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Mokhada, Holy Cow and the Family

We, the city educated have always looked down upon the village dwellers. Of course not all of us. And even those who do, don't do this all the time. But in general, it is true. This phenomenon is not restricted to India or any developing world but also all over the Industrial world. The perception of tribal populations is also nuanced. Some consider them exotic, some think they are uncivilized, some find them as an opportunity to proselytize, some wish to use them as cheap labor, some hope to drive them out for mining or dam projects, and so on. Very few consider them similar to us.

This is very true for the Left leaning self proclaimed liberals. They are always at the forefront when demanding tribal rights. In some landmark cases they have achieved wonderful results that anyone, regardless of their political ideology can be proud of. But the politically biased conclusions they derive spoil the efficacy of such interventions. The worst being them called as interventions. The very neo-colonial connotation is perhaps missed on them. Or they genuinely believe that they are on a civilizing run, fired with missionary zeal. And I am leaving the real proselytizing missionaries out anyway. Their work is destructive to the social system in ways more than one, disrupting some of the most beautifully cohesive tribes into warring factions based on religions, Gods etc. Africa bears witness to what foreign or converted native missionaries can do.

I was pretty foreign to the idea of the clash of ideas happening in the country's vast hinterlands. The beef issue appeared to be the most important in the country. Both for those stating that they should be slaughtered for food as well as for those who hoped to save them. There was a third group, highly diplomatic, who stated that free will should apply - meaning those who prefer to allow those who wish to slaughter to slaughter unhindered, and those who don't should keep to themselves. In fact, come to think of it, their position is actually not a separate position at all. It's the same as that of the demands of the abbatoirs. But good or bad - I will leave it to you to decide. That is not the point of this post.

I was of the impression from the media networks and from eminent intellectuals that the eating habits of tribal communities, especially the Dalits were vastly different from us. I went for a field trip to the tribal hamlets of Mokhada in Maharastra. I expected no controversy regarding the beef issue anyway, since they (Dalits) were supposed to have that for generations. As part of the field trip we were supposed to stay in a tribal home. The home was a pukka house made from clay and bricks. It was spartan but had a design very typical in many households in the region. The main room was large and attached to it were two smaller rooms, all with thatched roofs made of hay. What was striking was the main room (where we were supposed to sleep in along with the rest of the family) had a door that had a direct access to the cowshed. The room was elevated, so from the door we could only see the faces of about four cows that resided - under the same roof. The respect granted to them was no more and no less than to us or other members of the family. The cows behaved like human beings as well, peeping from the door (more like a window for them) to look at me and my friend, two strangers in 'their' house. The door was narrow for all four cows, so they took turns. It was a first for me. Gone was the image that for the poor tribal, the cow was a luxury, or the often parroted fossilized Leftist narratives that love for the cow was a high caste monopoly. And here I was with people who knew to read and write only Marathi, had never heard of Romilla Thapars and Irfan Habibs, people uncorrupted by city dwelling complications, religious strife and violence (except occasional violence against women especially by drunk husbands after evening).

The village itself was a mixed one. Most were Hindus and a few Buddhists (who did not know what Buddhism was, they worshiped the same deities Hindus did) and a couple of Muslim households. There were five temples and one dargah, all built long back. It was obvious that the place had been spared from the conversion mafia.

The food the family served us was simple yet nutritious. Simple white rice was served with lentils and some green vegetables. We sat on the mud floor coated with cowdung. That was used as a disinfectant and to consolidate the mud floor like plaster. There was a cat who stood by me while I was eating. She purred from time to time and looked at me eating. It was rather funny.

In the morning I was woken up with the smell of incense sticks and the lady of the house chanting in Sanskrit. The place looked serene and the Sun was yet to come up. The cows had woken up and were given breakfast along with us! Of course the food was different. After that both of us left for the fields. They for tilling the land and we for noting down our experiences.

Looking back, I understand how disconnected we have become from our own culture, our own civilization, our own values. How alien our own system appears to us. How such misplaced understanding our own culture leads to such flawed concepts of nationhood and national heterogeneous culture. We have a lot to learn from the acceptance of the cow, the goat and even the cat as a family member, though from other species. Lessons can still be learnt from tribal people in India, provided we develop some basic humility. Unfortunately, we prefer foreign educated intellectuals to gift us the knowledge about our own values than those who practice it in life and blood.

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