If you’ve been on the Indian internet long enough, you’ve undoubtedly come across outrage against Nagaland’s dog meat festival. Maybe you’ve been forwarded photos on WhatsApp, of dogs being captured and slaughtered.
Or maybe you’ve scrolled past a livid status on Facebook, decrying the savagery of dog meat being sold in Naga markets.
Perhaps you've clicked on a link from an animal welfare organisation that ends with the emphatic question, “When will India wake up?”
There is no such thing as a “dog meat festival” in Nagaland.
The rage may seem valid at first glance. Except, I'm a tribal myself. I spent the first 21 years of my life in the Northeast.
And I can tell you that there is no such thing as a “dog meat festival” in Nagaland.
A friend recently sent me an article featuring images of the Yulin dog meat festival in China, passed off as images taken in Nagaland.
I don’t know whether the author had confused Nagaland with China, or the existence of a small population of dog eaters with a whole festival for dog meat, but he then proceeded to condemn this imaginary festival, describing in detail the torment of the dogs, and sounding a call to arms to fellow animal lovers.
Let me set the record straight – there are very few pockets in the Northeast where dog meat is actually eaten. People who do consume it don’t see the practice as shameful.
There are also certain communities in Bihar that eat rat meat, or those in Goa that consider pork offal a delicacy.
Food, after all, is food. In a country where hunger is a pressing issue, I don’t see anything wrong with enjoying a good meal.
To rail against the eating habits of an entire people just because it is dissonant to your own ideas reeks of ethnocentrism.
The practice of eating dog, though, is taboo in Indian society and many others. Little is known of when and how this taboo began. Perhaps because we have domesticated dogs and cats – we keep them as pets, name them, and treat them as part of our families – eating them is considered more inhumane than, say, eating a goat or a cow. This shows a degree of selective morality that may make sense to one culture but not to another.
In a country where hunger is a pressing issue, I don’t see anything wrong with enjoying a good meal.
But people have started keeping pigs as pets and there seems to be no hue and cry about pork. There are completely industrialised meat farms where cows, pigs, geese, and chickens are raised in cages solely for the purpose of harvesting their meat, but considerably fewer people make a fuss about “inhumanity” when someone orders a hamburger or a mutton biryani.
But this goes beyond the taboo against eating certain animals, for the stereotype is not limited to Nagaland, and certainly not only to dog meat. Non-tribals seem to assume that people from the Northeast will eat just about anything – frogs, insects, snakes.
This misguided belief upholds the notions that a) eating these things is unequivocally bad, and b) we, people from the Northeast, are uncivilised and barbaric.
My indignation has nothing to do with the widespread concern for the welfare of animals.
This kind of racial stereotyping echoes the old American one, which assumes African-Americans love to eat watermelons, and dates back to the time of the emancipation of black slaves. Disgruntled whites used it to paint them as messy, lazy, child-like, and less than human.
It’s baffling how something that is little more than water can hold so much meaning. Of course, there is no conclusive proof to show that African-Americans are more fond of watermelon than other races.
In contrast to the eating habits of mainstream Indian society, no meal in the Northeast is complete without rice and meat. The Nagas, like many other Northeastern tribes, come from proud hunting cultures, while much of the heartland of India are pastoral agriculturalists. While many Naga communities have moved upward economically and don’t have to hunt to survive anymore, in rural and poor families, having fresh game on your dinner table is still a matter of pride.
I am sure that the NGO and activists decrying the practice of eating dog mean well, as did the friend who shared their link with me, as does everyone else who has raged against this imaginary festival. My indignation has nothing to do with the widespread concern for the welfare of animals.
But when we are so quick to to make assumptions about an entire people, as these activists did with that blogpost, or as so many of us do when we credulously begin sharing statuses and forwards, it shows a symptom of a deeper problem. One that usually manifests itself in "harmless" jokes and inane questions about our diet.
“Do you eat dog?” is a loaded question many Northeasterners have been asked. This question is a racist microaggression.
For example, a Naga friend of mine was asked, during an interview with a college professor, if she eats monkey meat. The question had nothing to do with the interview, of course.
“Do you eat dog?” is a loaded question many Northeasterners have been asked. This question, like the one posed to my friend, is a racist microaggression and comes from a place of condescension and prejudice. It comes from the same place as comments like: "You’re so smart for a person from the Northeast", "are you sure you’re Indian? Oh wow you can speak Hindi?" and "can you even see properly?"
You’re not only telling me you’re better than me, but shaming me for being different.
These harmful stereotypes, that Northeastern people are uncivilised and uncouth, instill a feeling that they will always be a deviation from what is considered “normal Indian society”.
I’ve been asked a number of times if I have ever eaten dog. Most people preface this question with a "Oh you must not get offended, I am only joking,".
But I often wonder what about that is funny. Every time I hear it, the question sounds more like a taunt.
To you this is just a question, but in asking it, you’re telling me that I’m disgusting and so is my culture. That the habits you assume to be part of my culture are repugnant to you. You’re not only telling me you’re better than me, but shaming me for being different.
I think that the answer to this question does not matter as it won’t change how you see me. But your asking it will definitely change how I see you.