Upper Caste Dominance and the Political History of Gujarat's Conversion to Vegetarianism

Far from being a historical practice, vegetarianism in Gujarat is actually a state-sponsored value system that only became institutionalised under the BJP.

Representational image of a vegetarian restaurant. Credit: reidix/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Representational image of a vegetarian restaurant. Credit: reidix/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Late last week, during a discussion on Gujarat‘s Animal Preservation Bill – that stipulates a life term for cow slaughter – the state’s chief minister Vijay Rupani declared, “We will make the state shakhahari (vegetarian)”. His announcement delighted the saffron clad sants dotting the visitors’ gallery of the state assembly and Rupani ended by saying that Gujarat followed Gandhi’s principle of ‘truth and non-violence.’

But Rupani’s intention of turning Gujarat into a vegetarian haven has already angered some in the BJP. “He is a Jain and follows the tenets of vegetarianism closely. You cannot catch Narendra Modi making such a declaration; he knows how difficult it is to get investments,” says a senior journalist (himself a vegetarian) from the state.

A casual visitor to Gujarat or an outsider with a cursory knowledge of Gujarati society will find Rupani’s views reflective of reality, because to an outsider Gujarat already appears to be a vegetarian state. But this is a false assumption. Data from the Census of India (2011) reveals that over 39% of Gujarat’s population identifies itself as non-vegetarian. Incidentally, Muslims comprise merely 9% of Gujarat’s population, dispelling the notion that it is only Muslims who are eating meat. Although, comparable data for earlier years is unavailable, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that the population of Gujarat ate more non-vegetarian food two or even three decades ago.

In fact, the trend towards vegetarianism is closely linked with political dynamics in the state – which have unfolded in a rather strange way. Until the recent UP assembly elections, political developments in India have largely been driven by backward class movements. Whether it was the Dravidian movement down south, the rise of OBCs in UP and Bihar or the emergence of the middle castes (like Marathas) in Maharashtra, the upper castes found themselves politically somewhat marginal all over the country. Their marginalisation from politics was accompanied by a similar sloughing off of ‘upper caste values’.

But in Gujarat things have happened differently. Finding the state under the grip of the three upper caste (communities) – Brahmins, Banias and Jains – in the 1970s, two men plotted a daring experiment. Madhav Sinh Solanki, an almost unknown politician from the ‘lower’ Kshatriya caste who served as Gujarat’s chief minister during the Emergency and Jinabhai Darji, a tailor by caste who used to be the Gujarat Pradesh Congress chief conjured up a magic formula. Called KHAM, the pair sought to combine Kshatriyas, Harijans, Adivasis and Muslims into a vote bank by providing reservations for jobs and colleges. The experiment paid off with the Congress winning 141 seats out of the total of 182 in the 1980 assembly election. 1985 was even better and the Solanki-led Congress romped home with a record 149 seats.

But the 1980s were marked by severe anti-reservation riots led by upper caste communities. In one instance, the agitations spread to Gujarat’s major towns, leading to at least 100 deaths. In the end, Solanki lost his job despite enjoying a huge majority. The anti-reservation riots were successful because they were supported by the Patels. The Patels were originally village-based small land holders who had prospered as a result of the green revolution. Once economically well off, they sought to empower their children through education. But the reservation policies had kicked in, resulting in the Patels – who were not OBCs – finding it hard to get admission to colleges. This resulted in massive frustration and anger within the community.

The rise of BJP-sponsored vegetarianism

So the Patels threw in their lot with the BJP which was coming up in the state under L. K. Advani’s guidance, assisted by many like Narendra Modi. Ever since then, the Patels have formed the backbone of the BJP’s support. Brahmins, Vanias and Jains also deserted the Congress after its KHAM experiment took effect and joined the Patels as some of the BJP’s core supporters.

The Patel community, which is highly concentrated in Saurashtra, has traditionally been influenced by the Swaminarayan Sampraday, a Hindu reformist movement which promotes vegetarianism. Once the BJP came to power in the state (with the support of the upper castes and the Patels) it began promoting vegetarianism as a matter of state policy. Non-vegetarian food was banned from official functions and the khansamas at circuit houses like the one in Junagadh (which was run under the guidance of a nawab pre-1948) found themselves unwanted.

In a country that still clings to aspects of feudalism, the government is seen as mai-baap. The government has the power to influence people’s values and with the powers that be promoting vegetarianism, many people from the lower castes fell in line. New religious and social movements that supported the BJP helped to convert the lower castes – who were traditionally fish eaters, given Gujarat’s long coastline – into vegetarians. Within years of the BJP taking power in the state, non-veg serving restaurants became almost non-existent in cities like Ahmedabad. In five star hotels, the buffet was divided into two sections: vegetarian and Jain vegetarian. Though Gujarat Fisheries continued to be a major revenue earner, it hawked fish only in the old part of Ahmedabad, away from the affluent up and coming areas of the city. New age ‘clubs’ that cropped up were also vegetarian. Some residents who had moved in from out of town reported that maids hired for cleaning utensils often had a condition: if you eat non-veg please clean the dishes yourself.

But the winds of change are blowing through Gujarat again. With investment becoming the new business mantra,  vegetarianism is giving way to non-vegetarianism as the state prepares to welcome people from other parts of the country. Modi is credited with catalysing this change, which has become increasingly visible over the last five years. This is why Rupani’s new assertions are giving rise to consternation within the party. But with elections slated for December and Modi having indicated that the BJP should go for “150+ in Gujarat after 300+ in UP,” the temperature will remain high. Meat eating could well be the next casualty, after cow slaughter.

Kingshuk Nag worked as resident editor of the Times of India in Ahmedabad for many years