While for most other species, food is a matter of survival, a peculiarity of the human world is that for us, food transcends the notion of mere survival. Families, communities, and cultures all over the world centre themselves around food and this is especially true in India, a country where much emphasis is placed on a rich, diverse cultural heritage.
If, as Roland Barthes suggests, “an entire world is present in and signified by food”, then this Dalit History Month, we present to you eight important reads that highlight the food practices, history and culture of Dalit people. The listicle explores how the food of the Dalit community has historically been associated with notions of scarcity, hunger and humiliation, how in today’s majoritarian nation state food is used to oppress caste, religious and ethnic minorities, and also how food can become a tool of political subversion or simply a way to remember one’s family and home.
1. Cast(e)ing Food: Interrogating Popular Media. 2016. Deepa Tak and Tina Aranha
Tak and Aranha’s paper attempts to trace dalit food as a distinct category in its representations in popular, mainstream media or rather, the lack thereof. Analysing media outlets such as films, TV shows, magazines and cookbooks, the paper exposes the rampant upper-caste domination of India’s most popular food media – from Sanjeev Kapoor wrongfully claiming that ‘India is primarily a vegetarian country’ on Masterchef India to Surabhi on DD National exoticising tribal foods, and the innumerable cookbooks on Kayastha, Saraswat Brahmin, Sindhi, Parsi and Iyengar cuisines. While the silence on the food culture and practices of dalit people is deafening, Tak and Aranha also highlight certain attempts to capture dalit food culture, including Shahu Patole’s cookbook Ann He Apurnbrahm to Rev. Chandra Prasad’s booklet Recipes in Resilience: 50 recipes with a Beef Menu.
2. Isn’t This Plate Indian? Dalit Histories and Memories of Food. 2009. Sharmila Rege, Deepa Tak and Tina Aranha
Isn’t This Plate Indian? is a joint effort by the 2009 class of Krantijyoti Savitribai Phule Women’s Studies Centre at the University of Pune, who undertook a project to “unearth the invisible histories” of Dalit culinary practices and “demand their value” (Rege et al. 2009, viii). In this book, recipes are recorded and documented using memory work. Additionally, the book is a feminist approach to the archiving of Dalit food practices. Most informants are female due to “the intrinsic link between food and women” (Rege et al. 2009, ix). The students working on the project as well as their faculty mentors are all female and they argue that it is due to their feminist approach that the memories of food are never separated from the vast skills and knowledge acquired in the culinary process and the various “lives lived” through food (Rege et al. 2009, 76).
3. Caste-Based Inequality in Fruit and Vegetable Consumption in India. 2021. Samira Choudhury, Bhavani Shankar, Lukasz Aleksandrowicz, Mehroosh Tak, and Alan Dangour
This article explores the fruit and vegetable (F&V) consumption gap between upper castes and more disadvantaged, lower castes and attempts to establish whether this consumption gap arises due to factors such as varying income and education levels across castes, or whether behavioral differences or discrimination may be at play. The key finding is that much of the gap is explained by income differential across castes, and so the paper suggests certain measures for implementation in the long-term and medium term, such as positive discrimination and cash transfers, in order to equalize income disparities.
4. Digesting Caste: Caste on my Plate. 2020. Astitav Khajuria, Ayush Mehrotra, Bethamehi Joy Syiem and Charan Preet Singh
The two part blog article comprehensively covers caste-based food disparities and inequalities. The first paces discusses the historical and cultural context in which gastropolitics is situated, while the second part looks at various food-related policies in India. It argues that while food security is linked to economic conditions, the factors of caste and social differentiation determine the levels of food insecurity.
5. Dirty food: racism and casteism in India. 2021. Dolly Kikon.
Based on Dolly Kikon’s, a Naga anthropologist, two-decades of ethnographic research, the essay examines how food and consumption practices in India reproduce social and political hierarchies of caste and race. Northeast migrants in India are subjected to racism for their food choices. These racist incidents also signify a pattern of labelling founded in the caste system. Castiest slurs and references that mark Dalit communities as “polluting bodies”, such as filthy and dirty, are also applied to communities from Northeast India. Their dietary practices are categorized as “savagery” and their “Indianness” is questioned.
6. Meat-eating in India: Whose food, whose politics, and whose rights? 2018. C. Sathyamala
In this paper, C Sathyamala explores the politics of meat consumption, particularly beef-eating, in contemporary India. The paper argues that vegetarianism in the context of Hinduism implies not just a moral superiority, but is a marker of upper caste identity. The violence elicited by the violation of certain food norms has shown the Hindu dominant caste’s continued desperation to maintain their hegemony. Although this wrath is primarily directed towards the Muslim population, it is the “untouchable” lower caste communities that pose a real threat to upper caste hegemony. These transgressions interrogate the caste system and the upper caste claim to superiority. Thus, beef consumption then becomes political – an act of subversion and resistance.
7. Beef, BJP and Food Rights of People. 1996. Kancha Ilaiah
Kancha Ilaiah’s oft-quoted article is a scathing critique of the Brahminical regime of the Hindutva BJP party in India. With the BJP’s ban on the beef-eating culture of Muslim and Christian minorities, the irony, Ilaiah points out, is that in their attempt to construct a ‘pure Hindu nation’ they are alienating a vast majority of beef-eating Hindus, who belong to SC and OBC groups. Banning of foods erodes the rich cultural heterogeneity of a nation such as India, and is the “beginning of the end of our multiculturalism”. In today’s increasingly divided nation state, Ilaiah’s 1996 article becomes more relevant than ever before.
8. Recasting Food: An Ethnographic Study on How Caste and Resource Inequality Perpetuate Social Disadvantage in India. 2019. Nakkeeran, N; Jadhav, S; Bhattacharya, A; Gamit, S; Mehta, C; Purohit, P; Patel, R.
This study is a multi-sited ethnographic enquiry into the pre-school Supplementary Nutrition Programme (SNP) in Gujarat, India. The objective was to understand the institutional and sociological factors that lead to exclusion of families and children under the age of six from SNP, locating it in the broader discourse of food as a process of ‘othering’ and stigmatized identities of caste and religion. The study showed that the caste identities were replicated in the domain of SNP by the dominant groups’ control over enrolment of children into different Anganwadi centres. Thus, even SNP assumes the status of a symbolic marker of identities and boundaries of caste. The authors argue this is not a case study of nutritional interventions but of control over resources. The SNP fails because the groups that need it the most have the least representation in the programme.