Research briefing: India’s secret meat eaters

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» Research briefing: India’s secret meat eaters

Researcher Network member, Tani Khara, explores how her recent research contributes to the relatively sparse literature on meat consumption in India while also using Goffman's theory to highlight the discrepancies between public and private consumption behaviours within the collectivist Indian context.

Despite the rise of meat consumption in India, specific figures on this are difficult to obtain as Indians are likely to underreport their meat consumption due to religious and cultural taboos associated with it. In fact, many Indians consider it shameful to indulge in culturally inappropriate behaviours when in public, although the shame might not apply when it comes to doing the same in private. This explains why some may display different public and private behaviours in relation to meat consumption.

Our recently published study - "We have to keep it a secret" – The dynamics of front and backstage behaviours surrounding meat consumption in India - has detailed how many Indians eat meat in secret while attempting to maintain the appearance of vegetarianism in front of family and the community.

Front-stage behaviours, or behaviours carried out in public by the individual before an audience, often involve role-playing. In contrast, backstage behaviours refer to private behaviours which occur when the individual is not being observed. The study revealed that many ate meat in secret, ensuring that this culturally deviant practice was kept hidden so as to avoid punishment and ostracism. As one participant said:

We wouldn’t openly talk about eating non-veg (meat) when somebody from the locality is around…if my mother-in-law has eaten mutton in the afternoon, she would say “No, I made some vegetable and roti (bread)”…we know that it’s a little bit of a lie…I’d rather…not talk about it, than talk about it and get ostracized by the people (Female, age 33).


Chicken is popular in India as beef is traditionally prohibited for Hindus and pork for Muslims. However, findings from the study revealed that some of these especially prohibited meats were also consumed in secret. A young Muslim participant who secretly ate pork without his family’s knowledge highlighted the joys of savouring the moment in private:


I actually liked the taste of bacon…I’m away from them (parents), at that time don’t think about it. Because if I have been thinking about what I’ve eaten at that time, I would rather remember the best part (Male, age 27).

Similarly, a Hindu participant explained how she kept her beef consumption hidden from her family by either lying about the restaurant she ate at or what she ordered:

(I told my family) we’re going to X to eat with friends, except that it just wasn’t X, it was Y…It could be the…same exact restaurant, but instead of chicken we would do beef (Female, age 34).

In some instances, several family members indulged in secret meat-eating but were hesitant to admit this publicly, instead choosing to maintain a vegetarian front-stage appearance. This has been highlighted below:

This friend of mine who is eating meat in secret, her dad is also eating meat in secret…but they won’t verbalize it. It’s more these subtle digs at each other, like, “Hey, Dad, I’m at so and so restaurant, should I pack some…kebab for you”? She’d message him on WhatsApp, and he’d be like, “No, no, no… I’m pure vegetarian.” It’s almost like they know, but they’re scared to say it (Female, age 32).


In the instances when one’s secret meat-eating was accidently discovered by the family, shame is a common reaction:


I told my parents one time, that I ate pork and I remember the shame that sort of flashed on their face. They were like, “You should never tell this to anybody” (Female, age 34).


Discomfort associated with meat-eating in a global context

In contrast to India, where religious teachings emphasize vegetarianism and respect for sentient life, meat has taken centre stage in traditional Western diets.

However, meat’s place on the menu is being challenged as there is a shift towards alternative diets for reasons relating to environmental sustainability, health and animal welfare. Results from an unpublished research study on Australian meat-eating practices revealed that meat-heavy diets attracted negative feedback, even from omnivores themselves, for health and ethical reasons. Many reported cutting back on the amount of meat consumed and looking to more animal friendly foods as part of their changing meat-eating practices.

Given that interest in conscious consumption and flexitarianism are reported to be on the rise, we might perhaps see more of this trend in a post-COVID world. To this point, the World Economic Forum reports COVID-19 is already raising concerns between meat and viral diseases and has spurred interest in plant-based protein foods among many in China. Similarly, the demand for organic plant-based foods is reported to be on the rise elsewhere globally, following on from the pandemic.

While cultural discomfort in relation to meat-eating is not as pronounced in other contexts as it is in India, there is growing global interest in more sustainable consumption practices – and its evolution in a post-COVID world would certainly be worth watching

The views expressed by our Research News contributors are not necessarily the views of The Vegan Society.

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