There has been a major outcry for banning the Yulin Festival, a dog-and-cat meat eating carnival held annually on the occasion of the summer solstice on June 21st in the city of Yulin in China. Many gruesome images of dogs and cats jam packed in cages, being cooked in stewing pots and hung in slaughter houses have been circulated on social media to rouse public opinion against the ‘ghastly’ tradition.
Food, society and power politics
Whilst the ban may or may not actually take place (China had earlier banned a dog eating festival in 2011), and the uproar has raised legitimate concerns about animal torture and human health risks (such as rabies), it may be helpful to look at the issue as placed within some larger debates- animal rights vs. humans rights, perceptions of barbarism in oriental cultures through ethnocentric norms and relevance of (‘outdated’) culture in today’s modern times- which constitute the politics of food.
Different cultures have varying conceptions of what can and cannot be eaten. In India the pervasive caste system bans consumption of meat for the upper castes, but Dalit communities have long eaten meat, even beef, as a source of protein. In Assam, during Durga Pooja, fish is a part of the offerings to the Gods, while bringing of meat in the premise of a temple in North India is sacrilege. In the efforts of Sanskritization, communities altered their food practices to make them complaint with upper caste vegan habits, to move up the social ladder.
A parallel can be drawn with the impassioned debates following the beef ban in some states in India earlier this year. Though cow slaughter is prohibited by the constitution (albeit under the non enforceable Directive Principles), beef has been eaten for centuries for practical (a cheap source of meat) or cultural reasons (beef eating is a part of traditional North eastern cuisine) by several communities in India. In effecting the ban, the states refused to recognize the traditional rights of these communities.
- The practical consideration- Animal meat is no longer a necessity, vegetarianism is a far healthier option.
- Animal rights consideration: Spaces catering to systematic consumption of animals always are always sites for torture for the animal, be it hunting grounds for game or sanitized cradle to grave systems of mechanized animal slaughter.
- Ethical consideration: All living beings should be treated as an end in themselves and breeding animals solely for human consumption is morally wrong.
A festival celebrating meat eating is even more ‘horrendous’ then, since it not only provides reason for mass killings of animals (activists estimate over 10,000 dogs are killed for the festival in Yulin) but valorizes the act in the name of tradition.
Saving cultures from the onslaught of modernity (and Western ideas) is an oft evoked argument to continue practices, many of which are regressive or have lost their meaning or proved to be untrue. Few would still ascribe to the belief of traditional Chinese medicine which says that dog meat keeps one warm during winter. It is so even in the case of food and there is no singular answer to this dilemma. Certain practices have been banned due to the cruelty to animals despite being ‘integral’ to cultures such as effecting a ban on bull fights in Spain and Jallikattu in Tamil Nadu (Prakash Javadekar reportedly said that the Centre will try to lift Supreme Court ban a couple of days ago) while others (Japanese whaling traditions, allowing game hunting in several tribal reserves) continue.
While one can easily be moved at the pitiful images of tortured animals, the plea to ban one specific festival, in a country where a variety of meat is eaten on a very regular basis, needs to be probed. Can one see the public outcry on social media as an example of ethnocentrism in the sphere of food? What makes certain animals eatable and some not? Domestication here is again a flimsy argument given that domesticated animals (horse, buffalo, goat, hen, all which roles beyond mere consumption items in an agrarian community) regularly feature on frozen foods sections and menus world over. As is associated health risks- would it be fine if these dogs are inoculated and then brought in?
Cultures do evolve and change, but who decides this (what is to be eaten by whom, and on what basis) is the important question.
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