In the last few weeks, we’ve seen a wave of anti-Muslim violence spread across India over the issue of eating beef. Muslims have been attacked and murdered by Hindu fundamentalists who justify their actions claiming that the victims were eating beef or illegally transporting cows for slaughter. Hindu fundamentalists argue that because Hindus consider cows to be sacred, eating beef, even allegedly, is an attack on Hinduism.

It would seem, then, that food carves deep and unbridgeable divides between religious communities in India and that violence is inevitable.

We think that this conclusion is wrong, and it is based on a misrepresentation of food, religion, and the realities of beef consumption in India today.

It is quite commonly heard that Hindus do not eat beef, but this simply is not true. In a recent article published online, livemint.com reports that “more than 80 million people eat beef in India, including 12.5 million Hindus.” This number is based on the latest round of the government administered National Sample Survey Office statistics, one that researches frequently rely on for population data in India. Not all Muslims in India eat beef. Less than half (40%) of Indian Muslims surveyed reported that they consume beef. Statistically, that still means that Muslims are the largest religious community of beef eaters in India, but Hindus come in at second place.

Throughout Dr. Mencher’s 50 years of research and work in India, she often spoke with Hindu’s about their own beef consumption, and her published work supports the argument that eating beef does not divide Hindus and Muslims as starkly as Hindu fundamentalists claim.

In Tamil Nadu in the 1960s, dalits frequently reported to Mencher that they ate beef: “many commented that beef was their favorite meat and talked with relish about how much one got for 8 annas in the market at Walajabad, and they were free in giving recipes for cooking beef” (See the recently published collection of essays on Life as a Dalit, page 21). Mencher’s dalit informants explained that many high-caste Hindus looked down on them for eating beef, a practice they considered to be spiritually polluting. However, that did not stop Hindus from ignoring caste prohibitions when in need of political support from dalits. For example, she frequently saw high-caste Hindu politicians take food in the homes of dalits and even spend the night in dalit homes on campaign trips.

High-caste Hindus also report eating beef. Dr. Mencher observed an informal experiment carried out by a well known Indian Economist, and his test is interesting to consider. At a fairly large dinner party at the home of another economist, Dr. K. N. Raj asked each and every person as they arrived, two questions: Do Hindus eat beef?  And the second questions was “Do you eat beef?”  What was striking was that each and every person there answered in the same way.  The consistent answer to question one was no, of course not.  But the answer to question two was also answered in some version of the same response by every person.  Well, yes, I and my wife or vice versa do. We especially like it though we prefer not to eat it as a curry. Dr. Raj’s informal test reminds Dr. Mencher of many semi-observing Jews she grew up with in New York. They ate pork in restaurants and at friend’s homes but not in their own homes.  The pattern of doing something one’s parents might not have done (especially among elites but also among the middle classes) is to be found in numerous cultures around the world, especially as societies change and people mingle with diverse neighbors.

Time and time again, social scientists have shown that in practice the boundaries between religious communities and caste groups in India are flexible, and many people, even those who claim to be devoutly religious, employ religious proscriptions flexibly and situationally. It would be a lie to say that Hindus don’t eat beef because millions do.

While it’s easy to come to the conclusion that communal violence is an inevitable part of Indian politics derived from religious difference, we hope that you question this idea. Looked at in terms of ideal principles, Muslims and Hindus appear opposed to each other, but in elements of daily life, like food consumption, the division blurs and sometimes even disappears. The recent spate of violence isn’t about Hindu-Muslim relations at all. It’s about something different altogether.