Fast, and the world fasts with you. Eat meat, and you eat alone. That was seemingly the disquieting message promoted by a government-organised food festival in New Delhi . Last Friday, large sections of Indians, mostly Hindus, fasted for a day in homage to Lord Shiva. And the Central ministry of minority affairs decided that it would help them with their fast at its Hunar Haat, currently on in the Capital. It struck out all that was non-vegetarian from the menu to mark the festival of Mahashivaratri. Moreover, the food stalls were advised to sell the special dishes – prepared with fruits, milk products, nuts and so on -- that people on fasts were allowed to eat.
Should the government step into what is essentially a private matter – people’s right to eat what they wish when others are observing a fast? Article 21 of the Constitution of India states that a person cannot be deprived of his or her “personal liberty”. Food, it has been argued in court, comes under the broad framework of personal liberty, as long as it is legal and does no harm to fellow human beings.
Hunar Haat – hunar means talent or skills -- seeks to promote traditional craft and cuisines. At the festival, there is no beef or pork on the menu, though these meats are eaten by communities in many regions. Friday’s decree against meat and fish would have appeased some people, no doubt, but irked many others. After all, while some people shun meat and fish during religious festivals; others – Bengalis, for instance – often celebrate with these very foods.
In any case, India is not a largely vegetarian country, as is commonly believed. According to the government, at least 71% of Indians over the age of 15 eat some form of non-vegetarian food. The 2014 sample registration system baseline survey shows that in some states almost everybody does so. Telangana, where 98.7% people eat meat or fish, tops the list, followed by Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. The state with the most number of vegetarians is Rajasthan (73.2% men and 76.6% women).
But, increasingly, administrations are banning the sale -- and thereby the consumption -- of meat during religious festivals. The Bharatiya Janata Party-led Mira Bhayander Municipal Corporation in Maharashtra announced a meat ban during the Jain ritual period of Paryushan last year, shutting down abattoirs. Vijayawada saw a similar ban last year during the festival of Krishna Pushkarams.
Efforts are on to encourage vegetarianism elsewhere, too. Meat-eating students were dismayed when the human resource development ministry under Smriti Irani in 2014 forwarded a circular to the Indian Institutes of Technology, carrying a Madhya Pradesh trader’s demand that meat be stopped at IIT messes for it promoted “bad culture”. The issue was later dropped after an outcry.
Friday’s meat ban at the Hunar Haat underscores similar attempts to portray meat and fish as ungodly. The government’s logic -- that people on a religious diet may get offended when they see people eat meat or fish while they are on a religious fast — is specious. If that were so, no restaurant serving both vegetarian and non-vegetarian fare would survive.
Appeasement is a thorny word in politics, but the question needs to be asked why the government should find it necessary to facilitate those on a fast by trampling on the rights of those who are not. It is a matter of import, for hurt or offended sentiments are being cited on a wide range of issues -- from food to art, cinema, books and theatre.
In 2014, the Supreme Court politely told a petitioner who wanted Aamir Khan’s PK to be banned on grounds of obscenity. “If you don’t like, you don’t watch. Let others watch,” it said.
That should be the mantra guiding food, too: if you don’t like it, don’t eat it. For let us remember that one’s man fast can be the time for another man’s feast.
Bishakha De Sarkar is a senior journalistThe views expressed are personal