Meat Ban a Battle Between Promoters of Faith and Those Diluting it in Name of Freedom
Meat in India is being priced higher than morality on the political menu today. Food comes in numerous colours and cuts. It is now dividing the nation into various hues and habits, from Kashmir to Kerala. Bloody morsels of slaughtered animals and birds are dictating the contours of dialogue and debate. Foodies are so incensed over the ban on meat in many states that they are willing to send conscience to the abattoir over the inhuman act of a well-heeled Saudi diplomat who has been accused of raping two poor Nepalese women, and behaved like a butcher of decency. Most part of the last week was usurped by meat-loving gourmands to denounce and demonise a government, which was just implementing a ban that has been in place for decades. The municipal body in Mumbai was reinforcing a resolution, which was adopted in 1994. But for ill-liberals, it was a cardinal crime to extend the number of days during which the sale of meat was banned. They charged the BJP government of vote bank politics because the ban was imposed to oblige the Jain community. In the Valley, extremist elements took to streets and slaughtered animals after the J&K High Court directed the government to enforce a ban on killing cows that has been in force in the state for over a century. Forces opposed to the PDP-BJP government charged it of exclusively pandering to the Hindutva agenda. The print and electronic media, which were obsessed with Indrani Mukerjea’s salacious sins for weeks, shifted their cameras and took to their iPads to broadcast and podcast what they deemed was massive damage done by imposing a ban on their favourite dish for a couple of days.
Even the foreign media, which usually ignores retrograde practices in their own countries, started labelling India a Ban-Ban nation. Anyone and everyone who could speak English with an Oxbridge or Harvard accent left their bedrooms and boardrooms to moan and groan about the death of the freedom of gastronomy. All the famous TV anchors and the usual experts on everything, from potatoes to politics, played down the physical assault on impoverished Nepali women by a depraved diplomat, who would have been dead meat by now in any other country’s media coverage. They were more concerned about missing a meaty meal for a few days than leading the protest against the diplomat accused of rape. The discourse on the meat ban also reflected the nature of priorities, which are dear to the hearts of a privileged section of the urban elite. For them, freedom of food, the nature of sexual choices, free access to pornographic sites and mocking Indian deities, heritage and sites trump the survival of inclusive Indian culture. Any attempt to laud or revive Indian traditions of cuisine or clothing is termed an attack on privacy and individual liberty. But the ferocity of the uproar over the restriction on the sale of meat appears to be a clear indication that a vocal, well-connected, influential section of urban India is determined to dictate the lifestyle and moral choices of the entire nation.
In principle, it is none of any government’s business to dictate the food habits of people. They should be allowed to eat what they think is good for their health and mind, as long as it doesn’t violate any law. It should be left to the market forces to dictate and determine the sale of any food product. In fact, many senior leaders of the ruling BJP are enthusiastically non-vegetarian. Some of their staunch supporters boast about the virtues of Kobe beef over the Wagyu beefsteak they ate in Michelin restaurants all over the world. On the other hand, the number of vegetarians outnumbers non-vegetarians in the Congress and Left parties. Hence, it is not surprising that it was the Congress-dominated Constituent Assembly, which introduced the provision for the ban of cow slaughter in the Indian Constitution. It was during the party’s rule that majority of states imposed selective restrictions on the sale of meat.
With India being home to over 10,000 communities with different culinary habits, no uniformity of choice can be imposed by any agency. In a democracy, an elected government enjoys the right to protect the religious sentiments of various sections of society. Ever since vote bank politics became the gravy train to win elections, many parties have used gastronomy as governance to influence voters or retain their core constituencies. For example, the Kerala government doesn’t allow schools to serve mid-day meals during Ramzan, because it may hurt the feelings of Muslims. Similarly, in many North Indian schools, meat is not served in hostels or at government functions. Sticking to mutually acceptable principles and conventions has been the prudent policy of various governments worldwide. For example, horsemeat is banned in the US. Pork can’t be served or sold in most West Asian counties in deference to the religious beliefs of citizens. In India, 24 of the 29 states have banned cow slaughter. The majority of states permit the sale of beef only in designated places. Last week, when all the five states—Maharashtra, Gujarat, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Haryana —imposed a temporary ban on the sale of meat during the Jain festival period, it was dubbed as a move to restrict the palate preferences of the people. But such bans are imposed periodically in various parts of the country depending upon the local situation. But never before has the country seen such an angry and aggressive protest against it. The BJP is hitting back at its detractors with a vengeance by imposing a ban regime on more and more states.
The uproar over a temporary ban on meat sale in certain parts of the country is also motivated by political, cultural and commercial reasons. India is the fifth largest exporter of beef in the world. As the BJP-led NDA government moves forward on its agenda of imposing a total ban on cow slaughter, it would hurt the massive commercial interests of a section of the trading community. According to some reports, powerful political leaders in Maharashtra and North India clandestinely support the beef mafia, which smuggles cows from India to Bangladesh, where each animal fetches three times its price in India. The ban is not new. But what is novel is the assertion of individual choice of victuals over the feelings of some others. The current confrontation over meat seems less to do with eating habits than the battle between the promoters of Indian faith and heritage and those who want to dilute it in the name of freedom of choice.
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