Politics of diet

Data from various surveys prove that India is anything but a vegetarian nation, but ever since the BJP came to power at the Centre there have been attempts to demonise meat-eating and to impose the vegetarian food habits of certain sections of Hindus on the rest of India.

Published : Jul 18, 2018 12:30 IST

 At Tundey Kababi, a 105-year-old restaurant in Lucknow that had to stop serving its top-selling spiced buffalo meat fare because of the shortage of meat, on March 31, 2017. After the BJP came to power in Uttar Pradesh, the government began cracking down on illegal slaughterhouses and meat shops.

At Tundey Kababi, a 105-year-old restaurant in Lucknow that had to stop serving its top-selling spiced buffalo meat fare because of the shortage of meat, on March 31, 2017. After the BJP came to power in Uttar Pradesh, the government began cracking down on illegal slaughterhouses and meat shops.

In parts of Gujarat, eggs are not sold openly. They are placed inside black bags, just like sanitary napkins sold in chemist’s shops. One has to travel quite a distance to buy eggs or meat as they are not available everywhere. When this correspondent lived in Ahmedabad between 2008 and 2010, there were many stories of people checking their neighbours’ dustbins for traces of eggshells, non-vegetarian food and empty alcohol bottles (Gujarat is a dry State where drinking is considered a social sin). Conversations with friends and relatives reveal that the culture of vigilance has not changed much since then. Society is divided along the lines of vegetarian Hindus and Jains and non-vegetarian Muslims and other groups.

After the 2002 pogrom and the ghettoisation of Muslims that followed, Hindus justified not wanting to live next door to them because of their “smelly” non-vegetarian habits. But these issues, considered innocuous, are never discussed openly or debated in television studios. Since 2014, when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power at the Centre, there have been subtle and not-so-subtle attempts to impose the Gujarat “model” of food hegemony on the rest of India, and the matter of food preferences is being turned into a hotly contested issue. While the lynching of beef eaters is a violent and overt manifestation of this, promoting vegetarianism and demonising meat consumption as an unhealthy lifestyle are a covert manifestation.

Recently, on April 22, a tweet put out by the Health Ministry created an uproar. It showed two women side by side, one thin and one fat. It suggested that the thin one ate only fruits and vegetables while the fat one consumed meat, eggs, sausages, colas and fries. The accompanying caption read: “Good nutrition is one of the keys to a #healthy life. Choose wisely, live well. #SwasthaBharat #AyushmanBharat #HealthForAll.” By equating non-vegetarian food items with junk food, the Ministry was suggesting that non-vegetarian food was the cause of bad health whereas vegetarian food was the road to a healthy lifestyle. Besides being problematic on the count of food preference, the image was also considered sexist. Kavita Krishnan, secretary, All India Progressive Women’s Association, said: “What is wrong with this picture? No, it’s not about health vs bad health. It shames women for body image, promotes a starvation falahaar [fruit-based] diet minus any carbs or proteins and lumps eggs with ‘junk’ food!” Facing a backlash, the Ministry soon removed the picture from its Twitter feed.

Institutionalising vegetarianism

The BJP has always been pro-vegetarianism. The promotion of gau mutra (cow urine) and other allied derivatives as health supplements and ingredients in Baba Ramdev’s FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods) products has shown that there is a market for them. What is alarming, however, is the government’s attempts at institutionalising vegetarianism as a matter of policy.

Last year, Air India stopped serving non-vegetarian meals to economy class passengers on all its domestic flights. Earlier, it was not uncommon for flights to and from Gujarat to serve only “Vegetarian Hindu Meal”, but the blanket ban on any non-vegetarian food rattled many passengers. The journalist Kishlay Bhattacharya tweeted: “So the #cattleclass will be served only #veg meals by #airindia the national carrier. Hope they can now repay 52000cr debt!”

The reasons given by the government did not cut much ice with travellers. Ashwani Lohani, Air India’s chairman, was quoted as saying that the move was made to cut down on wastage, lower catering costs and avoid mixing up vegetarian and nonvegetarian meals. The Air Passengers Association of India criticised the move and termed it discriminatory. Omar Abdullah, former Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, wondered: “How much effort does it require to differentiate between colour-coded stickers that say ‘Veg’ & ‘NonVeg’?”

Despite stark data on malnourishment among children, the Madhya Pradesh government refused to serve eggs in schools under the Mid Day Meal Scheme. According to a survey conducted by IIT Delhi, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh were the other BJP-ruled States that excluded eggs from the school menu on the grounds of religious sentiments. Madhya Pradesh happens to be one of the States with the highest malnourishment rate amongst children in the country.

After Air India, the Indian Railways created a stir when the Railway Board proposed serving only vegetarian food on all trains and in railway premises on October 2 to mark the 150th year of Mahatma Gandhi’s birth anniversary. It advised railway staff to observe October 2 in 2018, 2019 and 2020 as Vegetarian Day.

Although the Railways proposed to serve vegetarian food only for a day every year, and subject to approval by the Ministry of Culture, travellers worried that it would soon become a trend. “Today they are saying they will only impose a day’s vegetarianism, but if this is not opposed, soon it will become a regular affair. That would amount to imposition of a food culture,” said Saikat, a frequent traveller from Delhi.

After facing a backlash from the public, the Railways denied having made such a proposal and said it would appeal to people to opt for vegetarian food and would not impose it on everyone.

Wherever the BJP has some political presence, the Sangh Parivar has attempted to impose its food culture. During the Hindu festivals of Navratri and Ram Navami, meat traders were forced to down shutters in Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. The South Delhi Municipal Corporation (SDMC) in the National Capital Region (NCR) proposed last December that non-vegetarian food items not be kept on display outside restaurants and shop establishments as they hurt the sentiments of vegetarians and also exposes them to contamination by pollution.

The Leader of the House, Shikha Rai, while approving the proposal, said that the move intended to “maintain hygiene and to respect people’s sentiments since not everyone eats non-vegetarian food”.

The proposal was first moved as a private member’s resolution by Raj Dutt, a councillor from Najafgarh. Congress leaders countered the proposal by asking why vegetarian items were not included in the ban, as any food prepared in the open would be unhygienic.

The BJP, it was felt in some quarters, was unnecessarily trying to play on the sentiments of the people and polarise the issue along communal lines. The Sangh Parivar has extensively used the issue of the cow to construct a brand of emotive politics and spread hatred in society. Rumours of child lifters and cow traders are being used to incite the killing of people in cold blood. And now the myth of India as a vegetarian country is being peddled.

Non-vegetarian nation

However, data show that India is anything but a vegetarian nation. According to the latest Census, 70 per cent of Indians are non-vegetarians. A large-scale survey conducted by the United States-based anthropologist Balmurli Natrajan and the political economist from Udaipur, Suraj Jacob, also bust the myth of India as a vegetarian country. They found that the extent of overall vegetarianism was much less and the extent of overall beef-eating much more than suggested by common claims and stereotypes. They looked at data from the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO), the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) and the India Human Development Survey (IHDS) and found that the extent of overall vegetarianism was no more than 30 per cent and, more realistically, closer to 20 per cent of the population. Contrary to popular belief, they found that eating beef was the cultural practice of a significant number of Indians, at least about 15 per cent, or about 180 million people.

There is under-reporting of meat-eating, especially beef-eating, and over-reporting of vegetarian diet because of cultural-political pressures. Moreover, Hindus were found to be major meat-eaters, contrary to claims made by certain quarters. They corroborated their findings with papers published in the past, such as A.K. Chakravarti’s, which stated that approximately 65 per cent of Hindus in India may be assumed to be non-vegetarians. Christians and Muslims are overwhelmingly meat-eating populations and only Jains and Sikhs were found to be mostly vegetarian communities.

According to data from the Census of India’s Sample Registration System Baseline Survey, 2014, the majority of vegetarian States were ruled by the BJP and non-vegetarian States by non-BJP parties. Though there might not be any causal link, there could be a correlation that vegetarians preferred the BJP. Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh are ruled by the BJP and are predominantly vegetarian. Gujarat had declared its intention to become a shakahari (vegetarian) State.

The myth of vegetarianism

Despite overwhelming evidence, the myth of vegetarianism persists with the BJP’s propaganda. According to the social activist Ram Puniyani, two issues have been deliberately intertwined: “One is that non-vegetarian food causes violent tendencies and the second is that by eating beef Muslims hurt the sentiments of Hindus. It is very clear that the definition of non-vegetarian food varies from place to place and from community to community. Eggs are acceptable for some vegetarians and a strict no for others. Some regard seafood, fish and the like as vegetarian, while for others it is non-vegetarian food.

“A section of the community has been discarding non-vegetarian food in a very strong way. Amongst these sections of the middle class, traders take the vows of vegetarianism. There are also political undertones to this kind of ‘hate non-vegetarians’ thinking. One can go to the extent of saying that vegetarianism is also being used as a social and political weapon to browbeat the minority community. To be intolerant to nonvegetarians and to label Muslims as having a violent personality because of food habits is part of a political campaign.”

Lonely Planet described it succinctly: “In India vegetarianism is not just a choice, it is deeply political. For many Hindus, Jains and Buddhists, vegetarianism is a religious obligation, and many Muslims feel just as strongly about eating meat. In a country where every nuance of human behaviour has religious overtones, dietary habits can split families and divide communities.”

Food is serious business in the subcontinent. According to a recent survey on caste among South Asian Americans, while most Americans who are vegetarian or vegan understand their food preferences to be an individual choice, influenced by personal, environmental, or animal welfare concerns, vegetarianism in South Asian communities is quite different. “It is deeply linked to caste mandates and religious dictates. It can be a hot-button religious and political issue. Upper caste Hindus are often vegetarian whereas Dalit, Adivasi, and many Shudra communities are predominantly non-vegetarian. Despite the fact that Vedic Hindus consumed and enjoyed meat, meat in contemporary Hindu society is associated with pollution. So upper castes celebrate their vegetarianism because of their belief that it is purer,” states the Equality Labs report, authored by Maari Zwick-Maitreyi, Thenmozhi Soundararajan and Natasha Dar.

Many Dalits and Adivasis, in addition to being non-vegetarian, also cook and consume beef. In the diaspora too, the researchers observed a caste-based food preference. Under 20 per cent of Dalit and “Shudra” respondents reported being vegetarian or vegan, and this number was up to three times higher in other caste groups.

Religion was also a big factor in being vegetarian. More than 90 per cent of all Muslim, Christian, and Sikh respondents reported being non-vegetarian. “South Asian immigrant networks must stop replicating caste privilege through food, religious, relationship, and social locators. Especially in the context of the ongoing violence in South Asia against Dalits, Adivasis and religious minorities, we advise deep sensitivity on these all fronts,” said the researchers.

While the push towards vegetarianism has always existed in smaller institutional set-ups (for instance, IIT Bombay has separate counters for vegetarian, non-vegetarian and Jain foods), the scale at which it is being attempted now is national and therefore alarming.

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