Cultural Geographies

Meat matters: cultural politics along the commodity chain in India
Paul Robbins
Cultural Geographies 1999 6: 399
DOI: 10.1177/096746089900600402
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Paul Robbins
In a period when the global market is generally supposed to be erasing local meaning
and applying uniform significance to objects and consumers, cultural commodity politics are
in fact proliferating. Drawing on the case of the Indian meat economy, I argue here that
the further that commodities travel in economic life, the more they affect and are affected
by non-economic systems of signification. Specifically, the expanding livestock commodity
chain in India has increased the political and social visibility of a long-standing carnivorous
tradition, and meat is increasingly leveraged for social and political power in surprising

n the spring of 1994, the butchers of Delhi went on strike in an act of politIhouse,
ical defiance, following the court-ordered closure of the Idgah slaughterone of only two century-old abattoirs in Delhi. When meat disappeared
in the city, public debate exploded in newspapers and on street corners, where
the closure was celebrated by the city’s ruling Hindu nationalist leaders and
vocally protested by its butchers and meat consumers. 1 Tensions rose in the wake
of the closure and fears of riots circulated through the capital.2 Though the
facility was shut down for reasons of sanitation, the episode quickly changed
from a case of antiquated infrastructure to the symbolic contest over the status
of one of India’s surprisingly significant commodities: meat.
In a nation largely portrayed as vegetarian, the controversy raises difficult
questions about the symbolic status of commodities both in India and abroad.
Is meat-eating in India and the resulting political friction simply a jarring facet
of ‘modernity’ resisted by ‘tradition’? By assessing the economics and cultural
politics of meat, I will suggest here that such a reading is inadequate to understanding the Idgah controversy. Rather, the case demonstrates the proliferation
of cultural commodity politics in a period when the global market is generally
supposed to be erasing local meaning and applying uniform significance to
Ecumene 1999 6 (4)

0967-4608(99)EU175OA © 1999 Arnold
Downloaded from by Sivaraman Balasubramaniam on October 14, 2010

I explore the history of meat in India in an effort to demonstrate the historicity of vegetarianism and the significance of meat in a ‘vegetarian’ society. I attempt to show the cultural contradictions of regional economic change. I define and explain the transformations in the regional meat economy resulting from the expansion of markets for meat. this line of research has been enormously fruitful. especially Fernand Braudel. and that (2) association with the animal/meat product as either a producer and consumer has no stable meaning but is instead leveraged for social and political power in surprising ways. In sum.5 In the second section. emphasizing that while commodity exchange systems create opportunities for shifting signification.sagepub. owners and the environment. inputs and value are added. they do so in no simple or inevitable way. and researchers have learned a great deal about the growth and change in regional political economy through thoughtful examinations of the movement. Here. 2010 . investors. In the third section. Cultural politics along the commodity chain Commodity chain analysis is an increasing focus for geographically oriented economic inquir y. producers and consumers. The conclusions of the paper argue against the idea that meat in India is exceptional. Next. making clear the relationships between labourers.7 Drawing on classic work by economic historians. and large-scale environmental devastation’. concluding that unanswered questions remain in explaining the meaning of commodities. by conducting a social biography of meat in India (following Appadurai4).8 and building upon that of world-systems theorists.11 Ecumene 1999 6 (4) Downloaded from cgj.400 Paul Robbins objects.3 Tracing the origins and effects of the slaughterhouse controversy. I will argue that (1) the expanding meat commodity chain has increased the economic value and social visibility of a long-standing carnivorous tradition in India. and surplus is generated through by Sivaraman Balasubramaniam on October 14. I call for the deployment of Appadurai’s ‘social biography of things’ to illuminate Baudrillard’s ‘symbolic system of objects’. The paper is divided into three parts. Commodity chain analysis traces the control of exchange and value-added processes in the creation of commodities ranging from instant coffee to shoes. the analysis of cultural politics along other commodity chains would benefit geographers wishing to explore the cultural geography of the capitalist economy.10 At each stop along the network. exchange and transformation of commodities. revealing the spatial and political points of accumulation and control in the contemporary economy. trends in “Northern” consumption patterns. Analysis reveals ‘the links between highly structured international markets. I will show that the stretching of the commodity chain and the increasing economic value in animal exchange have together created new contexts for cultural and social struggle. The first section reviews the work of economic and cultural commodity research. I illustrate the symbolic politics that grafts meaning onto the animal object6 during its travels from the site of production to that of consumption.9 This work defines a commodity chain as ‘a network of labor and production processes whose end result is a finished commodity’. states.

an approach to commodity signification that focuses upon exchange. At the same time. a wedding ring may move out of a jeweller’s store. political and cultural process invests objects with meanings (including that of commodity) as exchange moves them into and out of various socially and politically defined situations. is most useful. If meaning is produced in the context of exchange. as the complex and indeterminant role of even common commodities shows. locations and opportunities for diverse meaning to be created and contested. commodities are ‘things with a particular type of social potential’. however. it has created new contexts and venues for that commodity to be invested with meaning apart from its exchange value. Put simply.sagepub.14 But that answer is not particularly satisfying. 2010 .12 Once this false. causal dichotomy is discarded. At each moment. By way of by Sivaraman Balasubramaniam on October 14. more significant and puzzling questions emerge. In this case. the relationship between the meaning of an object and its position in a stratified economy remains somewhat enigmatic. and defies common experience in a world of proliferating meanings. For the purposes of this analysis. producers and sellers. however. Rather. rather than production. an object does not have a static and given identity as a commodity simply because it is produced for exchange in the historical moment of capitalism. and an object is a commodity only in those situations where the exchangeability of the object is its most ‘socially relevant feature. Following Appadurai.Meat matters: cultural politics along the commodity chain in India 401 Even so. simultaneously travelling into and out of differing meanings as it goes. into a bureau drawer and onto an auction block through exchanges over the course of its life. who is best positioned to graft that meaning onto objects moving in a complex and fluid economy and how do they do it? Does the power rest with users and consumers. I will argue here that the expansion of global markets and the lengthening of commodity chains has actually served to expand the number of places. It is clear that the meaning of things and their movement along lines of trade are not wholly independent of one another. what does that say about meaning? At what point does the prerogative to bestow meaning move from the consumers to the sellers? Or could it be that the power to bestow meaning always accompanies the power to determine availabilities?13 One possible answer to this question is to argue that the power to sign simply resides in the economic system which flattens objects into commodities.16 In this way. as many rich cultural commodity histories have shown. the meaning of the object Ecumene 1999 6 (4) Downloaded from cgj. the growth in the consumer market and international meat trade associated with late twentieth-century capitalism has increased the time and space over which the animal’s value is realized as a commodity in exchange. social. or somewhere else entirely? As Mintz puts it: If the users themselves do not so much determine what [symbols are] available to be used as add meanings to what is available. creates a global culture. onto a finger. Neither are they determined by one another in any simple way.’15 This commodity status depends on the object’s social and cultural situation such that objects can move in and out of a commodity state during their ‘social lives’. the more it affects and is affected by non-economic systems of signification. A global economy. in such a formulation. the further the animal travels into economic life. My survey of the animal object reaches a rather different conclusion.

however. the commodity chain is here shown to be the path of exchange along which meaning is produced.18 Equally. that consumption of meat is an unprecedented cultural fact in India. it follows. the social relations of producers and exchangers take on new meaning. being reduced and alienated through the instrumental logic commodity consumption. nor that this fact represents a conflict between the ‘modern’ and the ‘traditional’. and tied to systems of signification outside the economy. is a social process in which the commodity status of objects becomes overwhelming and begins to colonize most of an object’s social life over space and time. It is not the case. the rise of meat trade has certainly increased the complexity and density of such transformations in recent years. changes in the production and consumption patterns of the meat object are threatening to some and useful to others. the politics of commodification may address the way in which ‘rapid changes in consumption.19 In either by Sivaraman Balasubramaniam on October 14. Following Baudrillard. To dispel this notion. producers and consumers do. Using this approach. 2010 . The commodification of nature is thus the resignification of the extant meanings of ‘natural’ objects into those of instrumental consumption through exchange. Such politics may centre around the way people and objects resist commodification and around the rebelliousness of people and objects against the ‘colonization of the life world by a homogenizing instrumental rationality’. social. a myriad of social and political transformations occur. resist the process of commodification and. re-signed as instrumental and exchangeable.402 Paul Robbins may be constituted through prestige. Ecumene 1999 6 (4) Downloaded from cgj. I first turn to the historical presence of meat and carnivorism in Indian history. objects. The object now obtains its meaning through its relations to other such consumer objects. most certainly. grafted onto objects and stripped away by political. therefore. As we shall see in the case of meat. with ramifications for other spheres of social life in India. In the process. are likely to appear threatening to them’. Commodification. are related to control over the distancing of the object’s production from its consumption and to control over the signification of the object at differing sites. especially for ‘natural’ objects whose meanings begin to differ significantly from the site of production to that of consumption. When animals become livestock and meat. the application of instrumental significance for an object may be short-circuited and redirected by social and political process. nostalgia or gendered power relations.17 Hard work. The politics of the commodification of nature. As will be shown here. if not inspired or regulated by those in power. and economic process. land degradation or animal suffering is rendered invisible through the commodification of the natural object as it is consumed at a distant site. consumption of commodities is not a ‘passive mode of assimilation’ but is rather an ‘active mode of relations’ and ‘a systematic act of the manipulation of signs’ where the object is ‘re-signed’ out of the social context of production and use and into the coherent system of meaning that constitutes and creates ‘consumption’.sagepub. at times. The spatial division of the sites of production from those of consumption along the commodity chain enables this process of commodification.

Meat is also evident in the diets of the region’s residents following the decline of the Indus Culture. appear in the earliest archaeological sites of the Indus Valley Civilization. meat-eating is a prehistoric phenomenon. The dietary and production practices of Kashmir are nearly unrecognizable in Tamil Nadu or Orissa. and includes the earliest recorded traditions related to animal slaughter and meat. animal bones marked by cutting are evident in the Black and Red Ware cultures who inherited the north and northwestern regions of the subcontinent between 1100 and 600 BCE. wool. Even in the far south of the subcontinent. are not dissimilar to those experienced elsewhere in India.) and the vast hinterlands that feed the animal economy. etc. Under Buddhist and Jain influences.Meat matters: cultural politics along the commodity chain in India 403 Meat and carnivorism in Indian histor y It would be disingenuous to speak of an all-Indian livestock culture given the tremendous regional diversity of meanings and practices in the subcontinent.) in the region and so make a useful representative case. cloth/textiles. laying the foundations of later Hinduism.sagepub. a hierarchy of creation is established where the consumption of those things lower on the food chain is justified in sacred law. The tradition is named for the Vedas. etc.20 Kautilya’s Arthashastra. Milk. while the range of important animal products in India is vast. the Vedic tradition. Ahmadabad. Animals as meat are somewhat unusual due to their importance in Hindu cosmological forms. Here. intertwined with ritual hierarchy. The long-standing complexity in the meanings of animals in India is evident in a reading of the cultural history of meat in the subcontinent. the historical record shows few inhibitions regarding the consumption of meat at this time. especially domesticated goats and sheep. 2010 . emerged as a powerful cultural and religious by Sivaraman Balasubramaniam on October 14. dung. The nature of the tensions and transformations in this region. starting from 4000 BCE. and animals domesticated for meat.21 Yet in this period of generalized meat production and consumption. stud potential and traction power are all marketable animal commodities and configure their own complex economies in livestock production. For the purposes of this analysis. but they do reflect the complexity of other natural commodities (trees/timber. the focus of discussion will be the broad belt of the semi-arid north. Bombay. however. with its vegetarian ethic. from around 300 BCE.22 Simultaneously. According to the archaeological record. Also. including the major cities of the north-west (Delhi. hymnal scriptures preserved in oral and later written form since the second millennium BCE. specialized production niches and agro-ecological politics. hunting and meat-eating are integrated into the early Vedic concepts of ahimsa (non-violence) and ritual purity that are so important to later regional religious tradition. Many religious legal texts from this period (including the Manu-smriti or Laws of Manu) underline the role both of meat-eating and of the limits of meat-eating in the structure of ritual and social purity. ritual carnivorism is established wherein the eating of meat Ecumene 1999 6 (4) Downloaded from cgj. marketing and maintenance. especially the semi-arid states of Gujarat and Rajasthan. which make claims of historical vegetarianism problematic. this analysis focuses specifically on meat. refers to an official in charge of state slaughterhouses. sacrifice and medical practice.

the proscriptions and controls over carnivorism established in text were enshrined as a solid social order of animals. Here. an animal with little value outside meat production. Complex agricultural systems emerge during the period with a significant and expanding pastoral component. Ayurvedic remedies and prescriptions are explicitly intended to maintain the health of the ruling elite and meats were therefore reserved for kshatriya (warrior kings).27 It would seem. no references appear for the maintenance of small stock. these foods and cures were intended for elite consumers. Ayurvedic practitioners were to feed meat tissue (dhatu) to a patient to ‘fatten the body’. then. the ritual purity of some meat consumption was outlined while polluting practices of animal management were instituted. people and meat. that the Vedic and early Hindu order of abstract Ecumene 1999 6 (4) Downloaded from cgj.24 Elsewhere in Vedic texts. Under Vedic cultural hegemony. ‘produce muscle’ and ‘firm the flesh’. which suggests that widespread meat-eating continued through the Vedic period. Even then. More than 250 animals are referred to in the Vedas. is that part of Vedic ritual text relating to proper behaviour and responsibility as outlined in spiritual order.25 The neat order of vegetarian law is shattered by closer examination of the simultaneous archaeological and historical record in the region. The ritual significance of ahimsa (non-violence) was in this way reconciled with the therapeutic value of raw meat and blood while the balance of power between warriors and priests was established through sacred dietary practice. Dharmic literature. Deer and buffalo meat was understood to be most powerful in this regard. in Vedic tracts on ayurvedic (homeopathic and ritual) medicine. the healing properties of the remedy were in the very violence of its source. meat-eating continued but became reserved by and for elite groups through religious sanction. while Manu is filled with rules in references to cattle handling. including Manu and many earlier Dharma Sutras. including the pig. meat takes on importance in ritual practice and in defining social and political authority.26 Al-Biruni. which freed them from the taint of violence. an Arabic traveler to India in the eleventh century AD. and 50 of these were seen as fit for sacrifice and so for consumption. it would seem. meat and by Sivaraman Balasubramaniam on October 14. are increasingly excluded from the diet. and blood itself was prescribed for its powerful bio-spiritual effect. In other later Dharma Sutras.404 Paul Robbins is placed under restriction and allowed only for animal foods prepared through sacrifice by elite brahmin priests. Similarly. 2010 .23 In Vedic practice. In these texts. meats could only be eaten when prepared by a priestly elite and purified through ritual sacrifice. through whom society’s health was realized. however.sagepub. Generally the keeping of animals for meat production and consumption was established as taboo. milk. Prominent brahmin priests from the period praise the consumption of meat with no fear of ostracism. animal and meat-related notions were established in proscriptive and prescriptive terms. fowl and other meat animals. clearly states that strict vegetarianism was reserved predominantly for brahmins and that other groups consumed and exchanged the meat of animals. Concurrent Painted Grey Ware sites (900–500 BCE) in the Gangetic plain show evidence of mixed agropastoralism with a bewildering variety of domesticated animals. Again.

30 As integration continued. Finally. colonial authorities took note of the meat trade. In the early history of the region.Meat matters: cultural politics along the commodity chain in India 405 vegetarianism and ritual slaughter did not reflect the establishment of vegetarian practice. common property institutions and export markets increased the number of small stock throughout the north especially in the traditional cattleand camel-breeding areas of the north-west. While Hindu butchers (katiks) continued to practise slaughter using distinct methods and a segregated customer base.sagepub. 2010 . praised and consumed animal products and recorded goat and sheep meat among the significant products of the region in economic surveys. especially during wartime. Regional censuses from the turn of the century confirm that qualified vegetarian restrictions continued to coexist with meat trade and flesh-eating in the post-Vedic era. goat and sheep meat remained in the diet of Muslims and the practice of animal slaughter was increasingly handled predominantly. Many meat preparations and dietary styles followed Islam into the region. military contracting for tinned foods required direct colonial intervention in the meat economy. Moreover. at least in small part. changes in land tenure. It represents a smooth transition. the capitalization of the rural economy also created a cash-crunch for producers and helped foster the contemporary meat markets that continue to provide a quick avenue to capital for local producers.32 Thus. On the other hand. upon the eating of meat. Rather. With the simultaneous establishment of an agropastoral production system that relied upon the handling and management of ritually impure animals and. kings and priests. the Vedic order begins to look less like universal cosmology than the legitimation of ideological by Sivaraman Balasubramaniam on October 14. it represented the establishment of sacred hierarchy to justify the social and political hegemony of those groups by whom and for whom the Vedic texts were authored. by Muslim trading and slaughtering castes (beopari and kassai) across north India. we already see the uneasy relationship between meat production/consumption and the cultural politics of the meat object. Ecumene 1999 6 (4) Downloaded from cgj. Hindus often purchased and consumed meat from Muslim butchers who dominated the market. therefore. blood. social and economic changes under colonialism increased and intensified the already extant role for meat in economy and society and laid the foundations for its commodification.29 Muslim dietary practice integrated with that of Hinduism over a period of exchange with symbolic flows in both directions. At the same time. and the flesh of swine’. and colonial surveys praise the quality and availability of sheep and goat meat. While struck by the prevalence of vegetarianism in India.28 The arrival of Muslim armies and settlers and the rise of the Sikh faith further reinforced the ranks of meat-eaters in South Asia. as they do to this day. including the consumption of sweetmeats.31 Under colonialism. meat production and consumption rose. The current rapidly expanding meat economy is not a break from history. though not exclusively. The religious status of meat in Islam is equally significant to that in Vedic tradition with Koranic strictures against ‘carrion. beef consumption was added to the list of restrictions observed in mixed communities by Muslims. and non-meat foods began to dominate the diet of Indian Muslims.

the cow is the central livestock element of household reproduction.33 This emphasis on meat production has changed animal demography in India.8 4222 7775 3553 84. 2010 . The changes in the commodity production system are threefold. but rural producers are highly dependent on animal production and upon the marketing of whole animals for meat. to the fast-food markets of urban Delhi and beyond. shifting the burden of risk and changing the concentration of capital in the process. Changing production and consumption systems are putting more meat onto the national and international market. Ecumene 1999 6 (4) Downloaded from cgj.1 8806 12 491 3685 41. as noted earlier. These changes are best evidenced by following an animal from the shrublands of rural Rajasthan. The production of meat begins in the smallest villages of the most rural parts of arid Rajasthan. Third. shifted risk and created new avenues for by Sivaraman Balasubramaniam on October 14. 1995). Traditionally raised for traction and in small numbers in rural households. At the same time. sheep. from which the largest proportion of animals originate. Rajasthan is the largest livestock-producing state in the country. In a state that accounts Table 1 ~ Livestock populations in Rajasthan (000) 1966 1995 Change 66/95 As % of 1966 Cattle Goat Sheep Buffalo 13 123 11 666 –1457 –11. the production and consumption of meat has increased but with important species-specific effects on the livestock economy. 1966. the historical traditions of ahimsa (non-violence) and the ritual pollution equated with some animal management and consumption remain active. economic and cultural roles. drawing increasing attention to the practice of slaughter and shifting it into new political arenas. Rajasthan State Directorate of Economics and Statistics. or goats and. Statistical Abstracts: Rajasthan (Jaipur.2 Source: Government of India. The change in livestock figures for the state of Rajasthan are shown in Table 1 while a summary of their place in the meat economy is shown in Table 2. buffalo and cattle – differ significantly in their ecological.sagepub. and culturally complex. The religious ban against cow slaughter in India is well known. meat and traction.1 10 323 15 284 4961 48. systems of transport and exchange are increasingly complex and internally differentiated. the prospect of new markets nationally and internationally has brought new large firms into the commodity chain. they have been part of a traditional meat economy.406 Paul Robbins The changing animal commodity chain The history of animal production and meat consumption in India is deep. First. Overall in the last 20 years. politically lively. Second. recent developments in the national and international economy have changed the stakes in animal production. since the major animal species of the region – goat. and continues to be the source of animals for milk. rural producers for the slaughter market raise increasing numbers of animals. sheep. No such ban exists for buffalo. Here.

it should be pointed out. The cow. on the other Table 2 ~ Stratification of the animal economy Animal Proportion of total market Manner of keeping System of slaughter Location of consumption Cattle Low Household milk herds and urban dairy Small-scale.Meat matters: cultural politics along the commodity chain in India 407 for many of the important traditional cattle breeds. illicit Local Goat High Small herds supplemental income Large-scale urban slaughterhouse Domestic and international Sheep High Large herds specialist producers Large-scale urban slaughterhouse Domestic Buffalo Middle Household milk herds and urban dairy Small-scale Urban slaughterhouse Domestic Figure 1 ~ The ‘bovine burden’: sacred cattle in by Sivaraman Balasubramaniam on October 14. 2010 . Ecumene 1999 6 (4) Downloaded from cgj. the lack of a viable meat component to the cattle economy makes them less valuable in the growing meat economy (Figure 1). While smallscale. illicit and local consumption of beef is not unheard of. is not disappearing as a result of slaughter but instead precisely because it is not being slaughtered.sagepub. the decline of the cow here is apparent. Both sheep and goat populations.

They are slaughtered and consumed both domestically and internationally.34 These communities historically specialized in the herding of large animals but have changed in recent years to smaller stock raising. growing in importance and in numbers. Pastoral specialists manage sheep and goats in large herds combining annual migrations with local wet-season grazing. where their meat is most prized. Ecumene 1999 6 (4) Downloaded from cgj. For these reasons the numbers of small stock have risen dramatically in Rajasthan. Taken together. They are also slaughtered for by Sivaraman Balasubramaniam on October 14. where the high fat content of their milk makes them extremely valuable. and are generally held in large numbers by pastoral caste specialists like the raika and sindhi. on a smaller scale than small stock. In Rajasthan. Goats are held in small numbers by rural producer households for quick cash and as an important source of milk protein. especially in the Arab Gulf States. main- Figure 2 ~ A herd of over 100 sheep under the care of a shepherd from a traditional pastoral caste. Sheep and goats do not hold the same sacred value as cattle and have mostly filled the demand for meat. especially in the arid west. Sheep are slaughtered and consumed domestically. Agro-pastoral households herd these animals under differing production regimes depending upon variations in class and caste. Sheep provide the added value of wool sales. have steadily grown in recent years. there is a clear picture of the increase in the meat component of the Indian livestock economy. Buffalo numbers have increased largely as a result of their role in the dairy economy.sagepub. sheep and goats are favoured in particular because they are hardy browsers in a situation of increasingly marginal grazing.408 Paul Robbins hand. 2010 . however. while numbers of camels and cattle are on the decline. because they are easy to maintain and manage and because they provide reliable sources of protein and emergency funds from dry-season sale and slaughter (Figure 2).

50 thousand tons in 1993. goats are usually preferred over sheep since these animals require less maintenance and provide milk and meat as important protein supplements. beopari animal traders. who have emerged in recent years as a powerful and wealthy community with wellorganized trade networks throughout the region. growing from 17. This represents a 47% increase in less than a decade. Some losses are accrued in the form of tissue shrinkage. especially marginal caste communities. 36 There the animals are appraised and haggled over by local buyers and butchers and resold at a considerable mark-up at between R450 and R600 ($13–15) each. in regional exchange centres including Jodhpur. While prices in urban markets have risen in recent years. In most cases. live animals are moved by truck to processing markets in Delhi. or are transported onward to larger urban markets. although traders sometimes have longer-term agreements with producers. These traders sometimes live in the villages where sales are made. where an oligopoly of processors increasingly controls markets through contracting and price controls. Jaipur and Bikaner. production and trade has increased significantly in recent years. buyers and butchers) involved in the exchange process. As many as 250 animals are transported by truck for one or two days at a time.sagepub. For these groups. access to emergency capital and limiting labour demands. These traders then either sell through their own local networks or directly transport the animals to urban regional markets. especially in the livestock industry. who often operate out of their own residences.37 Urban markets for meat within the state are growing rapidly. From these markets the animals either are moved to slaughter by local butchers. These transportation and sale transactions are increasingly complex and institutionalized with a growing number of players (traders. focusing on risk-spreading. This follows a more global trend in commodity exchange relations. village households sell these animals to middlemen. for quick cash during a dry season or emergency. The central effects of this stratification of the commodity chain are to depress producer prices and thereby to shift risks from traders and value-added processors to economically and politically marginal villagers. Mumbai and Ahmadabad for urban consumption and sale on the Ecumene 1999 6 (4) Downloaded from cgj. In the case of non-specialist households. 2010 . sometimes packed in two-tiered carriages with no food or water. called Bakra Mandi. bruises and the death of animals in transport to urban exchange markets. The prices received for animals at the village level vary from season to season and during drought conditions but most producers report a fairly uniform return for sale of R200–400 or $5–10. but more often circulate with trucks or other transport through a territory of villages making periodic purchasing stops.38 From exchange markets. especially pastoral specialists.29 thousand tons in 1986 to 25. At this level. the production emphasis is different.Meat matters: cultural politics along the commodity chain in India 409 taining large herds and migrating in complex systems of combined and reciprocal labour arrangements. These traders are a subcaste of the traditionally marginal kassai caste of butchers and by Sivaraman Balasubramaniam on October 14. most rural producers report price stagnation and weak bargaining power.35 These migrations cycle around urban marketing centres where wool is clipped for sale and animals are sold for meat. Negotiations are usually conducted on the spot.

two such abattoirs exist. the Minimum Export Price on meat has been eliminated as part of Indian trade liberalization policy. retail chain food stores with available meat products are increasingly evident in cosmopolitan centres.40 None of these firms is selling beef but all of them market some form of chicken or mutton. and these move on to slaughter facilities. the growth in meat exports from a ‘vegetarian’ country is remarkable. Domestic fast-food chains have long-standing presence in Delhi and Bombay. Ecumene 1999 6 (4) Downloaded from cgj. a large proportion of the meat and live animals is destined for export markets beyond the Indian border. however. At these markets. By following the ‘social life’ of meat. where more than 10 000 animals are slaughtered daily. exports of goat and sheep meat rose from 2200 to 8000 tons. As a result. surprising lessons can be learnt about the politics of meaning. Firm numbers are difficult to find. In sum. traders report that they unload animals for R600–700 each (around $18). In the first case. At the same time. it is clear that the commodity chain of meat production from village pastures to consumer plates is increasingly long and complex and that the value of the market is high and growing (summarized in Figure 3). aided by increasingly liberal investment policies over the last decade. but some three million goats (from a state population of around 14 million) were recorded as having been exported from Rajasthan to urban markets in 1990–91. most are small stock and around a third are targeted for export from the area. refrigeration technologies and trade deregulation have allowed a considerable increase in international meat trade. Of these. To that end. From some markets. while foreign chains including giants like Wimpy’s.410 Paul Robbins international market. where it earns a tremendous mark-up from purchase price. The total value of Indian meat exports rose equally quickly from $4 million to nearly $25 million between 1970 and 1994. we must examine the meaning of animals and meat at the sites of production and consumption. since 1970 the export of meat from the country has risen dramatically. especially those in Mumbai. The growth of the meat market might be predicted to represent the advancing edge of a process of commodification of the animal/meat object to its commodity form in a mature market system. In the case of export. 2010 . Between 1980 and 1988.39 In the intensification and extensification of the meat market two trends have dominated: the explosion of value-added processing and consumption sites in urban India and the increased international trade in meat commodities.sagepub. In Delhi. particularly in the states of the Persian Gulf. Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonald’s are pushing their way into the market. especially Uttar Pradesh and by Sivaraman Balasubramaniam on October 14. Processed meat may now be easily shipped from India’s urban ports. The a priori assumption that the growth of the market and its articulation into global trade represents the arrival of the instrumental meaning of animals and meat is not necessarily supported by an examination of production and consumption culture in India. Exports include the transport of meat to adjacent states.41 While still not on a par with other major exports.

While Hindu ritual slaughter has dropped off. for example.Meat matters: cultural politics along the commodity chain in India 411 Figure 3 ~ Addition of value for animal products along the path from desert cities of production to those of urban and international consumption. while on the rise in non-traditional communities. it is clear that the thing exchanged. holds non-commodity significance owing to the relationship of production and consumption to social and political status. continue to be deployed as a wedge for status. are generally devout vegetarians and refuse either to raise or to sell animals for slaughter. Traders largely accumulate the surplus. or restraint from these practices. whether viewed as animal. 2010 . and other groups do not match this production/consumption pattern. except on rare occasions. the consumption of meat remains an important marker of ritual purity and caste status through the notion of ahimsa. At the same time. and these practices. The bishnoi of Rajasthan. participation in the animal economy and the consumption of meat are not always coincidental. Raika herders are Ecumene 1999 6 (4) Downloaded from cgj. Meaning in animal commodity production Starting at the village level.sagepub. capital or by Sivaraman Balasubramaniam on October 14. But they are somewhat unusual. keeping of herds. These two features of local culture emerge in complex combinations in the social politics of the village. is still stained with an element of ritual taint.

when asked. At the same time. the meaning attached to animal/meat in the village is deployed independently from that of animal management. historically the targets of class and caste domination by elites. Members of this community will not slaughter animals themselves and leave the tanning of hides and other craft practices to other groups. As opportunities present themselves for the claim to ritual purity or a status of power. provide a primary source of energy. Members of the meghwal community. are safe and highly productive locations for stored value. Villages in rural India remain without well-integrated financial systems. increasingly practise vegetarianism to claim status. animals remain one of the highest-yielding investments available. while long-time meat eaters. and even where such institutions exist. and along with it the class status available from conspicuous herding. meat-eating and stock-raising are meaning-laden. More marginal members of the meghwal community raise few animals for sale and eat little meat but are associated with leatherwork and ritual pollution. and while the growth of animal markets has created opportunities to deploy these practices for control of social status. these practices may change. Clearly. are traditionally loath to raise small stock because the practice is considered unclean.412 Paul Robbins vegetarians who raise and sell animals that wind up on the meat market.42 Running both along and against the grain of traditional cultural practice. the meaning of animals/meat has not simply been reduced to instrumental form in the process. In all of these cases. in Rajasthani household calculation and conversation. their low-input protein production and their flexibility under conditions of ecological uncertainty. This rate of return is quite explicitly calculated by pastoral producers who. are increasingly likely to enter the animal market and claim pride in the ownership of large herds while sometimes laying claim to dietary purity through the avoidance of traditionally consumed animal products. for example. investments and returns in ways that would be familiar to investors in futures exchange in Chicago. in particular. Animal wastes. can swiftly compound rates of return over time in their by Sivaraman Balasubramaniam on October 14. village residents can just as easily interpret and describe animals and meat in their commodity forms. The economic value of herds is quickly growing. these practices invert some cultural forms while reinforcing others. Despite claims by orientalist and crude materialist scholarship that the value of animals in India is hidden in systems of cosmological significance. animal objects are weighed as exchanges. for example. Cattle turn fastEcumene 1999 6 (4) Downloaded from cgj. legitimating their daily treatment as inferiors by caste elites. on the other hand. especially small stock.sagepub. Animals are also fully acknowledged as productive capital in the village. Small–stock. Goats and sheep reproduce once or twice a year. making them much higher-yielding than any bank. allowing for capital decline in herd attrition. Livestock. Elite rajputs.43 the position of the animal as an exchangeable good is overtly acknowledged in most producer households. This process turns this marginal group away from animal-raising and meat-eating to seek higher ritual status. even while they earn receipts from animal sales. showing the deployment of symbols to cement and contest local power. 2010 . are explicitly prized in village households for their rate of reproductive return. Indeed. Rajputs.

‘an end of the stratification of society into those who hogged the supply of meat and those who had to stuff their stomach with grains’. Nationally. 2010 . The growth in the meat market follows global trends towards the use of meat as a form of generic consumer gratification. traditional rules against meat consumption continue to exclude meat from the diets of some people. while 55% and 70% are carnivores in neighbouring Madhya Pradesh and Mahrastra. even in non-coastal states like Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. clean. tied to instrumental logics of the by Sivaraman Balasubramaniam on October 14. and animal wastes have emerged as an important part of the rural economy in recent years. animals and meat are simultaneously commodity and non-commodity objects in village life. Even so.Meat matters: cultural politics along the commodity chain in India 413 burning silica (grasses) into slow-burning fuel cakes of gober (cow dung) while sheep and goats cycle off-farm nutrients into the form of dung. where non-vegetarianism means the eating of goat and sheep meat. Overall. butter and cheese. Meat. the proportion of meateating Hindus is unknown. These percentages include fish-eaters. but it has been estimated at not much less than 30% of the population. This figure varies regionally. animals/meat are meaningful symbols at the location of production. it is clear that vegetarianism is the exception and not the rule. The many traditional techniques of milk preservation. While their status as dirty.47 Figure 4 shows the percentage of non-vegetarians by state in India. The cultural politics of animal consumption Following the animal object to the site of consumption. both Muslim and Hindu butchers handle animals for slaughter and many urban communities eat meat. is present in the diets of many village households and is seen as the economic liquid return value for the energy invested in livestock. are all an important part of the village vernacular. and so the map is skewed heavily by coastal consumption. conspicuous vegetarianism notwithstanding.48 Meat’s globally ubiquitous classbased appeal is a central dietary element of the alleged democracy brought by modernity and capitalism. a crucial fertilizer. the complexities of commodity signification grow further. sacred and profane. condensing and making yoghurt. including creaming. Middle-class consumers increasingly eat goat and sheep meat in Western-style fast-food restaurants in Delhi and Bombay. especially higher-caste groups. in Coetzee’s words. meat carries with it an impression of egalitarianism that promises. though less visible.49 Ecumene 1999 6 (4) Downloaded from cgj. Moreover. As at the rural site of production. milk and meat are viewed by village producers as a central return for the investment in animal raising. The explicit understanding and exploitation of these processes is acknowledged and calculated by producers in the village. In sum.45 Even the diets of the strictest vegetarians includes ghee (clarified butter) for food preparation. they are also viewed as ‘capital on the hoof’. is linked to social politics. Rural producers embrace their access to this end of the commodity chain.sagepub. however.44 Likewise. 40% and 31% of the population eat some form of meat (including fish) in Rajasthan and Gujarat.46 Crossing back and forth across the line where exchange becomes paramount in the understanding of value.

414 Paul Robbins Figure 4 ~ Incidence of meat eating by state in India.sagepub. This image of ‘democratic meat’ is contested by a picture of meat as an externally imposed attack on Hindu culture. The coastal bias reflects fish consumption. 1999). the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and. Indian Food: A Historical Companion (Delhi. Large-scale urban meat consumption in this way suggests an image of meat as democratic and middle-class. the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Their conservative account of Indian culture and the rise of meat eating is reflected in two branches of cultural politics: cow protection and anti-meat rhetoric. The second of these is demonstrated in the general sympathy of the BJP and its supporters in Delhi for the closure of the Idgah slaughterhouse in 1994. In 1954. (Adapted from K. This latter reading of the emergence of the meat commodity in India is offered by the conservative Hindu nationalist Sangh Parivar (family of Sangh parties) which includes the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS). the BJS offered as a part of its ‘manifesto’ an end to cow slaughter in the country despite the extreme rarity of the practice. 2010 .com by Sivaraman Balasubramaniam on October 14. Whatever its meaning. only shortly after independence. Achaya. The first of these two takes the form of a long-term campaign for a legal ban on cow slaughter. without any apparent sense of contradiction of the Hindu faith. meat is being eaten by more people in urban India. Oxford University Press. This policy was vigorously pursued for two decades thereafter. while inland state consumption reflects red meat eating. T. especially Hindus. currently. despite Ecumene 1999 6 (4) Downloaded from cgj.

Even so. where government buildings were sacked and cars and houses burnt. Environmentally oriented Ecumene 1999 6 (4) Downloaded from cgj. A Times of India poll taken two months after the closure revealed a range of popular interpretations. Public response to the closure in the following months varied greatly. ‘meat matters’. pressuring the states to adopt cow-slaughter bans. 2010 . This symbolic campaign seemed to be levelled at a nonissue and to offer a redundant law. however.55 Confusion reigned in activist communities as well. when the BJP came to power in Delhi. however. finally warning the government of violence. Pushing for state-level laws to ban the killing of cattle in 1966.’50 As seen above.Meat matters: cultural politics along the commodity chain in India 415 the fact that cow slaughter was already banned by the Indian constitution and that such slaughter was almost never observed. This was almost immediately followed by an outbreak of rioting in the capital.sagepub. responding quickly. in Delhi. however.52 The following year. Some acknowledged the hygienic reasons for the closure. the Congress government quickly went to work. the century-old abattoir was built for a daily capacity of 2500 animals but at the time of closure the facility was handling nearly 14 000 animals daily. Later in 1994. the ban unsurprisingly raised no notice or protest amongst the city’s Muslim community since little or no cattle slaughter actually occurs.54 politicians have been reluctant to adapt public infrastructure to the recent growth of the animal economy (Figure 5). But with crowds assembled. The BJS organized large demonstrations in the city and. the disappearance of cattle in north India is tied more closely to their exclusion from the meat economy rather than their inclusion in it.53 India’s highest court ruled that the conditions in the abattoir were unsanitary and that the facility should be closed until it was up to code. Few of those interviewed were aware of the court order. the campaign touched off a deep divide and ended in violence. The slaughterhouse was closed by court order in March of 1994 for health reasons. Despite long-standing complaints concerning the sanitation and efficiency of slaughtering facilities in many of north Indian cities. The colonial-era slaughterhouse had never been improved or replaced over its long life. the BJS launched a lobbying campaign and a series of protests in Delhi against Indira Gandhi’s then-ruling Congress party. it adopted an antimeat platform and banned cow slaughter in the city through the passage of the Delhi Agricultural Cattle Protection Act. 13 000 litres of blood and offal were being discharged every day into the adjacent Yamuna River. While the issue continues to catch the attention of militant by Sivaraman Balasubramaniam on October 14. The ambiguousness of the poll left the Times with little to report except that. the BJP would have another opportunity to communalize the meat issue when the closure of the Idgah slaughterhouse entered the news.51 The non-issue of beef had proved a powerful tool for conservative politicians. Most seemed to think that the closure of the slaughterhouse was intended to reduce non-vegetarianism. the BJS went forward with its demonstrations. stating that ‘the only way to stay the rapid decline of cattle is to ban their slaughter forthwith. but the movement of the issue away from public health and into other spheres of culture and politics occurred quickly. The BJS further argued that a ban on cow slaughter was necessary to protect the dwindling cattle population.

resulting in disastrous desertification and the disappearance of Delhi under a mountain of sand. Politicians in the BJP greeted the closure as a strike against meat culture. the Muslim butchers in Delhi interpreted the closure of the slaughterhouse as a sectarian attack and. Complaining that their livelihood was threatened.57 As a result. activists warned that the increase in meat-eating would lead to an explosion in the goat population. activist politicians jointly described Hindu culture.56 The issue was quickly seized in political circles. Meat became unavailable throughout the city and the newspapers began heavy coverage of what might have otherwise been a small news event. Conversely. where it again became part of a familiar symbolic strategy. Following on an earlier strategy used in protests of the Al-Kabeer slaughterhouse in Andhra Pradesh. incited Ecumene 1999 6 (4) Downloaded from cgj. went on strike. 2010 . social activists argued that rampant urban consumption of meat would so devastate the goat population that the rural poor would be left without its chief source of milk protein. BJP politicians alleged a conspiracy by Gulf Arabs to destroy India’s economic and cultural core. With memories of events in the city of Ayodhya a few months before.416 Paul Robbins Figure 5 ~ The tools and techniques of a small-scale butcher shop.sagepub. they declared that the meat economy was not only impious but also damaging to the economy. they took their case to the Supreme Court. Governing in Delhi at the time of the closure. in by Sivaraman Balasubramaniam on October 14. where rioting crowds. explaining that the export-oriented system (of goats) was robbery of India’s ‘cattle wealth’. cow protection and vegetarianism as a ‘point of honour’ and ‘a pious duty’. While it was not a major plank in the BJP platform.

the name of the abbatoir. Unable to ruffle the Muslim minority with a cowslaughter ban. Both this event and the earlier cow riots of the 1960s reflect the efforts of conservative politicians to strategically signify the emerging meat economy. While claiming representation among low-caste Hindus and the Muslim minority. Public actions against cow slaughter (even where cow slaughter does not occur) and statements supporting the closure of an abattoir (even where it is closed for reasons of health and not culture) show a careful use of cultural symbols that create cultural pride in a powerful. the parties of the Sangh Parivar offers the return to a purer and more stable past. Hindu conservatives had here found a target for which the community would be willing to fight. such an idealized vision mimics and mirrors the late Vedic appearance of vegetarianism as a wedge for caste status. upper-middle-class Hindu elite. the highly public anti-meat campaign represented by Idgah and the ban on cattle slaughter are both linked to the BJP’s careful use of antiMuslim symbolism. its name carries symbolic weight amongst the Muslim minority. In its rhetoric. Further. This community makes up the BJP’s core constituency and has gained electoral power in recent decades. the BJP mobilizes two elements of conservative discourse: economic isolationism and anti-Muslim rhetoric. an organization that sprang up in the wake of the destruction of the mosque at Ayodhya. fear of riots grew during the period after the closure and throughout the strike. where sacred spaces were contested.Meat matters: cultural politics along the commodity chain in India 417 by the BJP. imports and exports. 2010 . no such unified tradition existed historically. the careful deployment of symbols at Idgah put a slaughterhouse at the centre of similar cultural politics. The ‘All India Babri Masjid Re-building Committee’. In the first case.59 In seizing and publicly interpreting the rise of the meat economy. businessmen. the cultural critique of meat-eating focuses on practices and symbols broadly associated with Islam in the popular Ecumene 1999 6 (4) Downloaded from cgj. especially relative to dietary practice. Idgah. joined in public meetings about the abattoir closure and threatened more strikes. roughly translates as ‘place of worship’ in Arabic. As shown previously. the party is largely built upon a base of upper castes. Constructed by a social elite. By offering a programme of cultural and political renewal and cleansing through the re-establishment of a ‘traditional’ Hindu India. While in no way as inflammatory as the events at Ayodhya. nationalists are recalling a mythical period when all of India was Hindu and all Hinduism was a single tradition. the BJP is attacking the increased linkages with the global economy represented in the extension of the meat and hide commodity chain with foreign export markets. One butcher in Jodhpur reflected the general feeling in declaring that ‘the slaughterhouse would not be closed if the butchers were khatics (Hindu butchers) and not kassai (Muslim butchers)’. and underemployed professionals.58 Butchers outside of Delhi responded in sympathy with the strikers. Although secular places like bus stations and public gardens are so named in much of north India.60 More by Sivaraman Balasubramaniam on October 14.sagepub. the party favours economic isolationism and close controls on investment. In calling for a return to a purer society. Further underlining the symbolic threat. The removal of minimum export prices and the growth of foreign-owned fast-food chains are both opposed in BJP policy platforms. destroyed a Muslim holy building.

Meat matters When. even then. this would seem to be the case. ‘become different by consuming differently’. as Metcalf explains. But the complex cultural politics of cow slaughter and the abattoir closure suggest that. At the site of production in the village. in fact. The call for a beef ban and the support of the Idgah closure by Sivaraman Balasubramaniam on October 14. Made the vehicle for both consumer class aspirations and conservative political machinations. which practice – eating or not eating. the nationalist conception of meat as an alien food culture is grafted onto animal trade and consumption. middle-class and caste Hindus. At the same time. does the goat or sheep become a commodity and to what effect? Does it happen in the village.sagepub. 2010 . who controls the cultural and social status of animal-raising and meat-eating. The same fundamental cultural process is in force in either case: people can. Muslims are invoked as oppressors ‘who ultimately ushered in a period of decline’. Few. symbolic attacks on the Muslim minority similar to earlier assaults on Urdu and shari’a (the language and legal system of the Muslim minority). but its meaning is highly contested. sheep and goats are treated as exchange-valued goods from the moment of lambing and kidding. then. class and caste power of various authorities at the site of struggle that will matter most in the ascription of meaning. Does the commodification of the meat object occur at the point of slaughter when the sentient animal is rendered to flesh? To the degree that the brutal conditions of transport and slaughter suggest the treatment of an exchangeable resource and not a living thing. The case for the erasure of meaning through commodification is weak.61 The logic of the BJP is deployed in the political imagination through the trope of the meat commodity. But the more complex questions raised previously remain. the commodity is infused with meaning. it is the discursive. if any. producing or not producing – will carry cultural and social status? Here. where animal-raising is becoming a ubiquitous and generic adaptation in the local economy? Has the spread in the production of animals across caste and class lines rendered irrelevant the non-instrumental meanings of the animal? Certainly. The connection of Islam with meat-eating and moral degradation reinforces a chain of association in which. If the meaning of meat is not erased by the economy but is instead transformed. and what pattern of meaning is produced under conditions of economic change? The clearest general pattern is that the social positions of people are changed sometimes by consuming or producing meat and sometimes by not consuming or producing it. however. cultural and social position in the village remains linked to the raising and consumption of animals.62 The question is.418 Paul Robbins mind. Moreover. nevertheless. Muslims in Delhi eat beef and most of India’s meat-eaters are. the handling of goat and sheep is vinEcumene 1999 6 (4) Downloaded from cgj. village life is dominated by complex meaning systems and social roles that do not allow the transformation of the animal into a fully exchangeable good. as Mintz observes. meat matters. Like the vision of meat as a democratic consumer good.

the social and political power of differing interests is intrinsic to determining the new meanings that will be rendered normal in daily life. now it is clean. is a special case with little applicability to other commodities or regions. therefore. But the extension of the exchange and processing networks for animal products has expanded the age-old cultural contests over the signification of animal by Sivaraman Balasubramaniam on October 14. 2010 . In resolving those contests.64 If meat seems to matter more than many other food commodities. The implications of this complexity extend far beyond the boundaries of the Indian Ecumene 1999 6 (4) Downloaded from cgj. not a sideshow of quaint tradition temporarily resisting capitalism’s homogenizing forces. Meat is the product of violence associated with privilege but also the by-product of an increasingly pacified distributive economy associated with a flood of goods to meet the needs of the many. It might be more accurate to conclude that this case actually shows how universal such struggles have become. and in this case powerful rajputs hold a strong hand in institutionalizing as normal and auspicious those practices that match their own. it is perhaps because of the unusually wide range of dramatic and visceral meanings that flesh can possess. as I have attempted to show here. The flourishing meat economy creates the conditions in which the meaning of animal raising will be contested. then other cases may reveal the same to careful inquiry. it might naively be argued that India. The tension created between these two accounts is not simply a product of economic change. Where it once was dirty.Meat matters: cultural politics along the commodity chain in India 419 dicated as privileged class practice. This is not solely because of the increased revenues made available through the expansion of the meat commodity chain.sagepub. If even the most ‘commonsensical’ understandings of a region’s commodity culture (India as vegetarian) can be undermined in a genealogical history. In this regard. but the expanding commodity markets and increasingly visible bodies of traders. Meat has always mattered in India. vegetarianism is not so much a given historical reality in India as it is a claim over the meaning of nature in the Indian economy. At the site of consumption in the city. the meaning of meat is also many-sided and unresolved. The meat controversy in India is. but it does owe something to the changing economic context. with its ‘vegetarian’ history. however. zoos and wildlife reserves. Is meat-eating the articulation of consumption democracy for a growing urban middle class or is it the Muslim-initiated and Western-imitating product of declining Hindu morality and power? The long-term BJP investment in a ban against cow slaughter and opposition to meat-eating is an attempt to provide an account of Indian cultural history that enforces the latter view. it is a flashpoint that highlights the many myriad locations along the global commodity chain in which the meanings of objects in daily life are imposed and resisted. palpable class power. and circuses and nature programming collide in popular culture. The ambiguity of meat in India is reproduced in countless cases of tension around animal economies where pets and meat. As shown above. butchers and urban carnivores do create new opportunities for struggle over the symbols of consumption. the social history of meat reflects lessons learnt elsewhere in the study of items as diverse as cloth and sugar. It can be embodied life force. congealed death or an elixir of health.63 More generally. Rather.

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