Recently a well-known chain of supermarkets opened a fresh-only outlet inside a rich residential society in Mumbai to much gratitude and fanfare. The residents had a difficult time locating a proper greengrocer, and a facility like this was invaluable. The store became successful from day one, garnering lots of footfalls. Sensing a need gap, the store offered, apart from fruits and vegetables of all kinds, the daily necessities of bread, eggs and milk. There was even further rejoicing at the prospect of buying packaged eggs instead of the dubious fare peddled by the egg-wallah who went from door to door. Modernity had entered the hallowed portals of this apartment complex, and the residents were extremely pleased. Until some of them were not.This unhappy group informed the managing committee of the apartment complex that the presence of eggs in the store offended their vegetarian sensibilities, that they were put off at the sight of a crate of eggs next to a crate of tomatoes, and so what if they actually didn’t see any eggs, these being stored in opaque boxes of six eggs each. The committee, sensing potential trouble and discord, decided to stop the store from selling eggs. The egg-eating population, though inconvenienced, shrugged their shoulders and returned to the egg-wallah. At least they were getting quality fresh produce. A little trouble on the egg front was worth it. But the store manager, troubled by such one-sidedness in decision-making, pushed back and brought the eggs back. The message was clear: while all customers were welcome, the store wouldn’t allow them to dictate terms to it, that it would do what was in its best commercial interest. It was a bold decision, but the upshot has been an increase in the store’s revenue and respect for its inclusive ethos.
In Western India, the debate over vegetarianism is noisy and often ugly. Commercially, the vegetarians are at the top of the food chain. The Jains of Gujarat and the Marwaris of Rajasthan, both rabidly vegetarian communities, control the stock exchange and trade. Economic power has brought with it political power, wielded to ensure that their way of life is sanctified, almost encoded, against, it should be noted, the principles of equality enshrined in the Indian Constitution. Thus we have an entire neighbourhood in Mumbai, one of the richest in the country, where all meat selling is proscribed because Palanpuri Jains, who have made this neighbourhood their home and constructed a huge temple there, have used their clout to forbid it. Grocery stores don’t stock even Maggi Chicken noodles, and the confectionery store, part of a nationwide chain, stocks only eggless cakes, the only one in the entire country to do so.
Jain investors have prohibited large modern grocery chains from dealing in meat and fish by cutting off funding routes for them so that while the promoters, in the interest of increasing footfalls, would like to offer the entire range of food products, they find themselves up against a wall. The message is loud and clear. The investors will ‘not be happy’ to see the stores indulging in undesirable behaviour, i.e. they will not invest.
This attempt at creating uniformity in eating habits isn’t a new phenomenon. In fact the Malabar Hill-Walkeshwar area of Mumbai has been firmly vegetarian for over a quarter of a century, not only because of the sentiments of some of the residents, but also the active efforts of the former MP from that area who belonged to the BJP.
Over the last couple of decades, minorities including Muslims, single women and some foreign nationals, have been increasingly pushed to the margins in residential neighbourhoods. A metropolis like Mumbai, known for its inclusive and pluralistic ethos, is gradually becoming host to residential ghettos. Muslims, in particular, are hampered in their attempts to find housing in multi-ethnic neighbourhoods. Vegetarian-only buildings are cropping up everywhere. There’s even an attempt to close down meat shops during the Jain festival of Paryushan, though Jains form only four per cent of the city’s population.
The chief minister of Gujarat, Vijay Rupani, in a zealous attempt to overthrow the Constitution, declared a few months ago that he would make Gujarat a vegetarian state, ignoring the fact that over forty per cent of Gujarat’s population eats meat. It’s a testimony to our indifference to such blatant lawlessness that the man continues to be in a Constitutional role.
The Hindu ambivalence towards the consumption of meat ranges from hatred to mild distaste, and all shades in between. All across North India, signboards proclaiming ‘Pure Veg’ are strung up on restaurants. Fasting amongst most communities is associated with vegetarianism. The Hindu scriptures declare the consumption of meat to be a ‘tamsik’ activity, leading to base thoughts and actions. Many communities, particularly in the Gangetic plains, forswear meat-consumption and associate it with immorality. The idea of pollution extends to food habits, and kitchens where meat is cooked are considered unclean, irrespective of the actual standards of hygiene.
Religious beliefs cannot be questioned on the basis of rationality. A person who has grown up on a vegetarian diet can hardly be expected to eat meat and like it. Moreover, years of indoctrination about the evils of a practice, even though it has no basis in science, cannot be overturned through rational argument alone. Therefore, there’s no point in trying to convert a believer. On the other hand, the attempt to inflict one’s point of view on the rest of the environment can have perilous consequences, as Kumar Mangalam Birla, one of India’s leading industrialists and a staunch vegetarian, admitted in a speech a few years ago. The Aditya Birla Group acquired some interest in Australia. Workers there asked if they’d be expected to convert to vegetarianism since they were now going to be working for a ‘vegetarian’ company. Birla, a pragmatic businessman, realised the risk of being typecast as intolerant and set about changing the corporate culture to include all dietary habits.
There are two reasons why India can’t continue down its present path of diet homogenisation. Gujarat is one of the most industrialised states in India. This means that there are many foreign nationals living and working there, most of whom would be meat-eaters. Would Mr Rupani really like to threaten his state’s prosperity by creating a culture of food intolerance? Does he believe that these foreigners would be happy to succumb to his agenda of homogenisation, borne of hatred for the other? Doesn’t he know that these workers would vote with their feet, leaving his precious state in a state of economic uncertainty? Perhaps his bosses, hopefully more far-sighted and intelligent than him, have warned him against making such sweeping statements. Hopefully, commerce, the slave of pragmatism, will supersede intolerant ideology.
But the second, far more important reason to push back against widespread intolerance, is the Constitution. India is a secular country, and articles 19, 20, 21 and 22 of the Indian Constitution have assured freedom of expression to every Indian. This means that no state or non-state actor has the right to impose their point of view upon another. In a narrow sense, this means that every Indian has the right to eat what she likes where she likes. No one should have the right to claim ‘hurt sentiment’ by a private act. How can a neighbour be offended by what I cook inside my kitchen? Or what I put on my dining table?
While intolerance and suspicion of the other has remained a constant undercurrent in our national discourse, disregard for the Constitution and its secular character is becoming a norm rather than the exception. This is because individuals are emboldened to practice intolerance when the state turns a blind eye to this tendency.
How can we, as loyal followers of the Constitution, reverse this trend? There are many methods. Legal remedies, public condemnation, name and shame, and local sensitisation are some of the tools that can be used to dilute dietary intolerance. It’s obvious to everyone except the purveyors of hate and intolerance that for India to take its place on the world stage, it has to become the secular, inclusive, modern nation that our founding fathers wanted it to be, and not descend into fundamentalist anarchy.
Sangeeta Mall is former Managing Editor, The Radical Humanist and former Editor, International Humanist News. She can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org