Virulent vegetarianism

Published: January 16, 2018 - 16:58 Updated: July 2, 2018 - 16:55

Given that a majority of Indians consume meat, why is a democratically elected government trying to dictate what people should eat?

For Abhishek Rana, a random sighting of graffiti brought home the chilling reality of a new India. As the 28-year-old software professional stepped out of his home in Aya Nagar, a locality on the border between Delhi and Gurugram, sometime in 2015, he spotted scribbled on the wall: Aanewalasamayvinashkari, wahibache jo shakahari (The end is near, only vegetarians will survive). Rana was going to buy mutton and discovered to his dismay that meat sellers in the area had begun to shut their shops on Tuesdays, a day some meat-eating Hindus choose to abstain from non-vegetarian fare.

But the beginning of what has been dubbed as political vegetarianism — an all-round targeting of non-vegetarian food by the State — probably dates back to 2014, the year the Narendra Modi government came to power. That’s when Masterchef India became the only such TV show in the global series to switch to an all-vegetarian format. A statement released by Chef Sanjeev Kapoor, who was a judge on the show, said that the move was taken to “celebrate” India’s rich heritage of vegetarian food, which had not been celebrated so far. But those who are good at connecting the dots were quick to point to the show’s two big corporate sponsors — Adani Wilmar and Amul.

The State’s opposition to meat has only hardened over the past three-odd years. North and west India, known as the ‘cow belt’, has witnessed an aggressive opposition to the consumption of beef, including the State turning a blind eye to marauding bands of gau rakshaks (protectors of cows). By clinical targeting of slaughterhouses, rules regarding the transport and sale of meat, as well as eschewing of meat at State functions and those served by State-run services, the central government — and state governments in north and west India — have sent out a clear signal: non-vegetarian is not kosher.

“It has nothing to do with promoting a healthy way of life and everything to do with promoting toxic politics. And the hypocrisy of it is that in the entire North-east and wherever (in areas with large meat-eating populations) they want votes, they are not even talking about it. Those buzzwords are only being used to polarise people and seek electoral benefits,” - Brinda Karat.

The political establishment is emboldened thanks to a lukewarm reaction to its pro-vegetarian moves — at least in the cow belt. Such “incidents” are seen as sporadic and often pushed via a subtler approach that relies on extolling the virtues of a vegetarian diet health-wise and a concern for the sentiments of fellow vegetarians — posited as apolitical in nature. It also helps that the predominant meat-eating communities (Dalits and Muslims, among others) are not reacting — at least openly. However, in other predominantly meat-eating parts of the country, there has been a sharper reaction 

The Green Wave

After the BJP stormed to power in Uttar Pradesh, the drive against meat eating has intensified. With Yogi Adityanath at the helm, an aggressive crackdown was initiated against slaughterhouses and meat retail shops in a state where the vegetarians (47 percent) are almost equal to non-vegetarians (53 percent). As the clampdown dealt a serious blow to livelihoods and turned food into a cultural faultline, the Allahabad High Court was forced to seek an explanation from the government as to why shops were being closed forcibly without considering the possibility of the renewal of licences. The state government, in its defence, told the court that it intended neither to ban the consumption of meat nor to shut down all slaughterhouses and meat shops. It said that it just wanted to regulate the functioning of both. At the time, the court was hearing a petition filed by 10 meat traders who had claimed that when their licences expired, they applied for renewal but did not get it. The fact is, mutton is still not freely available in state capital Lucknow, and the transport of meat remains fraught with danger.

Later, in July, Air India struck off non-vegetarian items from its menu in economy class of domestic flights to save a meagre Rs 8-10 crore and to prevent vegetarian and non-vegetarian meals from getting “mixed up”. A former executive director of Air India and author of The Descent of Air India, Jitender Bhargava, says previous governments had never played any role in deciding what foods would be served to passengers on flights. While he refrained from commenting on whether Air India’s decision to strike off non-vegetarian dishes from its menu could have been taken under pressure, Bhargava said that the step could have been taken by the airline’s management to “cosy up to their political bosses.”

When Prime Minister Modi visited the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in the same month, Chef Kapoor (yes, the same ‘Masterchef’) was flown in from India by the hosts to prepare an all-vegetarian lunch for the guests and Modi. In another instance, the farewell dinner hosted by Lok Sabha Speaker Sumitra Mahajan for outgoing Vice President Hamid Ansari in August 2017 had no meat dish on the menu, prompting All-India Trinamool Congress leader Derek O’Brien to take to Twitter and rue missing fish. All official banquets in Rashtrapati Bhawan and the Raj Bhawans have become dry (no alcohol), vegetarian events. Recalling his days in office, former bureaucrat Amitabha Pande, who served as secretary to the government between 2006 and 2008, says that vegetarianism had never been a political issue earlier.

A look at the questions archive of the Lok Sabha shows that updates were sought by several BJP MPs from the government three times in the past two years on what had been done to introduce exclusive ‘vegetarian only’ courses on certain campuses of central hotel management colleges. The centre in its response had said that it would require separate infrastructure and hotel management institutes in Ahmedabad, Bhopal and Jaipur already offered students the option of going for ‘vegetarian only’ curricula in the bachelor’s programme. Similarly, the canteens of many state-subsidised educational institutions – like Banaras Hindu University and the IITs – have been “encouraged” to turn vegetarian.  

This has also had a deleterious impact on food subsidies to millions of India’s poor. In 2015, Madhya Pradesh hogged the limelight after Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan shot down a proposal to serve eggs to children and pregnant women in anganwadi (child care) centres. This was deplored by social activists as a regressive move in a state where more than half the children are malnourished. In general, the aversion to meat has been transferred to eggs – an excellent source of animal protein that contains all nutrients except for Vitamin C. Large states like Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan have already succeeded in keeping eggs out of the menu of mid-day meals. This is unfortunate, as there is no difficulty in having a vegetarian option (say, a banana).

Clearly, in India, the definition of vegetarianism is changing from abstaining from certain foods to enforcing the abstention on others. The cumulative effect of these incidents is that all across the globe, India is now looked at as a nation which is primarily vegetarian. That is patently untrue.

The politics of meat

Surendra Jain, the international joint general secretary of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, denies that all these incidents can be read as a shift towards vegetarianism sponsored by the government. He also takes strong exception to the term ‘political vegetarianism’ as soon as it pops up in the conversation. “The usage of the term political vegetarianism is wrong because it seems to have been coined by people who have been harbouring some kind of political vendetta and working towards an agenda. Because there can be no political vegetarianism. It is part of a conspiracy. The entire world is shifting towards vegetarianism and it is not happening because of an ideology or a person,” he claims.

Referring to the crackdown against slaughterhouses and meat retail shops in UP, Jain asserts that the sector needed regularisation and that is all that the government is doing. “If dosa shops are operating without any licence, shouldn’t they be shut down? But then you would say that the government is now anti-dosa.” He, however, states emphatically that no political party in the world can push people to turn vegetarian, especially in a country like India where about two-thirds of the population is non-vegetarian.

Five BJP-ruled states — Haryana, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra — have imposed a ban on the sale of meat during the nine-day-long Jain fasting festival of Paryushan Parva. However, the lines between legislation and coercion are so blurred that often one doesn’t know if there’s an official diktat banning the sale of meat or shops have been forced to shut down. Ajit Singh, a senior leader of the Shiv Sena’s Delhi unit which has been actively involved in shutting down meat shops during Navratri, acknowledges that a large section of the Hindu population in the country eats meat and adds that the ban should only be enforced in places where more people are vegetarian.

“Today they are targeting food, tomorrow it could be something else — language, clothing. Where does it stop? That my existence should override everybody else’s is not a valid argument.” - Santosh Desai

On being asked about the shutting down of around 500 meat shops by the Shiv Sena around Navratri in the National Capital Region, Singh says, “But all those shops are in areas where there are a lot of Hindus who do not eat meat. We also shut down around 150 shops in Jhajjar. And they haven’t resumed operations since then.” While the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra has opposed the ban on the sale of meat, keeping in mind the large meat-eating Marathi population, the political outfit’s northern shakha has joined other local right-wing groups in getting butchers to shut operation during festivals.

On December 28, the South Delhi Municipal Corporation, where the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is in power, passed a resolution to ban the display of meat items outside restaurants, in order to “maintain hygiene and to respect people’s sentiments since not everyone eats non-vegetarian food.” The proposal is yet to get a nod from SDMC commissioner PK Goel but it has elicited sharp criticism from the Opposition parties who have used the same logic about hygiene to suggest that samosas be shelved away as well.

However, the idea that the sight of goat carcasses hanging from hooks in shops could offend good, devout Hindus has its takers too. Naren Singh, a schoolteacher living in south Delhi, says that the proposed restriction does not seem odd at all, even though he is a non-vegetarian during certain parts of the year. “I don’t eat meat during Navratri, the holy month of Saavan and on Tuesdays and Saturdays. The problem with vegetarians is that they find the smell of non-vegetarian food unbearable and the sight of blood repulsive. I don’t think the same can be said about non-vegetarians. They have a lot of options to choose from. And if they are asked to go vegetarian for a few days, what’s the harm?”

Not surprisingly, the demand for ‘tolerance’ by non-vegetarians has evoked a sharp reaction from social commentators, who feel this is an attempt to control others’ food choices. Social commentator and advertising man Santosh Desai, who writes often on food in his widely-read column in The Times of India, disagrees that an ideal, tolerant world for vegetarians will be founded by hiding meat from human sight. “Today they are targeting food, tomorrow it could be something else — language, clothing. Where does it stop? That my existence should override everybody else’s is not a valid argument.”

Although efforts are being made to dub this shift towards vegetarian diet as apolitical, Sushmita Dev, a Congress MP from Silchar in Assam, says that the “motive remains suspect”. She adds that there is nothing wrong with promoting vegetarianism or one’s religion but the ‘intention’ has to be fair. Brinda Karat, a senior CPI (M) leader and a member of the Rajya Sabha, asserts that the BJP is using public money to impose food habits on people. “It has nothing to do with promoting a healthy way of life and everything to do with promoting toxic politics. And the hypocrisy of it is that in the entire North-east and wherever (in areas with large meat-eating populations) they want votes, they are not even talking about it. Those buzzwords are only being used to polarise people and seek electoral benefits,” fumes Karat.

 ‘Bones’ of contention

Congress’ Dev points out the problem with the narrative spun by the right-wing around vegetarianism — it militates against the idea of India. She says the approach is flawed because it attempts to impose a Brahmanical diet on a nation that’s diverse and loves its meat. The view gains more credence if one looks at the findings of the Sample Registration System Baseline Survey 2014 which shows that 70.7 percent of women and 71.6 percent of men are non-vegetarians. The report also demonstrates how people from the general category (70 percent) are not far behind Scheduled Castes (78 percent) in consumption of non-vegetarian food.

One of the reasons the BJP’s central leadership has perhaps not been able to openly advocate a shift towards vegetarianism is probably that it is aware that it does not represent the food choices of the country. Considering that it is the only other national political outfit apart from the Congress that has a pan-India presence, an open declaration could have electoral repercussions. “At some level, the BJP is aware that vegetarianism does not represent the idea of India and therefore, articulating a central policy on vegetarianism is not possible,” explains Desai.

While pointing out that linking vegetarianism to Hinduism is a faulty assumption, Amita Baviskar, a sociologist at the Institute of Economic Growth, says, “The relationship between vegetarianism and Brahmanical diet maps directly on to the caste system and to the idea of purity and pollution. Even though the notion of purity and pollution has been associated with food choices, Brahmins in several parts of India, especially in the southern states and Bengal, have traditionally consumed all kinds of meat. Vegetarianism, as is being projected by the right-wing, does not represent the diversity that Hinduism encapsulates.”

A look at the history of non-vegetarian recipes that originated in Rajasthan, which is witnessing a vehement push towards vegetarianism and has seen several incidents of violence by cow vigilante squads, would show that these recipes — laal maas, safed maas and khadka meat — have been developed by the Rajput community. According to NSSO data, one in four denizens of the state is a non-vegetarian.

Saba Naqvi, a journalist and author, dismisses the idea that the top rung of the BJP government’s power circle can be blamed directly for the shift towards vegetarianism. “Vegetarianism is held in high regard only by some upper-caste Brahmins and Jains in the Hindi belt. And the RSS leadership remains Brahmanical. This push towards vegetarianism is being led by a few upper-caste people who want to project meat as the food of the minority.” Pointing out that the BJP has had leaders who loved meat, including former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee who is particularly fond of chicken stew, Naqvi recalls the last lavish lunch hosted by Vice President and former BJP leader M Venkaiah Naidu with mutton, fish and prawns on the menu.

“This agenda is being pushed only by people who think that the time is right. And Modi is doing nothing to change that,” sums up Naqvi. By giving oxygen to the vegetarian movement, the BJP government is doing a good job at whipping up emotions, pushing Hindus to think that they have a right to get offended at the sight or smell of meat. Also, the State is now playing a more omnipresent and disruptive role in people’s lives – this change of equation does not bode well for citizen rights and freedom. Clearly, this reductive crash course in Hinduism is only harming the idea of India.


Shalini Sharma is a graduate from Xavier Institute of Communications, Mumbai, with over three years of journalistic experience. She reports on politics, agriculture, foreign policy, human rights and other issues.

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This story is from print issue of HardNews