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Home > fundamentalism / shrinking secular space > Religion and Cholesterol

Religion and Cholesterol

by Jawed Naqvi

Monday 30 June 2008

(Published in: Dawn, June 19, 2008)

A RECENT report in the Daily Mail says British Airways have taken beef off its menu for economy-class passengers on most international flights in a bid to avoid offending Hindus.

The carrier, whose second-biggest long-haul market is to India, has instead switched to a fish pie or a chicken portion, citing ‘religious restrictions’.

And of course, true to form a group called the Hindu Council in the United Kingdom immediately welcomed the deletion of beef from economy-class menu of ‘most’ international flights. The council’s spokesman also added, “It’s good to see evidence of how (Hindus) are literally flying the British flag by choosing British Airways. Hindus are tolerant of beliefs of others and do not expect everyone to stop eating a food because they don’t eat it.â€

If the claim were true it would be very good, but going by so much agitational politics traversing India about people’s food habits, particularly surrounding beef, the council’s claim doesn’t hold. In any case, as the situation exists, roughly half of India permits eating beef while the other half has banned it. The northern Indian states are known as the cow belt because they were the first and for a long time the only ones to impose the rule.

Now that the Hindu religious groups have wrested power on their own strength for the first time in a southern state, there is every chance that a bit of the cow belt would be extended into Karnataka too.

It is not as though all the cows thus saved from the butcher’s knife are put on a pedestal for worship, as many are led to believe. Take the Indian capital where the bovine population often spills onto precariously congested streets, holding up traffic and causing accidents. The callousness is only heightened when you see the stray cow chewing potentially fatal plastic bags they pick up from the open garbage bins. Elsewhere the surplus bovine population, despite claims to the contrary, is smuggled out of the country, miraculously through the heavily fenced borders, into Pakistan.

There is this delightful story from a Pakistani diplomat who used to have many friends in the Indian media during his tenure in Delhi. In one of their meetings that India’s Border Security Force (BSF) and Pakistani Rangers had in Islamabad, the Indian side complained about how large volumes of heroin were being smuggled across the border.

How was that possible with the fence in place, they were asked by Rana Chander Singh, Pakistan’s minister dealing with the smuggling issue. Why of course there was this occasional bag of heroin that was found stuck on the fence, which showed the drug was being tossed across the border, came the BSF’s reply.

If so, then how come the Indians had never found a cow that got stuck on the fence, guffawed Chander Singh, or so the story goes. The implication was that if smuggling was happening — cattle, drugs or whisky — it could be possible only with the complicity of those who controlled the gates of the fence. In this situation the buck never seems to stop.

In any case, I wonder why we can’t follow a simpler, less confrontational argument against beef-eating; one that has the objective wisdom of science to support the campaign and not a people’s subjective beliefs? Red meat, the doctor says, is harmful for human beings because it plays havoc with the levels of bad cholesterol in the blood. Logically the world should listen to the Hindu sages and others who prescribe vegetarian eating as the pious way. Forget the pious bit if you are not religious, but who can deny that vegetarian food is easier to digest than meats? Any yoga teacher would explain this very simply.

There are of course a few laughable myths about meat-eating and even cricketer Navjot Singh Siddhu suggested that Indian bowlers were not as fast as Pakistanis because they didn’t eat enough chicken. The logic of such an argument would take you to South

Korea. Its Olympic performances are infinitely better than what we can ever hope for. Is it because Koreans consider dog meat a delicacy?

A leading heart doctor at a specialist clinic in Delhi once swore to me that if he had his way he would add cholesterol-reducing statins to the city’s municipal water supply — such is the tendency of the South Asian gene to accumulate lethal levels of lipid in the body. It is another matter that the dairy culture of milk, butter and ghee prevalent in the regions surrounding Delhi has been found to be just as harmful for its high cholesterol content. (Lord Krishna, born in neighbouring Mathura, as the legend goes, used to steal butter — and there is so much music, both thumris and bhajans, including a beautiful song by K.L. Saigal — celebrating this aspect of the deity when he was a child!)

Of course if they were to follow the doctor’s instructions on healthy eating, most Indians would starve, as there is not enough of the good food going around. That’s perhaps why former Lok Sabha Speaker G.G. Swell, an MP from the tribal state of Meghalaya, protested strongly when Prime Minister Vajpayee, during his 13-day tenure in 1996, introduced a ban on cow slaughter as one of his government’s priority objectives. It takes courage to question the axiom of the holy cow, but the alternative before Swell was to see his people starve to death.

The Daily Mail report raises several other questions, the obvious one being: What does British Airways have on offer for beef avoiders who may be travelling in a higher class? Or aren’t there enough of them travelling Business or First for the airline to bother to craft a special menu? Here the point of view of a member of Sharjah’s royal family presents a simpler, if also an amusing solution.

It so happened that the emirate of Sharjah, the third largest state of UAE, was losing its once flourishing hotel business to Dubai, which was ironical. Everyone who came to watch the popular cricket fixtures in Sharjah would be checking into hotels in the neighbouring emirate.

The reason soon became obvious. Sharjah, under heavy financial obligations to Saudi Arabia, had cracked down on alcohol and had banned its consumption even in five-star hotels. Yet the breakfast tables would be piled with cold meats including pork, ham and sausages, forbidden in Islam.

So I asked the ruler’s close relative about the logic behind serving pork while banning alcohol in hotels, particularly when it was driving away customers. The answer would be of interest to British Airways. “The reason is very simple my friend,†said the sheikh with a wink. “Pork is not as tempting as alcohol.â€

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

Via South Asia Citizens Wire | 29-30 June 2008