Banning meat stalls

Meat of the matter: Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation forced to roll back its decision to remove non-vegetarian food stalls

Print edition : December 31, 2021

Street vendors protest against the decision of corporation authorities to remove stalls selling non-vegetarian food from main roads, in Ahmedabad on November 16. Photo: SAM PANTHAKY/AFP

Protest by members of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen outside the Mayor’s office in Ahmedabad on November 16. The politics of polarisation has proved to be a fertile ground for the growth of the party in Gujarat. Photo: By SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Salim bhai at his chicken soup stall at Astodia Darwaja. He said no policeman harassed him. Photo: Divya Trivedi

Imposition of vegetarianism receives a pushback in Hindutva’s laboratory of Gujarat.

Astodia Darwaja, a 15th century monument of the walled city that lords over present-day Ahmedabad’s traffic-laden road, is a well-known address for connoisseurs of non-vegetarian food. Every evening, crowds throng the laari/handcart eateries along the main road for delicacies that could give five-star hotels a run for their money. As the sun goes down, all manner of gastronomes—men, women, meat eaters, occasional meat eaters, eggetarians, vegetarians who only eat meat outside their homes, et al—can be seen there enjoying the food.

This did not change even after the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC) declared that non-vegetarian food would not be allowed to be sold on handcarts along main roads and within a 100-metre radius of schools, colleges and religious places. On November 15, the local civic body created a stir by announcing that it would remove non-vegetarian food stalls from public roads. Devang Dani, Chairman of the AMC’s Town Planning Committee, was quoted as saying that the reason for the decision was the “nauseating smell” from the stalls “impacting the minds of young children”. The AMC’s Estate Department justified the removal of the stalls citing “obstruction of traffic”. However, the public at large did not buy these flimsy excuses, and the municipality soon faced a strong backlash, including on social media, where it was harangued with memes and comments against the move.

Over the next few days, the authorities forcibly removed several handcarts in what has been described as an overzealous and ill-advised move. An atmosphere of uncertainty and dread gripped the city. Food vendors’ associations were worried about their livelihoods. The Laari Galla Ladat Samiti, a committee with a membership of 17 lakh street vendors across Gujarat, threatened to launch an agitation against the move. They also demanded an immediate implementation of the Street Vendors Act, 2014.

‘Partisan agenda’

The local chapter of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) presented eggs to Mayor Kirit Parmar in protest against the move. Shamshad Pathan, city president of Ahmedabad AIMIM, told Frontline that this was an oral order and not a written one. He said: “The Mayor was forced to come out and meet us at our protest. He was unable to show us a copy of the order that declared selling non-vegetarian food as illegal. That is because such an order does not exist. It was not shown to us nor has it been shared with the public or the press. This move is simply the prerogative of a political party and its partisan agenda. While it impacts Dalits, Adivasis and Muslims the most, it goes against the common man as well. It is unconstitutional as it violates Article 19 of the Constitution that guarantees our freedom to practise any livelihood as long as it is not prohibited.”

Also read: Ahmedabad and three other cities in Gujarat ban sale of nonvegetarian street food

The AIMIM formally entered Gujarat politics in January this year and has made significant gains in the past eight months. In the civic body elections held this year, it managed to get 25 of its members elected as councillors across Gujarat and is a visible force on the streets. The Congress, the main opposition to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the State, has lost credibility over the years. The politics of polarisation, propagated by the BJP for decades in Gujarat, has been counterproductive for the Congress, but has proved to be a fertile ground for the growth of the AIMIM, which is now taken more seriously in the State.

Faced with an unexpected and intense backlash, the AMC was forced to roll back its decision to remove eggs and non-vegetarian food stalls. Within days of the announcement, Chief Minister Bhupendra Patel was compelled to say that the State government had no issues with the food choices of people and he blamed “individual corporations” for the decision to remove non-vegetarian and egg stalls. State BJP president C.R. Paatil clarified that the party was not targeting eggs or non-vegetarian stalls and that “people have the right to eat food of their choice”.

Recently, municipal corporations of Vadodara, Rajkot, Junagadh and Bhavnagar had ordered shopkeepers and hawkers to cover non-vegetarian food, including eggs, citing hurt religious sentiments of Hindus. The AMC, which tried to follow suit, could not have foreseen the backlash that it received.

While the AMC had to publicly retract its decision, leading to a return of the stalls, all was not hunky dory. Stall owners around Astodia told Frontline that the Ahmedabad Police continued to harass them for bribes. Speaking on condition of anonymity, a stall owner said, “Our business has not been impacted by this. But the police have increased their harassment. They not only ask for their customary bribes but also demand to be served chicken and mutton fry, while abusing us left, right and centre. Many of the vendors here are from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, and no one will complain against the police; otherwise they will pick us up and throw us behind bars for who knows how long.” He added that most of the non-vegetarian customers were from nearby areas and 70 per cent of them were Hindus.

Also read: How hate is brewed in Hindutva’s laboratory

On the other hand, Salim bhai, who was dishing out chicken soup to several customers, told Frontline that no policeman harassed him and he faced no problem.

According to Shamshad Pathan, both versions are valid. “The harassment by cops is so old and routine that some vendors have accepted it as a reality. Street vendors in Delhi and elsewhere also must pay routine bribes to cops to ensure they are not removed. Despite knowing this to be true, we are helpless bystanders and cannot do anything to help the vendors.”

The myth of vegetarianism

Noting could be further from the truth than the popular perception that Gujarat is a vegetarian State. According to the Sample Registration System (SRS) baseline survey by the Registrar General of India in 2014, Gujarat has more meat eaters than Rajasthan, Haryana and Punjab. Even if one were to ignore meat consumption and only look at meat production in the State, the figures do not support the vegetarian myth. According to the Reserve Bank of India data, meat production in Gujarat more than doubled, from 13,000 tonnes in 2004-05 to 33,000 tonnes in 2018-19. While some of the meat is exported outside the State, a majority of it is consumed locally by Gujaratis.

The vegetarian myth of Gujarat has largely been solidified by the dominance of the Brahmin/Baniya combine, including Jains, who, for decades, have enjoyed a sociocultural as well as financial hegemony over other communities. The myth is belied by the fact that Gujarat’s coastline is the longest among Indian States. Many fisherfolk communities along the coast eat fish as a staple. Besides, a sizeable tribal population also makes meat consumption a cultural practice.

Except for Jains, Vaishnav Brahmins and some Baniyas, most Gujaratis enjoy meat privately even while publicly shunning it. In short, over the decades, the vegetarians have not only successfully invisibilised but also stigmatised the meat-eating communities of the State. With the BJP’s unbroken stint at the helm of affairs in Gujarat for over a quarter of a century, the Hindutva agenda of the party has encouraged a vegetarian morality and popularised it while simultaneously constructing the Dalits, Adivasis, Muslims and Christians as the ‘other’ meat-eating groups.

Also read: Politics of diet

The BJP’s Hindutva agenda and cow veneration also rested well with Gandhi’s anti-colonial nationalist discourse. Gandhi described the cow as the “central fact of Hinduism” and as the “gift of Hinduism to the world”. Narendra Modi effectively used Gandhi’s teachings to appeal to moderate Hindus beyond the hardcore Hindutva adherents.

Ever since its landslide victory in the 2014 general election, the BJP has tried to erase the diverse cultural expressions in India through any means possible, including violence. The cow, which had been held in high regard since the Vedic age but was also consumed and sacrificed in equal measure, was given a sacred status, and cow protection became the mantra by which Indians were asked to swear by. The early years of the BJP rule were rocked by a series of incidents involving self-appointed vigilantes murdering Muslims and Dalits under the pretext of protecting cows. Even eating or possessing certain meats became life-threatening. The polarisation of views skyrocketed to the point where a mere difference of opinion with the ruling party became grounds for earning the epithet of anti-national.

In other places, where the ‘others’ were Muslims, Dalits and Christians, majority groups imposed their ‘Brahminical’ will by imitating Sangh Parivar tactics. In Leh, for instance, the Ladakh Buddhist Association began to impose socially sanctioned bans on the sale of meat on auspicious days and Tuesdays. In other places, where this was not voluntarily done, such as in Noida on the periphery of the capital Delhi, the Sangh Parivar forcibly downed shutters of shops on days they considered auspicious. In Gurgaon, the municipal corporation itself banned the sale of meat and eggs on Tuesdays.

Judicial interventions

Since 2014, the courts have also been called upon to regulate food choices with mixed results. In 2014, the Supreme Court upheld a ban on eggs in the Hindu pilgrimage sites of Hrishikesh, Haridwar and nearby Muni ki reti. In 2016, the Bombay High Court backed the right to choice of food when it reviewed Maharashtra’s beef ban. It struck down certain amendments to the Maharashtra Animal Preservation Act, 1976, which punished consumption and mere possession of beef and placed the burden of proof on the accused to show that they had not violated the law. The High Court said: “As far as the choice of eating food of the citizens is concerned, the citizens are required to be let alone, especially when the food of their choice is not injurious to health. The state cannot make an intrusion into his home and prevent a citizen from possessing and eating food of his choice.”

Also read: Stripped to the bone

In 2017, a nine-judge bench of the Supreme Court held that the right to privacy is a fundamental right and expanded the idea of privacy to “food preferences and animal slaughter”. In another case, the Supreme Court said, “What one eats is one’s personal affair and it is a part of his right to privacy which is included in Article 21 of our Constitution.” The apex court has also made oral remarks on the choice of food. In 2020, quashing a petition to ban halal meat on the grounds that it was painful to the animals, the Supreme Court said, “Tomorrow you will say nobody should eat meat? We cannot determine who should be a vegetarian and who should be a non-vegetarian.”

The attempt to regulate the food choice of the Gujarati is not the first or only attempt by an ultra-right wing party in its zeal to create a homogenous national and cultural identity. During Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime, manipulation of food and food habits played a key role in shaping a new national consciousness in Italy. The state constructed a unified national identity on the back of the formation of a national cuisine. But history tells us that such distinctions are hard to define and even harder to sustain.

Ritual superiority

In his book Sacred Cows and Chicken Manchurian: The Everyday Politics of Eating Meat in India, James Staples explains that non-vegetarianism is a distinction used to mirror the difference between the highest ritually ranking Hindu caste groups and their lower-caste and non-Hindu others. He says that the problems of such an absolute distinction are multiple. “First, documentation of what people actually eat on a day-to-day basis shows that very few people—with the exception of those directly involved in the selling of meat—eat it much more than once a week, when it plays a key role in distinguishing between the ordinary working day and time denoted as special…. At the same time, what constitutes a vegetarian is also less straightforward or categorical than it at first appears. For one thing, vegetarian diets not only are delineated in terms of whether people eat meat and eggs or not but often placed other plant-based foods within the ‘non-veg’ category. Onions, garlic, mushrooms, and alcohol, for example, are sometimes considered non-vegetarian, in that, like meat, they are considered heating, while mushrooms, because they grow into ‘the shape of a head’, or tomatoes, ‘because their colour resembles blood’ (O’Malley 1932) are likewise contentious.”

Also read: ‘The cow was neither unslayable nor sacred in the Vedic period’

He goes on to say that even those who identify as vegetarian do not necessarily eschew meat altogether. “The discreetly darkened rooms and closed-off booths of many restaurants that sold non-vegetarian cuisine are, like the walled compounds of the meat market, in part a display of sensitivity to those who do not wish to encounter meat consumption, but they are also about enabling the transgressive consumption of meat by those—mostly men—who identify as vegetarian but sometimes eat it anyway. A further important distinction, one that Lucia Michelutti (2008) draws out particularly well, is that between the vegetarian household and the individual members within it who might sometimes, in very specific contexts, eat meat. The Yadav households her interlocutors reside in consider themselves vegetarian, for example, but, as she shows, the men of those households eat meat in the context of sacrifices, when medical need demands it, to create secular democratic unity with their Muslim allies, and, especially, at monthly barbeques with other men to assert their masculinity. Henrike Donner (2008) and Pat Caplan (2008) each make a similar distinction between vegetarian women, who uphold the dietary values of the household, and others, namely children and men, for whom the rules might in certain circumstances be relaxed.”

In short, the distinction between absolute vegetarianism and non-vegetarianism blurs as people’s eating habits change throughout their lives and according to circumstances.

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