How true is it that India, where cows are sacred, is a country of vegetarians?

How true is it that India, where cows are sacred, is a country of vegetarians?


That the majority of the inhabitants of India are vegetarians is one of the great myths about the Asian country.

Estimates considered “not serious” have suggested that more than a third of Indians have a vegetarian diet.

If you look at three large-scale government surveys , it is estimated that between 23% and 37% of the inhabitants of that country are vegetarians, something that is not very revealing.

But new research by anthropologist Balmurli Natrajan and economist Suraj Jacob says there is strong evidence that these numbers are inflated due to ” cultural and political pressures .”

People avoid saying they eat meat , especially beef, and prefer to claim that they are vegetarian.

A seller of roast beef in India
Copyright of the image AFPImage caption Despite the foreign and even local conception, in India most people eat meat.

Taking all this into account, say the researchers, only 20% of Indians actually have vegetable-based diet , which is much lower than suggested by stereotypes and claims.

The Hindus, who constitute 80% of the Indian population , are the main consumers of meat.

Even only a third of the privileged Indians of the upper caste are vegetarians.

Indians eat Onam Sadya in Deli
Copyright of the image AFPImage caption Only 20% of the inhabitants of India are vegetarians, according to the evidence of a new study.

Government data show that vegetarian households have higher incomes than households that eat meat.

The main consumers of this product are the lower castes, the dalits (formerly known as “untouchables”) and the tribes.

Silent carnivores

On the other hand, Natrajan and Jacob found that the degree of consumption of beef is much higher than previously thought.

At least 7% of Indians consume it, according to government surveys.

But there is evidence to show that some of the official data are underestimated “considerably” because beef is ” in the midst of cultural struggles and group identity in India .”

Cities with more vegetarianism in India  
Indore 49%
Meerut 36%
Deli 30%
Nagpur 22%
Bombay 18%
Hyderabad eleven%
Chennai 6%
Calcutta 4%
Source: National Survey of Family Health

The ruling Indian Popular Party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi promotes vegetarianism and believes that the cattle should be protected, as the Hindu population considers them sacred .

More than a dozen states have already banned the killing of cattle.

And during the Modi administration, cattle protection groups, which operate with impunity, have killed people who transported cattle .

The reality is that millions of Indians, including Dalits , Muslims and Christians, consume beef.

Some 70 communities in the southern state of Kerala, for example, prefer beef to goat meat, which is more expensive.

Fight of stereotypes

And then there are the stereotypes of Indian food.

New Delhi, where it is believed that only a third of the inhabitants are vegetarians, may well deserve its reputation as the butter-chicken capital of India .

A man passes in front of a cage with chickens
Copyright of the image AFPImage caption Chicken is one of the most consumed meats in India, mainly in large cities such as Deli.

But the stereotype of the eastern city of Chennai , which has been credited with being the capital of the “vegetarian food of southern India,” is completely out of place.

The reason: only 6% of the city’s residents are vegetarians , a survey suggests.

Many continue to believe that Punjab is “the country that loves chicken”.

But the truth is that 75% of people in this northern state are vegetarians.

Preparation of curry in India
Copyright of the image AFPImage caption Populations in India have cuisines that vary widely, but generalizations blur the differences.

So, how has the myth that India is a largely vegetarian country spread so widely?

Natrajan and Jacob say that, in a “very diverse society with eating habits and cuisines that change every few kilometers and between social groups, any generalization about large segments of the population is due to who speaks for the group .”

“This power to represent communities, regions or even the whole country is what creates the stereotypes,” they explained to the BBC.

A vegetable seller in India
Copyright of the image AFPImage caption There are localities that are vegetarian, but the reality is blurred by stereotypes.

In addition, they say, “the food of the powerful comes to replace the people’s food.”

“The term ‘non-vegetarian’ is a good example, it points to the social power of vegetarian classes, including their power to classify foods, to create a ‘food hierarchy’ where vegetarian foods have a predetermined value and have a higher than meat, “they explain.

“Thus, it is similar to the term ‘non-white’ coined by ‘whites’ to refer to an incredibly diverse population that they colonized,” they add.


Second, researchers say, part of the stereotype is generated by migration .

When the Indians of the south emigrate to the north and center of the country, their food comes to represent all the cuisine of South India.

This is equally true for northern Indians who migrate to other parts of the country.

A vegetarian store
Copyright of the image AFPImage caption In India there are vegetarian stores, but this type of diet also corresponds to social classes.

Finally, some of the stereotypes are perpetuated by foreigners : the Indians of the north stereotype the Indians of the south simply by knowing some of them, without thinking about the diversity of the region and vice versa.

Foreign media, the researchers say, are also accomplices, since “they seek to identify societies for a few essential characteristics.”

In addition, the study shows differences in eating habits between men and women.

More women, for example, say they are vegetarian than men.

The researchers say this could be explained in part by the fact that more men eat outside their homes and with “greater moral impunity than women.”

However, eating out does not necessarily involve eating meat.

A cart of Chinese food
Copyright of the image ANKIT SRINIVASImage caption Street food has seen great growth in India’s largest cities.

Patriarchy, and politics, could have something to do with it.

“The burden of maintaining a tradition of vegetarianism falls disproportionately on women,” say Natrajan and Jacob.

Couples consume meat in about 65% of the households surveyed , while vegetarians consume only 20%.

But in 12% of the cases, the husband ate meat, while the wife was a vegetarian.

Only in 3% of the cases was it the other way around.

Meat kebabs in India
Copyright of the image AFPImage caption Some 180 million Indians consume beef, according to the new research.

Clearly, most Indians consume some type of meat – mainly beef, chicken or lamb – regularly, and most do not consume vegetarian food.

Then a couple of questions remain: why does vegetarianism exert a much greater influence on the way in which India and its inhabitants are perceived?

Does it have to do with “monitoring” food choices and perpetuating food stereotypes in a hugely complex and multicultural society?

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