Why Doesn’t Our Rogan Josh Bother Us As Much As the Thought of Dog Meat?

Social Commentary

Why Doesn’t Our Rogan Josh Bother Us As Much As the Thought of Dog Meat?

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

On yet another lockdown afternoon, I was fawning over furniture on Instagram while Mark Zuckerberg made passive income off my attention span. I got a text on WhatsApp from a friend with a link to the following tweet by Temjen Toy, the chief secretary of Nagaland, announcing the ban on importing and trading of dogs as well as the sale of dog meat, cooked and uncooked.

This ban was the result of over 1,00,000 people writing in to him after an appeal from Maneka Gandhi through a tweet posted from the handle of People for Animals India, which she founded.

Unlike most of the 1,00,000 people who wrote in to Temjen Toy, my heart sank. Allow me to explain, because this ban is far more complex than a victory for animal rights advocates and dog lovers. It’s an indication of a particular kind of hypocrisy: A hypocrisy that holds only certain kinds of meat legitimate under the garb of “ethical” eating; a hypocrisy that seeks to impose a singular “palatable” version of eating habits on the rest of the country.

Let’s call the ban for what it is – an erosion of the personal freedom of the Nagas, and another highly publicised but wholly unnecessary action propagated by someone in a position of power over a minority. Nagaland is far from the only place to have banned dog meat. A few months ago, Mizoram removed canines from the definition of animals fit for slaughter in March.

A culture of proud hunters

Much of today’s Naga population descends from proud hunters, which meant meat with every meal. Sometimes that could be dog meat, but more often it could be pig, cow, bull, chicken, or even fresh river fish. To interfere with what a people eat through legal enforcement is to trample on the diversity and plurality that India celebrates. It’s tantamount to telling your neighbour not to eat sourdough because you like the yeast in it too much. Because the definition of what is considered palatable changes every few metres. Expecting others to share one’s morality is one thing, legally enforcing it without context or empathy, is quite another.

Successive governments of the Indian state have maintained an unfortunate, patronising habit of telling people what they can and cannot do. We can’t watch movies rated for adults without cuts. We cannot drink at home without a permit, although prohibition experiments have been failing around the world for over a 100 years, and continue to do so in all of Gujarat. And now, if you’re Naga and occasionally bit into dog meat the way occasionally drunk, goodboi Hindus do with eggs and chicken, you are now being shamed for your culture.

The recent Netflix movie Axone (pronounced “akhuni”) documents this attitude toward people from the Northeast. The plot revolves around a wedding day where the bride’s friends hustle across a Delhi neighbourhood’s social and private spaces simply to cook an allegedly foul-smelling fermented soybean dish for her. The film makes pointed notes about conflict that arises out of different communities having to share space. It looks at the Classic Indian Overreach in the relationship between owners and market-rate paying tenants, where the former tells the latter not to cook “stinky” food.

The definition of what is considered palatable changes every few metres.

What makes dog meat so unpalatable? 

Axone typifies every Indian response to the culture of the Northeast. And dog meat is just the latest peg.

Animal-human relationships are contextual and personal. To most people with an Instagram account and modern creature comforts, dog videos are destressors and dogs are pampered companions treated with enormous amounts of love. As Vir Sanghvi writes in a recent piece, “We treat [dogs] almost as honorary humans. And for people who have pets, the consumption of dog meat is like cannibalism.” Yet, to Indian municipalities and street dwellers stray dogs are an urban menace, leading to them being routinely killed.

To the Nagas, dogs are occasionally food. As Daribha Lyndem writes in an essay fittingly titled “What You’re Really Asking When You Ask Me If I Eat Dog” about her Northeast roots, “In contrast to the eating habits of mainstream Indian society, no meal in the Northeast is complete without rice and meat. The Nagas, like many other Northeastern tribes, come from proud hunting cultures, while much of the heartland of India are pastoral agriculturalists. While many Naga communities have moved upward economically and don’t have to hunt to survive anymore, in rural and poor families, having fresh game on your dinner table is still a matter of pride.” She further states that there are very few parts in the Northeast where dog meat is eaten. But those eating it do not consider the practice shameful.

The “othering” and forced civilising narrative of the Nagas is ridiculous, as everything consumed by one group of people can be found domesticated in another. This happens with pigs, possibly the most widely consumed animals on earth who have sentient complexity at par with a three-year-old human. It has happened with horses, which are currently being revived as fashionable delicacies in France and America, while remaining companions to much of rural America.

Yet, India’s ethnocentric attitude towards its Northeastern population operates under the misguided assumption that “assimilation” and “integration” means the complete flattening of cultural nuance.

The inherent racism against people from the North East and their vilification needs to stop.

No meat is “superior” than another

What the ban has really achieved is to tell us that most of us have no empathy and are willing to overlook any sociological context, if it means a distinctive culture will be forced to mirror our values. As an essay by a Chinese writer living in Australia makes clear, “…I see this very much in the same way that Australian farmers love their cows and lambs. It doesn’t stop them from slaughtering them, and many vegans would question why Western countries discriminate against all animals except cats and dogs — which again comes back to our different respective histories.” Histories, that mainland India is only too happy to ignore.

The inherent racism against people from the North East and their vilification needs to stop. The politics of “sanitising” food needs to stop.

Food did, does, and always will represent something deeper. The roots behind eating something can begin as circumstantial and contextual, but go on to become tradition. If for whatever anthropological reasons Sindhis have mutton and Muslims have beef and Nagas eat dogs and Jains don’t eat potatoes and carrots, it is nobody’s business to tell them otherwise. It’s terrible when it’s done on social media, and it’s absolutely the worst when done by politicians telling people what they can and cannot eat.