I was around ten years old when I was brutally made aware that my food preferences defined who I could sit and eat with. It was at a wedding in my ancestral village where bad maaz (buffalo meat or beef) was served during the feast and I was huddled with other beef-eaters, separated from those who were supposed to be served kat maaz (mutton). This segregation, observed during the wazwan, a multi-course meal served in Kashmiri cuisine, made me realise that my consumption of beef made me different from others. It was much later when I learnt that even within the seemingly homogenous Kashmiri Muslim community, households that ate beef were looked down upon as “uncouth” and even “uncivilised” in comparison to those that ate mutton.
My memories of growing up in Kashmir are riddled with instances and anecdotes of people being stigmatised because they consumed beef. A close friend of mine was reprimanded by other friends and relatives for having brought dishonour to the fragile prestige of his community just by his attendance at a wedding where beef was being served. A 16-year-old was mocked for something that might be incredibly trivial to an outsider. As a Kashmiri who has grown up amid a sad abundance of such supposed transgressions, followed by shaming from the community, I know that such chiding was far from trivial.
In much of India, food preferences are a marker of both class and caste. By extension, social and spatial segregation based on food consumption is a way of making social hierarchies starkly visible. The practice of “purity” is notoriously expressed in the form of separation between meat-eaters and vegetarians – or rather, “pure vegetarians”. But it is limiting to view food consumption only through the lens of vegetarian or non-vegetarian preferences. There are many vegetarian food items that are taboo in dominant-caste households, just as there are different meats consumed by dominant-caste groups. This explains the class divide between people who eat kat maaz, considered elite and more sophisticated, and those who eat bad maaz, considered lower-class.
Stark divides of caste and caste-based food habits are most often associated with Hindu society. But, as I learnt already as a child, using caste and caste-based practices as a frame of reference is not limited to Hindus alone. Of course caste has always had a role in Kashmiri Hindu society, but it has remained a fault line within Kashmiri Muslim society too, even though not much has been written about it. This is evident through practices that encourage endogamy, the isolation of lower-caste communities in segregated areas, and the use of caste-based derogatory language.
The stigma around the consumption of beef in Kashmir is often euphemistically described as a manifestation of an urban–rural divide.
Kashmiri Muslims are stratified into three main castes. At the top of the caste pyramid are the Syeds, believed to be descendants of Mohammad, the prophet of Islam. Also forming part of the dominant castes are the Sheikhs and Pathans. Next, there are the “occupational castes”, roughly equivalent to the Vaishya varna in the traditional caste pyramid. And last come the Arzals, roughly equivalent to Dalits. There is also differentiation between the broader Ashraf caste, which Syeds often belong to, tracing their origins to West or Central Asia, and the Ajlaf caste, the descendants of local converts (many of the occupational castes in Kashmir also belong to the Ajlaf caste). Within this complex framework, the consumption of beef deepens divisions further, and sometimes ends up entrenching class divides too.
The stigma around the consumption of beef in Kashmir is often euphemistically described as a manifestation of an urban–rural divide. “The origins around this idea can be traced back to Sikh and Dogra rule in Kashmir,” the poet and historian Zareef Ahmad Zareef told me on a phone call. “There was a total embargo on bovine slaughter and consumption of beef.” Sikh rule over the Kashmir Valley in the first half of the nineteenth century gave way to the rule of the Hindu Dogra dynasty, which lasted until 1947. In practice, Zareef noted, especially after Dogra rule, the embargo mostly impacted those living in cities and towns, as villages were not under the constant watch of the Kashmir Valley’s rulers. The historian G M D Sufi, in his book Kashir: Being a History of Kashmir, has chronicled the oppression meted out to Kashmiri Muslims due to cattle slaughter and the consumption of beef. Among other things, Sufi details countless executions of Kashmiri Muslims by Sikh rulers, including of an entire family of seventeen in Srinagar who were burned alive in dry willow and cow dung as punishment for cattle slaughter.
The consumption of beef has long been used as a tool for “other”-ing in Kashmir; the difference now is that the stigmatisation is coming from within the Muslim community simply because beef is distasteful to dominant-caste Muslims and elites. In contemporary times, beef consumption is viewed as a divider between villagers (gamik) who are believed to be “uncivilised” and urban-dwellers (baazrik) who consider themselves “cultured”. I recall incidents where my beef-consuming relatives and friends in rural areas were ostracised because of the food they ate. A friend who lives in a semi-urban area recently told me his father’s family never visits his mother’s family in the countryside because they are beef-eaters. “They would not visit them for wedding functions even,” he said.
In contemporary times, beef consumption is viewed as a divider between villagers (gamik) who are believed to be “uncivilised” and urban-dwellers (baazrik) who consider themselves “cultured”.
Faced with social pressure, exclusion and stigmatisation, those who eat bad maaz find ways to gain access to elite circles through innovation, denial or even concealment. For instance, during weddings, different meat is served separately to different groups: beef to a certain section of society, such as neighbours and relatives in rural areas, and mutton for baazrik or elite sections, as was the case in the wedding I attended as a child. But the financial pressure this imposes, given the relative expense of mutton, has led some to serve minced beef along with mutton chunks as qorma (gravy) – an act of economical culinary subterfuge in order to save face and maintain social status.
Such subterfuge has only become more innovative with time. At a wedding I attended two years ago, food was served twice, with a separate service for people from outside the elite. What irked me as discriminatory didn’t even merit a raised eyebrow from others present. Some families on the bride’s side serve beef to their own guests but mutton to guests who come from the groom’s side, as the bride-giving group is considered lower in status than the bride-receiving group. This showcases how beef consumption doesn’t just shape social interactions but also demarcates kin groups through eating practices.
For Kashmiri Hindus (colloquially, Kashmiri Pandits), consumption of beef is completely off limits. When they do consume flesh, it is usually either mutton or fish. I remember an incident my grandmother narrated to illustrate the aversion that Pandits have towards beef. After a Pandit man from our neighbourhood who used to consume fish saw a bovine carcass floating in a nearby river, she said, he stopped eating fish.
Needless to say, beef has also been a major fault line in the social tensions between Kashmiri Muslims and Kashmiri Hindus. Lately, this has even taken the form of “cow vigilantism” – acts of violence meted out by right-wing Hindus opposing cattle slaughter and beef consumption. In October 2015, Zahid Rasool Bhat, a truck driver from southern Kashmir, was burnt in Jammu’s Udhampur district after rumours of cow slaughter spread in the area, creating communal tension. It was later reported that the truck he was driving was actually carrying coal, not cattle. Bhat later succumbed to his injuries.
Faced with social pressure, exclusion and stigmatisation, those who eat bad maaz find ways to gain access to elite circles through innovation, denial or even concealment.
A month or so before this, the Jammu and Kashmir High Court had upheld an old cattle-slaughter ban in the state. (The ban no longer applies after the end of Jammu and Kashmir’s statehood and abrogation of its semi-autonomous status in 2019.) Soon afterwards, state legislators from the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party heckled Engineer Rashid, an independent legislator, for organising a “beef party”, and thrashed him inside the legislative assembly. Omar Abdullah, the former chief minister of the state, described the attack on Rashid as “Dadri-style”, referring to the lynching of a Muslim man in Uttar Pradesh’s Dadri town in 2015 on suspicion of slaughtering a cow. Abdullah added that he believed Rashid would have been killed had opposition legislators not intervened.
While beef is relatively cheap and easily accessible, it is not necessarily true that household income plays a direct role in beef consumption. Families from oppressed-caste groups that earn a high income will still unapologetically consume beef. This demonstrates an exception to the assumption of “Sanskritisation” famously theorised by the social anthropologist M N Srinivas, who argued that oppressed-caste groups change their cultural practices and ways of life in the direction of those of dominant-caste groups (generally, Brahmins) in order to validate their upward mobility.
Tasveer Ahmed, an assistant professor of economics at Amar Singh College in Srinagar, believes that the preference for beef did have some connection with money or the lack of it in the past, but that this explanation no longer holds water. “There are plenty of households, in cities and the countryside, who are relatively well off now, yet they prefer beef over mutton,” he said. “They are simply making a choice. The notion that beef is consumed by people living in the countryside is just ridiculous and racist.”
Needless to say, beef has also been a major fault line in the social tensions between Kashmiri Muslims and Kashmiri Hindus.
Accessibility also shapes consumption patterns in Kashmir. Beef-selling shops are mostly concentrated in rural areas, compared to the mutton shops that proliferate in cities and big towns. In my town alone, there are close to two dozen mutton shops and only half a dozen beef-selling butchers. The proportion is roughly reversed in a neighbouring village: six beef shops and only two mutton shops. Unsurprisingly, the occupation of selling beef is rigidly reserved for members of a specific group, often from rural areas, who have generally been butchers for generations. This is yet another example of how occupations are translated into castes.
Typically, shops selling mutton are more centrally located, while beef-selling shops are often found in small alleys and by-lanes, hidden away from the public gaze. To soften the presumed aesthetic shock of bada maaz, beef shops often operate on the peripheries of villages, towns or cities. Being seen buying beef is an embarrassment best avoided; the farther away from the public eye this occurs, the better. But stigma has only hidden away the ways of procuring beef, not its actual consumption.
Beef is also considered an “unholy” meat and is often conspicuously kept out of Muslim religious ceremonies (Quran Khwani, for example). This practice too intersects with caste, as religious ceremonies in Kashmir are often led by men from the Syed community, who are known as pirs. With an overt sense of superiority, Syeds are the equivalents of Brahmins among Muslims, and often claim proprietary control of Islam due to their putative proximity to the prophet Mohammad. It is argued that serving mutton in such ceremonies is a means of appeasement – but the appeasement of whom? God or godmen? This puts pressure on families organising religious ceremonies to serve only mutton because godmen find it beneath their station to consume meat that is not exclusively kat maaz.
Often, the madrassa students who actually perform the recitation in the ceremonies are served beef while the pirs are offered mutton – just as families serve beef to guests from their own community at wedding functions but mutton to others. The stigmatisation of beef is further validated by the hakeems (traditional physicians) who actively discourage consuming bad maaz but not meat altogether. I tried to gauge the rationale behind this but couldn’t find any convincing answers. Followers of the Sufi version of Islam maintain a distance from the consumption of beef specifically and meat generally as part of the path towards spiritual growth.
Caste is as real among Kashmiri Muslims as it is in mainland India.
In Kashmiri Muslim society, there is strong evidence that the consumption of varying kinds of meat plays a significant role in creating and perpetuating social barriers and caste hierarchies. This also debunks the notion that caste does not exist in Kashmiri Muslim society. Caste is as real among Kashmiri Muslims as it is in mainland India. Mapping social exclusion through food consumption reveals just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to caste and class divisions in Kashmiri Muslim society. It is time that we snap out of the illusion of homogeneity among Kashmiri Muslims.