A Vegetarian Government’s Crusade Against Meat

Row of kebabs at Muhammed Ali Road, Mumbai (Photo: Sameer Walzade)

Row of kebabs at Muhammed Ali Road, Mumbai (Photo: Sameer Walzade)

Mumbai: Citizens are fuming after civic bodies in Mumbai and in the neighbouring Mira Road-Bhayandar area have banned any kind of slaughter and sale of mutton and chicken during a Jain festival later this month. The Jains observe Paryushan for a week or so during which they don’t eat root vegetables such as potatoes, garlic and onions. A request was made by some community members to also stop animal slaughter – the Mira Road Municipality, dominated by the BJP accepted it with alacrity and announced the ban.

The rule first came into existence in 2008, when the sale of meat was banned for two days, though it was not followed with much enthusiasm. Two years ago there was a ban on fish too, but it was done away with after fishermen protested and began selling their catch on the roads.

Soon after the decision this year in Mira Road, an order in Mumbai followed and now all meat shops will be shut for four days in the city. Mumbai’s Municipal Corporation is controlled by the Shiv Sena, but clearly the order has come from the state government.

Devendra Fadnavis is a crusader for vegetarianism. In March, he had claimed success in getting President Pranab Mukherjee to sign a long pending order to get beef banned in Maharashtra. The decision has severely affected the livelihood of Muslim butchers and taken away a source of cheap proteins for poorer citizens. Anyone found holding beef supplies can now be thrown into jail for five years.

A big fault line

In a city of many differences – economic, social, religious – the fault line between meat eaters and the rest cuts across them all. A housing society dominated by Hindus is quite likely to say no to a Muslim, but will be equally biased against a meat eating Hindu. The opposite rarely happens, because non-vegetarians harbour no prejudice against vegetarians.

Real estate brokers have a code word for a particular kind of tenant – cosmopolitan. Those in the business know what it means – someone who eats non-vegetarian food. It could also imply a more progressive, “modern” lifestyle, which means drinking and socializing. The word is slowly going out of fashion, but the sentiment remains. Landlords now don’t try and beat around the bush, they ask directly whether the prospective tenant eats meat. And if the answer is yes, then the applicant is rejected.

In recent years, not just individual buildings, but entire neighbourhoods are now being wiped clean of any non-vegetarianism. There are no non-vegetarian restaurants in and around the Malabar Hill, Walkeshwar area, tony neighbourhoods where the clout of the vegetarian lobby reigns supreme. These groups – mainly Gujaratis and Jains – now have the full support of a government in the state that believes in interfering in citizens’ lives and is ready to use the might of the law.

This has begun to create political tensions between the BJP and other parties and – the murmurs are getting louder – between Gujaratis and Maharashtrians. Many Maharashtrians love their fish and meat and it is telling that the sale of fish (or for that matter root vegetables) has not been banned during the festival. Last year, Nitesh Rane, son of Narayan Rane who joined the Congress from the Shiv Sena, had suddenly begun attacking Gujaratis for their vegetarian habits. Now, Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena has declared it’s intention to set up stalls selling non-vegetarian food during the ban days. The Shiv Sena is keeping diplomatically quiet, given it is part of the government and runs the city’s municipal corporation, but it has distanced itself from the ban decision. Political circles say the BJP wants to keep the prosperous Gujaratis happy and in any case vegetarianism fits in with the party’s ethos. This is not going to go down well with the meat eating, Marathi-speaking population and is sure to become a hot button political issue that the other parties will exploit.

The move to ban meat selling for four days in Mumbai, with its large meat eating population, has left citizens stunned. They see it as yet another of the BJP’s moves to impose its morals and values on the populace. Some have expressed fear that this might lead to more such special non-meat days, especially during festivals. Apart from the loss in business – to butchers and meat sellers – Mumbaikars want to know how exactly Fadnavis hopes to make the city a financial hub and invite foreign investment if he plans to impose his own diktats about food and lifestyle on the city.