In Gujarat, a state with nearly 80 per cent children between six and 59 months certified anaemic in the latest National Family Health Survey, guess what is the top policy priority when it comes to food? If you have been following the news, you would know it is putting non-vegetarian street food behind purdah.
The BJP-run municipalities in Baroda, Rajkot, Junagad and Bhavnagar in Gujarat have launched a high-decibel drive against hawkers and vendors selling non-vegetarian food out in the open because its sight and smell “hurts religious sentiments”, The civic bodies asked the hawkers to either stop selling such food or keep it covered up so that passers-by don’t get to see it. They also say the smoke emanating from these stalls cause itching in the eyes and therefore are a health hazard.
Now, the Ahmedabad civic body has also jumped into the fray. The town planning committee of the AMC has just decided to make the city’s public spaces free of street carts selling non-vegetarian food. “Stalls selling non-vegetarian items will not be allowed along public roads & in the 100-meter radius of schools, colleges & religious places”, says the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation.
Writing in a local newspaper, journalist Brendan Dabhi noted: “Even as municipal corporations of Vadodara and Rajkot have begun taking action against street vendors selling non-vegetarian food, and a councillor of the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation wrote a letter to the commissioner asking for the removal of illegal vendors selling eggs and non-vegetarian food near educational and religious places and public roads in the interest of hygiene, ‘jeev daya’ and preservation of ‘culture’, [we] found that the harassment of licensed street vendors is in violation of a directive of the Government of India.” On May 18, 2021, the Central government wrote to all states and Union territories asking them to make sure that all street vendors are issued certificates and they are not harassed, the report said.
So why is making non-vegetarian street food invisible in public spaces such a top priority for so many of Gujarat’s civic bodies? There is no cogent response. If it is really about hygiene and food safety, why not have a non-discriminatory food law that does not differentiate between vegetarian and non-vegetarian street food?
Clearly, food battles aren’t really about food but about power. And cultural hegemony. The BJP, which pushes a coercive variant of vegetarianism in some states, has different standards in Goa and parts of India’s Northeast where the party is in power.
The hounding of non-vegetarians in parts of India affects the poor the most. At stake is not just what they eat, but also their economic survival.
Arguably, food battles are not new in this country. It has a long history. In many cities, including cosmopolitan Mumbai, India’s financial capital, many apartment complexes do not rent out flats to non-vegetarians. Many schools in Gujarat and elsewhere don’t allow children to bring tiffin boxes with eggs and other non-vegetarian dishes.
What is new is the ferocity of the stigmatisation of non-vegetarians in some parts of the country. This is a telling marker of the fierce ongoing culture wars in India. The politics over food choices is an adjunct of the muscular Hindutva that typically sees many of India’s non-vegetarian minority communities as people who need to be compelled into falling in line and adopting a vegetarian Hindu identity.
This is not going to be easy. Because India is not a country of culinary homogeneity. Caste continues to be an organising principle of everyday life, and while so-called “upper castes” in many states are dominantly vegetarians, there are exceptions. The upper castes in West Bengal, Kashmir, Goa, among other places, for example, relish non-vegetarian fare. Dalits are non-vegetarians. As are the tribal communities and the minorities, including many Buddhists who swear by ahimsa.
In a February 2021 essay in Economic and Political Weekly, scholars Balmurli Natrajan and Suraj Jacob make the point that Indian food habits do not fit into neatly identifiable boxes. There are immense variations.
The authors argue that “the existence of considerable intra-group variation in almost every social group (caste, religious) makes essentialised group identities based on food practices deeply problematic… in a social climate where claims about food practices rationalise violence, cultural-political pressures shape reported and actual food habits”.
The majority of Indians are non-vegetarians. But an impression is being created by the religious-right-led political leadership in many states that the “majority” sensibility is offended by non-vegetarian food.
Being a vegetarian is a matter of personal choice. However, coercive vegetarianism is political. And it affects public policy. Several BJP-ruled states, including those with large malnourished populations, balk at serving eggs to poor children coming to anganwadis.
It does not end there. Disturbingly, food battles have been taking a violent turn in recent years. One example: in September 2015 in Dadri (Uttar Pradesh), a Muslim man called Mohammed Akhlaq was beaten to death with sticks and bricks in his own house by an angry Hindu mob simply because there was a rumour that he had slaughtered a calf and consumed its flesh at home with his family.
“The rumour that sparked the murder eventually proved unfounded: the suspected meat seized in the fridge was only mutton. Yet this fact adds only a bitter twist to an already disturbing outcome,” points out scholar Michaël Bruckert, in an essay, titled “The Politicisation of Beef and Meat in Contemporary India: Protecting Animals and Alienating Minorities”. There was yet another twist -- a second lab test declared that the meat in question was in fact beef. But it wasn’t at his house and was found inside a bin near his home.
As Mr Bruckert says: “While there was no sense of an Indian national cuisine before the post-colonial period, culinary traditions are now being interpreted and reshaped by a nationalist discourse that seeks to promote the image of India as a Hindu, vegetarian and cow-worshipping country, threatened by blood-thirsty meat-eating primitives and invaders. In the nationalist discourse, meat and beef simultaneously embody immorality, ‘unnaturalness’, backwardness, otherness, and barbarism.”
Culinary politics and battles over what one can eat, what one can’t and where are likely to continue in the coming months as Assembly elections in various states draw closer. We might even see a strong push towards the standardisation of diets in some parts of the country in the name of culinary nationalism. It is all the more important to insist that while vegetarianism or non-vegetarianism are perfectly fine as long as they are personal choices, diets by coercion will be resisted....