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India has always been a non-vegetarian country

The furore over Zomato’s decision to introduce a pure-veg delivery service with differently dressed staff is no surprise. 

All this ‘pure veg’ stuff is, sadly enough, a sign of the times.


Almost one of the first things that the BJP state governments elected during the New India decade have done is to get unhealthily obsessed with food. It began with beef. There is, admittedly, a historical precedent for this. Even when the Constituent Assembly was debating crucial issues relating to the future of the young nation, there were disagreements over cow-slaughter.


   Eventually, the matter was left to the states which have mostly banned cow slaughter though some --- West Bengal, Kerala, Goa, many North Eastern States and others --- have remained exceptions.


   But while cow-slaughter itself was banned, the bans did not usually extend to beef itself. Restaurants and hotels imported beef, on the grounds that this involved no slaughter of Indian cows. Most governments also allowed a huge beef export industry to develop though, when challenged, the exporters said that they were slaughtering buffaloes not cows.


   It was an acceptable compromise that India could live with. But about a decade ago state governments began cracking down on meat exporters, raiding restaurants to see if they had any beef in their fridges and arresting people who were selling beef.


   This rise in governmental activism was accompanied by public displays of pious intolerance as well as some straight forward gundagiri. So-called cow vigilantes beat up (and sometimes killed) Muslims who were believed to be trading in cows and housing societies began rigidly imposing food-based criteria for admission.


   In no time at all, the anti-beef campaign (which at least had its origins in Hindu belief) expanded to cover all non-vegetarian food. Even 20 years ago I remember hearing about Gujarati-dominated housing societies in Mumbai that would not allow non-vegetarians to buy flats. But now, anecdotal evidence suggests that the practice has increased. Many more landlords and societies shun non-vegetarians.


   Sometimes this is simply a way of keeping Muslims out without appearing to be openly communal. Landlords don’t have to say “we don’t rent to Muslims”. Instead they say “We only allow vegetarian tenants.”


   Given this mood of glorifying vegetarianism and treating meat eaters as deviants, nearly everyone has had to play along. Hotels which served buffalo meat dropped it from their menus especially after the police raided Delhi’s Andhra Bhawan (run by the Andhra Pradesh government) on the grounds that it might be serving beef.  (They only found buffalo meat). Few hotels or restaurants will now make much of a noise about non-vegetarian dishes: when was the last time you saw a Chicken Festival advertised?


   The problem with all this is that while most Hindus have religious injunctions against eating beef (though Christians don’t, which is why the BJP sings a different song in Goa and the North East), they are not necessarily vegetarian either. Survey after survey has shown that while some upper castes (Brahmins and baniyas, for instance) are vegetarian, there is no great adherence to vegetarianism in other caste groups.


   Further, right from ancient times, from as far back as the Indus Valley Civilisation, India has always been a non-vegetarian country.


   And yet, bizarrely it has become a badge of honour among supporters of a Hindu fundamentalist/right wing ideology to declare that they are ‘pure-vegetarian’.


"What the controversy shows us is how food – which has the potential to become a global example of India's soft-power --- has become politicised these days."

   The characterisation of India as a vegetarian country mostly ignores reality. In Gujarat, usually held up as an example of a vegetarian state, there are many non-vegetarians. In fact, the cuisine of Gujarat’s Muslim communities (Khojas, Memons, Bohras etc.) can be better than many North Indian non-vegetarian cuisines. And tribals and lower castes in Gujarat are not necessarily vegetarian either.


   So why have so many on the Hindutva right wing decided to take a religiously and factually flawed position on the issue of vegetarianism? One answer is that it has to do with the concept of purity as used in the phrase ‘pure-vegetarian’. So much of the imagery around Hindutva has to do with temples (where non-vegetarian food is hardly ever served) so vegetarianism becomes part of the package


   Another explanation is that an emphasis on vegetarianism allows Hindu fundamentalists to segregate and target Muslims. If you don’t allow people who eat meat to live near you, then it is easier to increase the ghettoization of Muslims. Further, you can use religious vegetarianism as an excuse to shut meat shops and abattoirs for days during Hindu festivals so that Muslims see a dent in their income. (I wrote some years ago about a Maharashtra restriction on slaughter houses during a Hindu festival. Fishing and the sale of fish were exempt from any restrictions though --- perhaps because a majority of fishermen are Hindu).


   Just as the official and semi- official campaigns in favour of vegetarianism may have a communal subtext, the growing anger against the ‘pure vegetarian’ trend is now framed almost entirely on the basis of caste.


   When Sudha Murthy gave an interview about how she was a pure vegetarian, the most common criticism was that her use of the word ‘pure’ stemmed from her Brahmin origins.


   That sort of criticism has followed Zomato’s announcement that it would have a special delivery service for ‘pure vegetarian’ food in which the uniforms would be different. We don’t mind vegetarianism, the critics said, but why use the term ‘pure’? There is nothing ‘pure’ or ‘’ impure’ about a food preference unless you go back to caste distinctions?


   When the Sudha Murthy controversy broke out, I wrote in her defence that I doubted if she had used the word ‘pure’ to denote Brahminical superiority. The term ‘pure veg’ often just refers to somebody who won’t even eat eggs (and often: restaurants where vegetarian food is cooked in separate kitchens). I don’t think pure necessarily means “food for pure high caste brahmins’ as her critics were suggesting. Certainly you see the phrase ‘pure veg’ on restaurants all over India where it just means ‘totally vegetarian.’ Equally I can also see why people find a caste subtext in all references to purity.


   In the case of Zomato, there was another criticism. Many housing complexes and colonies are managed by RWA’s which are often run by bumptious retired uncles who see themselves as mini-Hitlers and look for opportunities to assert their power. If you announce that a delivery guy who is not wearing the special veg-only uniform could be carrying meat, then there is always the danger that he will be denied entry into the complex. Or worse: that he will be targeted by vigilantes.


   Fortunately Zomato has seen the point and it reversed the policy the very next day: all delivery vendors will now wear the same uniform.


   But what the controversy shows us is how food – which has the potential to become a global example of India's soft-power --- has become politicised these days.


   I was born a Gujarati Jain and though my parents were not vegetarians I had many vegetarian relatives who would not even eat eggs. And yet they did not think less of me or my parents because we ate meat. They recognised that we had the right to eat what we liked and never once were judgemental about our food preferences. I still have many vegetarian friends and relatives and when we go to restaurants, they opt for a vegetarian dish while leaving me free to order my mutton biryani or whatever.


   That is how it should be. There are no moral judgements involved in ordering dinner; it is entirely a matter of personal preference and choice. Of course people have their own religious beliefs and they are entitled to them. But the moment they start claiming moral superiority and imposing their preferences on others, they take us one step closer to a totalitarian state where it's not just the right to free speech – what comes out of your mouth --- but lunch and dinner as well --- what goes into your mouth --- that is taken away from citizens.


   I am glad that Zomato has reversed itself. Let’s keep food where it should be: on our plates and in our palates. It is a private matter that should be free of governmental interference, nasty vigilantism, moral judgements and special uniforms for delivery people.



Posted On: 21 Mar 2024 01:00 AM
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