BUENOS AIRES: Cows, cows and more chocolate brown cows. Driving on the highway that cuts through the vast Argentinian pampas, south of Buenos Aires, that’s all one sees everywhere around for miles and miles on end. Thousands of cows, peacefully grazing on grass or eating non-stop at the feedlots – huge dumps of artificial feed where they grow fatter and fatter- till it is time to go to the slaughterhouse.

In the moist, black soil of the region, blessed by many small rivers and water sources, cows seem to spring from the ground like vegetables. For the average Argentinian cows are indeed a vegetable, eating beef as he/she does like an Indian would munch on his carrot or cucumber.

“When we say food, it means beef, nothing else” explains Eduardo, a doctor, in whose car I am traveling. Argentina has the world's second-highest consumption rate of beef, with yearly consumption at 55 kg per person. Only neighbouring Uruguay consumes more.

“What vegetables do you eat?” I ask, a bit worried about my next meal. “Chicken, ham, cheese…” he suggests without a trace of irony.

Rama, Rama, not a country for devout Hindus surely! (Since these are not ‘Indian cows’ being eaten, maybe the gau rakshaks don’t mind?) Anyway, it is not a country for anyone in search of any kind of balanced diet either. If Indians don’t enough beef the Argentinians eat too much of it, worrisome from a purely ecological point of view and also given the amount of antibiotics that are pumped into their cows.

As someone from India, traveling in Latin America, the ‘cow question’ is one I confront all the time. “Why don’t Indians eat cows?” I have been asked dozens of times, especially in countries like Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil, some of the world’s biggest exporters of beef.

The question is asked in bewilderment but also with some anguish. Why would one of the most undernourished populations in the world deny itself a relatively cheap source of nutrition? And besides, if Indians took to beef in a big way, imagine the size of the export market that could open up for these cattle ranching nations – there is lots of money involved!

Conveying the complex answer to this seemingly simple query is not easy. No, eating beef is taboo only for a small minority of upper caste Hindus, the rest would love a well-done steak any time it is made available. India has the largest cattle population and also the highest number of undernourished people in the world – the math is straightforward.

Yes, the upper caste Hindus did eat beef once upon a time and the priestly caste in particular loved it and cows were ritually sacrificed all the time. Problem was the priests consumed often without paying the farmer anything, which is one of the reasons why the Buddha, 2500 years ago, strongly objected to cow slaughter. Sacrificing cows to feed the priests was a tax that was pauperizing the peasantry.

Subsequently, the Buddhist and Jain philosophy of not taking life in any form also turned many Indians vegetarian – though Buddhists did not have any taboo about meat eating. Around the 8th to 10th century as the Hindu upper caste sought to overturn the dominance of both Buddhism and Jainism on the Indian sub-continent they took to vegetarianism to establish moral parity with their rivals ( I love my animals more than you do!).

The taboo imposed by upper caste Hindus on consumption of beef was also used by them as a weapon against those who depended on it for both nutrition as well as livelihood. As the scholar and statesman Dr B.R.Ambedkar explained long ago in his thesis on the origin of ‘untouchability’ in India, beef eating and handling products related to dead cows was what set the ‘untouchables’ or Dalits apart from the upper sections of the Hindu social hierarchy.

The insistence on banning beef consumption across India by the current Indian regime today is nothing more than an attempt to intimidate religious minorities like Muslims and Christians as also the Dalits – into becoming ‘obedient’ to the diktats of upper caste Hindus. Yes, it is all a bit of a complicated story – this interplay of politics, religion and dietary preferences.

Once on a trip to Ecuador, dreading the idea of dealing at length with the ‘cow question’ yet again, I cursorily told someone that Indians don’t eat beef because Indian cows run too fast for us to catch them! On another occasion, I remember telling an Argentinian woman that Indian cows lived under water and it was quite a task to fish them out!

Of course, they finally figured out I was joking but it took some time as India is still so exotic to many around Latin America, they are willing to believe the wildest story about it. Though the flow of information and people over the last decade has improved considerably the idea of India in these parts of the world is still stuck somewhere in the nineteenth century.

The other staple subject conversation inevitably drifts towards while in Latin America is about the Indian caste system. What is caste? How did the caste system evolve? Why is there no protest against the system?

The Indian caste system, like any other social hierarchy anywhere, is basically a way to ensure free flow of resources and energy from those at the bottom of the pyramid to the top. Talking about pyramids – the earliest of civilizations in ancient Egypt was run by Pharaohs - priests who were also kings, so what emerged in India was not completely new in human history.

What is unique about caste in India though, is that it has proved to remarkably resilient and survived to this day despite major social and political upheavals in the sub-continent over the last couple of millennia. Using a mix of colorful mythology, control over land, education and other resources plus a generous dose of violence when needed - Hindu upper castes have held on to power in Indian society very tenaciously.

More than a millennium ago, when Buddhism and Jainism were dominant religions in many parts of India, they were the constant target of Hindu upper caste hatred and propaganda. For Hindu upper caste revivalists today such hatred is reserved for religious minorities like Muslims and Christians or dissidents from within the Hindu fold, who espouse a secular polity run on the basis of the Indian Constitution. Anyone daring to disturb the cozy arrangement of the Indian caste system, that allows those on top of the ladder to freely feed off social and national resources, is asking for trouble.

I soon figured out a way of explaining the Indian caste system in terms my Latino friends could understand more easily – by looking at the parallels from Latin American history itself. I point out to them in the over 500 years since Christopher Columbus landed in the Americas the entire demography and social structure of these continents has changed dramatically.

When Columbus landed in the cluster of islands, that are now known as the Bahamas in 1492, the population of native Indians in the Americas is estimated to have been anywhere between 50-100 million. By the end of the 17th century almost 90% had died of disease or fighting with the European migrants.

Today the entire continent, through marriages – forced or otherwise- has become a bewildering mix of European white, native Indian and black Africans. While the countries like Argentina and Uruguay tend to be overwhelmingly white as one moves up the continent the mix of races becomes more visible, with Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, Guatemala and Mexico still having large native Indian populations.

As far as power is concerned though, it is the descendants of white Europeans who hold much of the land, dominate the economy, education, culture and politics throughout the region. The indigenous people of Latin America – made up of dozens of unique tribes - are right at the bottom of the social, economic and cultural pile. They have lost everything over the centuries - from their resources, languages, religious traditions and even the right to live as human beings.

The Indian caste hierarchy, more or less, emerged through a similar process, except that it happened in slow motion over several millennia and hence is more difficult to track in terms of who did what and when. In all probability, in the Indian context, the equivalent of ‘white’ migrant populations of Latin America are the ‘Aryan’ populations descending in repeated waves for the last 4500 years or more from Central Asia, Turkey, Iran and even faraway Greece. Many of the communities that call themselves Rajputs – a dominant Hindu upper caste community today- came from Central Asia (north of the Great Wall of China) as recently as the 6th Century AD.

Hinduism is nothing more than the body of belief systems, tales, rituals that evolved in the process of these migrants/invaders conquering or coopting indigenous populations. While the migrants took freely from existing native traditions and cultural sources where required (animism, traditional medicine, yoga etc.), much of Hindu mythology is told from the point of view of fair skinned Aryans and is openly racist in its depiction of dark skinned, curly haired indigenous populations.

For example, the Ramayana epic, which is certainly a founding myth of the Aryans in India –depicts the Kshatriya and Brahmin Hindu upper castes as always ‘good’ and indigenous people as ‘demons’. Even indigenous characters like Hanuman and Angad, who side with the Aryan Prince Rama in his battle against Ravana the ‘demon’ king, are portrayed as ‘monkeys’ and ‘bears’. (Given the amount of veneration he commands among Hindu upper castes Lord Ram is probably the equivalent of Christopher Columbus in India) Most of the stories about the ‘avatars’ of the Hindu deity Vishnu again are also about the use of cunning and trickery to put down indigenous challengers to the might and power of the ‘fair skinned’ devas or gods.

Over the centuries, the hold of Aryan migrants on Indian society has been shaken repeatedly first by the emergence of Buddhism, Jainism and then much later, the coming of the Muslim and British rulers (the last two shaking up the Hindu caste order, while also bringing their own version of racism and social hierarchy to the sub-continent). Despite this today, in independent India, Hindu upper castes are the ones who dominate the country and seek to run a semi-colonial, apartheid system based on caste, colour and class.

While Latin America does not have an epic of the stature of the Ramayana it has its own deeply embedded mythology among the elites about the ‘civilizational’ impact of European migration on the ‘barbaric’ native Indians. Structurally most Latin American countries are built around the ambitions and values of the white or ‘mestizo’ (mixed) elites, with little concern for the needs or rights of indigenous communities that don’t fit into these categories. Even in countries like Ecuador, where there is supposed to be a left-of-centre regime in power for the last decade, indigenous populations are thrown off their native lands repeatedly under one pretext or the other.

In recent decades though, indigenous people’s movements have seriously challenged the ‘White is Right’ political and cultural paradigm, throwing up leaders like Evo Morales in Bolivia and Hugo Chavez in Venezuela – the first ‘non-white’ individuals to come to power in their countries in the last 500 years. The strong assertion of their rights and priorities by indigenous populations in many countries of the region has also interestingly forced the Latin American Left to radically change its style of functioning as well as politics – including by giving up leadership to the indigenous movements.

“Historically the Left believed it was vanguard leading the masses, but since the early nineties it is the masses who are leading the Left”, said Pablo Miranda, a senior leader of an Ecuadorian left party told me several years ago. Though nobody asked me about them the Latin American experience holds valuable lessons for the Indian Left too.

Along with change in leadership, one of the most significant changes that is strikingly visible within much of the Latin American Left is its adoption of the indigenous people’s belief in the sacredness of nature or ‘Mother Earth’ and living according to the traditional principles of Sumak Kawsay or Buen Vivir (Balanced Life). The belief systems and spirituality of indigenous peoples is today the guiding light of the progressive sections of Latin America.

This has resulted in the Latin American Left getting deeply involved in struggles related to the environment like for example against use of Genetically Modified (GM) seeds in agriculture, large-scale deforestation, devastating mining projects and for shifting national development priorities away from urban to rural areas. At the more street level, Left organisations work on issues related to food safety, better quality and cheaper healthcare, greener cities and a host of other concerns that till a couple of decades ago they would have scoffed at as being too ‘reformist’ or ‘soft’.

The resilience and popularity of the Left in many Latin American countries today is certainly owes a lot to the incorporation of a clear ecological and spiritual dimension to its worldview, thanks to pressure from the indigenous people’s movements. It has provided a much-needed correction to the Left’s earlier championing of a soulless, industrial utopia of endless consumption and ‘abundance of production’, ideas borrowed entirely from the experience of industrializing Europe.

“If Che Guevara were still alive today he would surely have joined the native Indian people in their fight to save Mother Earth’, says Severino, an indigenous rights activist from Ecuador. Given the amazing work that Cuba – whose revolution Che helped bring about- has done in promoting organic and urban agriculture in the last couple of decades there is certainly much substance to this claim.

As I return to India, I come away with this intriguing image of the new Che, still the long-haired, passionate fighter for justice, but less impulsive and far more reflective. Che, the eco-warrior, doing a yoga headstand under a peepul tree, while his gun rests against its mighty trunk, somewhere deep in the background.

(Satya Sagar is a public health activist and journalist)