Cover Story: Bulldozing the idea of India

Meat ban during Navaratri: BJP’s latest polarising move

Print edition : May 20, 2022

Outside the closed meat shops of INA Market in New Delhi on April 6. Photo: R. V. MOORTHY

The recent ban on the sale of meat during Navaratri in parts of Delhi and Uttar Pradesh, which is part of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s aggressive attempts to valorise vegetarianism, poses a serious challenge to the social fabric and pluralism itself.

The declaration on April 5 by the South Delhi Municipal Corporation (SDMC) and the district administration of Ghaziabad in Uttar Pradesh that all meat shops would be shut down during the nine-day Navratri festival took everyone, including majority community members, by surprise. This was a new development, at least for residents of South Delhi. A few years ago, residents of Ghaziabad had faced a ban on the consumption of non-vegetarian food during the nine-day fast period preceding Dussehra, when it was impossible to get even eggs. The Ghaziabad Municipal Corporation subsequently modified its order to announce that only shops selling meat within 200 metres of a temple would be shut down during the nine-day period from April 2 to April 11. The State government clarified that it had issued no such order. Despite this, some municipal bodies issued orders for closure of meat shops during the nine-day period.

It was learnt that over the last few years Nand Kishor Gurjar, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) legislator from the Loni Assembly constituency in Ghaziabad, had been writing to the district administration demanding that all meat shops be shut down during Navratri. It subsequently became a regular practice, although such bans are not covered under any law of the Constitution. Such bans have also been enforced in Haryana ever since the BJP formed the government in the State, causing much economic distress to all communities involved in the meat trade.

For Delhiites, though, this was definitely a new development although it has been a long-standing practice for non-vegetarians in North India to abstain from consuming meat on Tuesdays. So when South Delhi Mayor Mukkesh Suryaan wrote to the Commissioner of the SDMC on April 4 asking for a closure of all meat shops from April 2 to April 11 because the “foul smell” offended the religious sentiments of Hindus, many among the majority community were taken off guard. Here was someone speaking on their behalf even though there had been no such overwhelming demand by the people themselves.

In his letter, Suryaan said that Hindus observed a strict vegetarian diet and abstained from alcohol and some spices during Navaratri. He added that 99 per cent of households did not use even onion and garlic during this period. However, this was not based on any food survey he had conducted of dietary habits during Navratri. Stating that the sight of meat being sold near temples and in the open made the public uncomfortable, he wrote: “Keeping in view the sentiments and feelings of the general public, necessary directions may be issued to the officers concerned to take necessary action for the closure of meat shops during the nine-day period of the Navratri festival extending from April 2 to April 11.”

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However, there was no ban on the sale of alcohol or onions or garlic in this period. According to agency reports, Parvesh Varma, West Delhi BJP MP, supported Mukkesh Sooryan’s decision and said the ban should be enforced all over the country. The East Delhi Mayor also joined the chorus for a ban on the sale of meat. Ironically, it was still possible to order meat online or buy frozen meat from big retail stores. The only objective, most people concluded, was to hurt the economic livelihoods of those who were involved in the meat trade, especially Muslims. It seemed to have little to do with the sentiments of Hindus, many of whom are themselves involved in the meat business. The other covert objective seemed to be to polarise votes of the majority community in favour of the BJP in the forthcoming elections to the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD).

Members from the opposition parties panned the meat ban. Mahua Moitra of the Trinamool Congress tweeted that the Constitution allowed her to eat meat when she liked and the shopkeeper likewise had the freedom to ply his trade. Omar Abdullah of the Nationalist Congress Party tweeted: “During Ramzan we don’t eat between sunrise and sunset. I suppose it is ok if we ban every non-Muslim resident or tourist from eating in public especially in the Muslim-dominated areas. If majoritarianism is right for South Delhi, it should be right for J&K.”

Controversy in JNU

Meanwhile, in another related event, a controversy erupted in Jawaharlal Nehru University, which is located in South Delhi, when a group of students affiliated to the Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) wanted to perform a havan ritual in one of the hostels on the occasion of Ram Navami and objected to meat being served on the hostel menu that day. The other group of students defended their right to eat the food that was pre-decided by the kitchen committee of the hostel as a matter of routine. They said that while they had no intention to disrespect the havan given JNU’s syncretic tradition of celebrating all festivals with equal gusto, this could not become a licence to decide what food would be served in a hostel which catered to a diversity of students. The whole issue was debated ad nauseam on television channels, drawing the university back into the spotlight and caricaturing its students as being somewhat blasphemous and disrespectful of Hindu traditions.

On the issue of tradition itself, there is more and more evidence to show that India has been largely and continues to be a country with more non-vegetarians than vegetarians. As earlier mentioned, there are days when certain non-vegetarians abstain from eating meat, but those are limited. The nine-day Navratri festival that occurs twice a year is one such period where the faithful abstain but there is no real survey to show that meat sales and consumption take a drastic plunge during this period. It is the illegal bans on the sale of meat and the imposed vegetarianism that ultimately affects sales.

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After a slew of cow protection laws and criminalising the consumption of beef, attention has now turned towards establishing the moral superiority of vegetarianism over non-vegetarianism even though there is little evidence to show that Indian dietary habits are primarily vegetarian. On the contrary, it is primarily non-vegetarian and increasingly so because some forms of meat are comparatively cheaper. A paper on the food habits of Indians titled “Provincialising Vegetarianism” by Balmurli Natarajan and Suraj Jacob, two visiting faculty at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru, published in Economic and Political Weekly (March 3, 2018, LIII, No.9) shows that the extent of overall vegetarianism is much less and the extent of overall beef eating (among other meats) might be much more than what was claimed.

The paper explores what people eat when they are “let alone” even though they say that the right to be let alone is scarcely available to individuals who are “routinely subject to” the hegemony of a community culture and “increasingly a national culture that barely speaks to their experiences”. Such hegemony, Natarajan and Jacob say, is sustained by self-styled culture police and gau rakshaks (cow vigilantes) aided and abetted by elected representatives. These people, they argue make public claims about food practices, valorisation of vegetarianism and the stigmatisation and criminalisation of especially beef-eating. The valorisation of vegetarianism was most evident in the recent bans on the sale of meat during Navratri in parts of North India, bans called forth by elected representatives. They write that “non-vegetarian” is a term unique to India and is testimony to the hegemony of vegetarianism in a sense. Any self-reported information therefore of the food habits of people is likely to be an over-estimation of vegetarianism as opposed to meat eating. In short, people are more likely to declare themselves as vegetarian for fear of being judged by others for their meat-eating proclivities.

Only 20 per cent vegetarians

Their paper draws on the descriptive data on food habits from surveys such as the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO), the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) and the India Human Development Survey (IHDS). The extent of vegetarianism, they say, is no more than 30 per cent and more realistically closer to 20 per cent of the population only. They say there is evidence of cultural and political pressures affecting reported and actual food habits, which in the current milieu is not surprising at all. It can be assumed therefore that there is under-reporting of meat eating and an over-stating of vegetarianism. The sources of their data are the 68th Round of the NSSO’s Consumption Survey, which is the latest available, and the third round of the NFHS (2005-06) and the IHDS, which was a joint survey of the National Council of Applied Economic Research and the University of Maryland. This was conducted in 2001 and then again in 2011-12 in all States of India though the sample size is much smaller than the NSSO’s. The incidence of vegetarianism, according to the NSSO, was 36.88 per cent, the NFHS was 24.72 and 23.48 per cent as per the IHDS. Apart from Jains (majority vegetarian) and Sikhs (majority vegetarian), no other religious category was majority vegetarian.

As the largest religious group, Hindus, are majorly meat-eaters, with vegetarianism prevalent in about two-fifths in the NSSO survey and slightly less than one-third in the NFHS survey. Six States in the North-East had less than two per cent prevalence of vegetarianism. There are three States, Assam, West Bengal and Kerala, where the incidence was less than 5 per cent. Only seven of the 17 States surveyed by the NSSO had a more than 50 per cent prevalence of vegetarianism, whereas six had less than 20 per cent. Haryana, Rajasthan and Punjab had over 75 per cent prevalence of vegetarianism. Both Christians and Muslims are overwhelmingly meat-eating populations. The regional pattern was attributable they say to agroecological availability of foods, cultural politics related to locally dominant social groups plus gendered differentiation in food habits.

Among Scheduled Tribes, the NSSO estimates showed that they had the least incidence of vegetarianism followed by Scheduled Castes and then the Other Backward Classes. It was highest in the residual category, non-SC, non-ST and non-OBC. The IHDS survey on the other hand showed that only two-thirds of Brahmins are vegetarians. Among meat-eating Brahmins are Kashmiri, Konkani and Bengali Brahmins. Other studies had documented the practice of meat-eating among one gotra of the Kanya Kubj Brahmins of Uttar Pradesh and among Brahmins in Garhwal. Only one-third of the General Category and OBC were vegetarian and the ideological weight of vegetarianism, they wrote, was sustained by Brahmins. Women were more “vegetarian” than men, and that could be attributed to the burden of vegetarianism that they had to carry. Wealthier households were more likely to be vegetarian. The NSSO estimates also provide data of beef consumption, both buffalo and beef. The overall incidence was 7.5 per cent, higher for urban than rural areas. There were considerable spatial variations due to cultural and political pressures.

In conclusion, a majority of Indians eat some form of meat on a regular or occasional basis, and eating only a vegetarian meal is not the cultural practice of an overwhelming majority in the country.

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There is immense variation in food habits across scale, space, caste and gender, a feature that the late Director General of the Anthropological Survey of India, Kumar Suresh Singh, had pointed out long back in his seminal “People of India” project which began in 1985 and concluded in 1992. The report, published in two parts, identified and listed 4,635 communities in India. In one of the chapters, K.S. Singh wrote: “Contrary to the general impression and in spite of higher value attached to vegetarianism, only 9.6 per cent of communities are pure vegetarian. There is vegetarianism of all shades and nuances in response to the value system, availability of food and so on. There are vegetarians who take eggs, fertilised or non-fertilised. Males in a vast number of communities are non-vegetarian; only in a few communities are women non-vegetarian. Smoking is common. We do see a notable trend of change from vegetarianism to non-vegetarianism but not so from non-vegetarianism to vegetarianism except at the level of individuals.”

In the introduction to the series, he wrote that the traits that were shared by people were far more than those that were not shared. (Frontline, June 30, 2006) There were only 20 per cent of people who were vegetarian. Women had traditionally consumed alcohol in a number of communities. Smoking was common as was chewing tobacco and betel nut, and use of snuff was very widespread. “We are, therefore, largely, a drinking, smoking and meat eating people.” This was Kumar Suresh Singh writing in the early 1990s. Clearly, there isn’t much of a difference in what the ‘People of India’ series threw up in the early 1990s and what recent research based on government commissioned consumption surveys tell us.

Cultivating a ‘veggie’ image

Similarly, in an article titled “Veggie Myth” in the March 21, 2015, issue of EPW, Anirudh Deshpande, Associate Professor of History in Delhi University, writes that “a small minority of the Hindu population has managed to cultivate a vegetarian image of India in India”. It was believed that Ayurveda advocated vegetarianism, with Ayurveda doctors playing along with this myth due to “popular mood”. Ayurveda texts like the Charaka Samhita or the Sushruta Samhita prescribe a “non-vegetarian fare for a number of illnesses as therapy,” writes Deshpande. The Charaka Samhita, he writes, for instance, says that a mother after delivery should take “ghee, oil, vassa (muscle fat) and majja (bone marrow) for her weakened status. Likewise, black deer meat was good for removing fever, while it promoted relish and strength; patridge meat promoted intellect and digestive power whereas peacock meat promoted “voice, intellect, digestive power, vision and hearing”. The ancient Ayurvedic texts, he writes, “comprise the intimate part of Atharvaveda and were produced by a society that was agrarian, meat eating and had developed in close proximity to the forests”. Archaeological evidence also supported that “ancient Indians ate and experimented with the meat of numerous animals found in abundance in India.”

The practice of vegetarianism, either historical or contemporary, is a myth, a culturally enforced one. There is legitimate concern that if the attitudes towards vegetarianism get more rigid owing to political and cultural interventions, for example the ban on meat selling during religious festivals, then it might pose a serious challenge to the social fabric and pluralism itself.