reports BBC.

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