Urbanization by Brahmanization

Urbanization by Brahmanization


April 3, 2018



‘VEGETARIANS ONLY.’ It’s a usual phrase in real-estate listings throughout India. In the two square miles of the priciest real estate in South Mumbai, “militant vegetarianism” regularly determines area planning initiatives.1 Militant vegetarianism has increasingly become a norm in India. The Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay recently sent out an email requesting that students not use the “main plates for non-vegetarian dishes.” 2 In South Delhi, a haven for street-food lovers, the roads are lined with alluring kebabs, shawarma, and tandoori chicken. However, on December 28, 2018, a proposal was approved by the local municipal corporation banning all non-vegetarian displays, citing hygiene and the “sentiments of the vegetarian public” as the reason. 3 This is no Turin, where Italy’s first vegetarian city was declared in pursuit of individual and planetary health; instead, this is a secular country being rapidly polarised by right-wing Hindu nationalist parties.4 It is a curious construct of Hindu societies, where the hierarchy of caste and religions gets imposed on the food that is ‘typical’ of that group. This is also well-documented as a literal food-hierarchy and passed on through Hindu religious texts and practices.5 Thus, seemingly innocuous public health and nutrition policies make it easy to segregate on the basis of religion, without having to be explicit.

It is not that food choices are the fundamental problem–they are a mere proxy for the caste or religion a person belongs to. Just like the racial Profiloscope, an invention of India’s great economist and father of Five Year plans P.C. Mahalanobis6, surnames and food are technologies to profile. The caste and the religion are often implicit in a name, thereby de-necessitating any awkward direct inquiry. You may have lost your chance at hello. To hear a person’s full name is to immediately identify their geographic origin, religion and caste. On introducing yourself with your first name, it is almost customary to hear “Neeti (using my own name for demonstration)… What?” If a prospective tenant or buyer contacts you, it becomes too obvious and “impolite” to reject them the moment you hear their name; therefore, a more sophisticated way of filtering is needed. Most Muslims are non-vegetarians. Voila!

It is not that food choices are the fundamental problem–they are a mere proxy for the caste or religion a person belongs to.

India’s predominant perception of non-vegetarian consumption is of the Muslim population, though Hindus also consume meat.7 The ‘Vegetarians Only’ sign has increasingly become a way to specifically exclude Muslims from occupying public and private spaces in the city. Most insidiously, these sanctions are being used to prevent them from buying or renting houses in the city. This has amplified to the point that Muslims are being forced to pay much higher prices, take up Hindu pseudonyms while renting, or seek homes in “rurban” areas outside the central city.a,8,9  This “housing apartheid”10 exists in the major metros cities and small towns alike, but nowhere is it as apparent as Juhapura, the sub-continent’s only ghetto. It is located 6 km from Ahmedabad, the capital of the state of Gujarat. Gujarat has been the bastion of the right-wing Hindu movement, the site of the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom, and stands as a big question mark for “secular” India.11 Juhapura’s case is beyond the conception of urban, rural, or even “rurban”. Rurban is a term that the current government is using to push the creation of select-300 high-tech Smart villages, ‘with soul of village and facilities of city’.12 Meanwhile, areas like Juhapura are ‘unobserved areas’13, where basic municipal rights of sewage and drinking water are non-existent. In 2002, Juhapura was a neighbourhood of economically disadvantaged Muslims, who were forced to settle largely as a result of crafty, often food-based discrimination from the predominant Hindu-population. However, after the 2002 Gujarat pogrom14, affluent Muslims also moved to Juhapura seeking security and community. These events lead to the ghettoization of the town. What is more, basic municipal infrastructures like sewage and water, which are supposed to be provided by the state, had to be self-funded and built by in-house private actors. All of this came with substantial confinement and identity stigma. A cursory look at the names in the map of Ahmedabad in juxtaposition to Juhapura’s parks, hospitals, and schools reveals how much of the infrastructure is named by the community that created it.

The ‘Vegetarians Only’ sign has increasingly become a way to specifically exclude Muslims from occupying public and private spaces in the city. Most insidiously, these sanctions are being used to prevent them from buying or renting houses in the city.

A city often gets metaphorized as a human body in the planning discourse. In some cases, the afflictions and the desires that plague the body often get eerily replicated in the city-space. Barbara Hooper, in her ‘Poem of Male Desires’15, writes about the guilty fascination with the prostitute’s body in nineteenth-century Paris, it’s relation to Haussmanization, and the metaphor of the prostitute’s body as a disorderly city that needs to be sanitized but yet perversely and secretly enjoyed.  She roots this desire in ancient Athenian obsessions with the superiority of the mind over the body.16 The mind was the “subject male” and the body the abject other – women, slaves, children, which needed to be needed to be reordered through the imposition of clean, straight lines. As Hooper explores the Parisians’ psyche, the mind-body superiority complex still remains; Haussman’s geometry to the possibility of the whorish disorder, a slum-dwelling body, a working-class body. In India, it is not the genitalia of the city’s body, but the digestive system that is being used to affect the same desire to sanitize. Through the digestive preferences, the urban fabric is textured with caste and religion.  The way the urban demographic is controlled and proxied is neither by Gross Domestic Product, nor by population measures, but by choice of protein source. To understand how the mind-body superiority gets imposed through food by hardliner Hindus, we need to understand the food classification systems that have come intertwined with the caste-system in a Hindu society.

Hinduism envisages a caste system, originally meant primarily as a professional demarcation. There are four castes in the traditional Vedic caste system – Brahmin (priest), Kshtriya (warrior), Vaishya (merchant), and Shudra (worker). According to ancient Rg Vedic scriptures, they came from the body of the primal creator Brahma – priests from his head, warriors from hands, merchants from thighs, and workers from his feet.17 As Hinduism became more entrenched in superstition, this caste was not merely an occupation but became defined by the very atomic properties that a human was made of, represented by three qualities (guna) – Sattva, Rajas and Tamas. This is similar to the Chinese system of predominant elements of Metal, Wood, Water, Fire, Earth, that determine the constitution and personality of a human. The core of the argument of this paper is that the same categorization of gunas applied to food as well as people. How better to assert ‘You are what you eat’ than by blurring any difference between the categories themselves. Pardon me, as I go into somewhat bizarre details of what it means to have the Sattva, Rajas, or Tamas quality. Sattvaic foods are “pure, essential, natural, vital, energy-containing, clean, conscious, true, honest, wise.”18 This includes seasonal fruits and vegetables, dairy products, nuts, seeds, oils, legumes, whole grains, and non-meat based proteins. Rajasic foods are stimulants – inciting the “egoistic, ambitious, aggressive, proud, power-driven and competitive and a tendency to control others.” Such foods include: coffee, black and green tea, chocolate, spicy food, unfertilized eggs, and salt. Finally, Tamasic food is sedative, whose consumption amplifies the “darkness, inertia, heaviness, and tendency toward materialism, depression, laziness, excessive sleep, eating, drinking, and sex.” These foods include meat, fish, fertilized eggs, onion, garlic, scallion, leek, chive, mushroom, alcohol, durians, blue cheese, eggplant, opium, and stale products.

However, these categories didn’t vary with the individual; they varied with the caste because each one had defined eating habits. Humans born as Brahmins were associated with nobility and austerity because of the simple vegetarian diet ascribed to their caste while the lowest caste was considered “dull and stupid” because they gorged on meat. 19

Increase in meat consumption often proxies a growing middle class in the rest of the world.

Muslims did not have a similar nutrition-entwined caste system. But in India, the caste system is inescapable. Therefore, if you are an Indian Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, you probably converted to escape the all-pervasive “Untouchable” label, therefore it’s a mere nominal change.13 For to a Hindu eye, the Muslim food resembled the Tamas-ic quality, even the most fragrant chicken korma, which a number of Hindu school students would secretly consume from their Muslim classmates’ tiffin. Thus, the Tamasic, stagnant typology was directly transposed onto Muslims in India. In spite of the system being dated, it is surprising how conspicuously present it is in the quotidian experience of being Indian. And so, not surprisingly, hard-liner Hindu activists (some of whom now hold political office) resort to these ideologies to make planning decisions.b Understanding the entrenched values of the caste system can explain why 30% of Indians are vegetarians. Increase in meat consumption often proxies a growing middle class in the rest of the world. The fact that software revolution happened in India and the industrial did not, has also been explained with the caste infrastructure.20 The Industrial Revolution required at least a certain perceived dignity in manual labour, which was the categorical definition of the lower caste profession. The software revolution, on the other hand, required abstraction and an algorithmic logic which was a Brahmanical persuasion. Finally, it explains why there is a housing apartheid in an increasingly Islamophobic India. As the number of ‘Vegetarian-only’ settlements grows, there are few other options aside from being directed by this protein-driven urbanization.

Image 1. Postings of ‘vegetarians only’ apartments across cities in India.


Does this, then, embody Henri Lefebvre’s politics of “the inhabitant” of the urban revolution, where “both equality and difference would be the basic principles of social and political life?”21 What about the assertion of David Madden and Peter Marcuse, who argues that housing should be understood as more than simply real estate, but rather as that with the “potential to serve as a confirmation of one’s agency, cultural identity, individuality, and creative powers?”22 They are, indeed, correct. No other modern commodity is as important for organizing citizenship, work, identities, solidarities, and politics. We can think of the phrase ‘Vegetarians-only’ as a razor that cuts through all facets of identity, therefore defining the commodity of housing itself. And finally, what of Charles Tiebout’s suburbs as democratically elected candidates of foot-voting? These ghettos are also voting with feet, but feet that vote are not the feet that move.23

Hooper’s framework manifests in more eerily accurate ways. “The fantasies of bodies and forbidden places – the perversities and sexual excesses of prostitutes” gets manifested in a thriving non-vegetarian restaurant scene in Juhapura. In the New Irani Cafe on Relief road in Ahmedabad, most customers’ families do not know they eat meat surreptitiously. Men ‘surreptitiously’ indulge in chicken curry as they ‘elbow each other.’24 The Ahmedabad food truck festival has to pay bribes to the local police and the Hindu nationalist groups in order to operate. This is a clear example of the re-appropriation of the commons and the othering of a minority. Juhapura is often referred to as Little Pakistan, a favourite swearword to villainize everything from cricket stadiums to entire towns. The image of the dirty unhygienic prostitute described by Hooper appears again, since Juhapura was the site of the fourth sewage treatment plant for Ahmedabad.25 Malaria and other water-borne diseases are rampant, the windows and doors are always closed and a thick smog hangs over the area, as the Hindu nationalists in the country abstain.

In the extremely polarised climate of India today, where Muslim-hate crimes are on the rise, one often wonders if it is merely just the effect of the current government and their policies, or is it the toppling of the house of cards of a state that is reluctantly secular, with its citizens constantly creating spatialized zones of food-based discrimination in the garb of sentiments and hygiene to subvert the supposed secularity, in order to subvert the constitution and the idea of a civil society.


a. “Large parts of rural areas in the country that are not stand-alone settlements but part of a cluster of settlements, which are relatively proximate to each other”. – Ministry of Rural Development, India.
b. Funding for the Taj Mahal upkeep and conservation was recalled because it was a monument by “Muslim traitors.”


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