The first thing to be said about the decision of various states to ban meat for several days because of a Jain ritual is that it is both indefensible and absurd.
It is indefensible because the basic premise of any secular society is that the State shall not use its legal and statutory powers to impose the religious practices of any one community (minority or majority) on other religious groups.
So Jains (full disclosure: I’m a Jain and some members of my family are not only vegetarian but avoid onions and garlic; happily I abstain from such restrictions on my diet) have every right to observe their own religious practices. But they cannot impose them on others. And it is completely against the spirit of a secular India for the State to use its power to force non-Jains to desist from, say, buying meat during a Jain fast or period of penance.
The ban is absurd because it is also illogical. Some bans — such as the ban on foie gras, for instance — emerge out of a concern for animals or birds who must not be treated cruelly. This ban, on the other hand, emerges out of a concern for human beings. The suggestion is that Jains might be upset if goats were slaughtered during their sacred period.
But Jains are vegetarians all the year round. So, if you want to protect Jain sensibilities, then doesn’t logic demand that you ban meat for all time? This way, all that will happen is that more chickens and goats will be slaughtered before the ban period begins as people buy meat in advance and stock their fridges.
Moreover, the Maharashtra government, in its wisdom, exempted fish from the ban. The stated reason was that fish are not slaughtered but are merely lifted out of their habitats with lines and nets. This is just silly. The fish don’t jump out voluntarily in some suicidal gesture. They are first caught and then cut open. Jains make no distinction between the killing of fish and animals or birds. So why should the government make it for them?
The second thing that needs to be said about the ban is that it aggravates Muslim fears. Muslims have little use for vegetarianism. But all Hindus, even those who eat meat, have a sneaking respect for vegetarianism. Brahmins (in most communities) are required to abstain from meat and fish. And most Hindus from other castes will always find days on which they can be vegetarian and therefore virtuous. It may be a weekly fast or a vegetarian day. Or it could be the day of a puja.
So while Hindus might object to a meat-ban on ideological grounds or because of inconvenience, they do not regard it as a huge imposition. But Muslims, who tend to eat much more meat whenever they can afford it, regard vegetarianism as an assault on their way of life.
And there is another worrying factor. A large number of slaughter houses — perhaps the majority in such states as Maharashtra — are run by Muslims. So they see the ban as an assault on their livelihood. When fishermen (most of whom are not Muslim) are excluded from this ban, then they suspect that there is a clear communal divide at work.
The third thing that needs to be said is that liberals make the mistake of looking at this ban in isolation. In fact, it is just another symbol of the Indian State’s inability (or unwillingness) to respect the divide between politics and religion.
Take the beef ban. Most Indian states ban the slaughter of cows. In some states (Haryana, for example) even the possession of beef attracts heavy penalties. It is true that the fervour with which these bans are enforced has increased since the BJP came to power. But the truth is that the bans were imposed by Congress governments. Even the Maharashtra ban that agitates us so much has its origins in a 1964 decision.
Most liberals let these bans be because a) we knew they would never be rigidly enforced (India is among the world’s largest exporters of beef) and b) because there was so much pressure from sadhus and Hindu fundamentalists that we thought it better to not resist.
It is now clear that this benign neglect was a mistake. If you don’t object to a ban on cow slaughter can you really object if the government wants to prosecute somebody who sells beef? If it is okay to ban beef to respect Hindu sentiments, then why is it wrong to ban meat to respect Jain sentiments?
But why stop at food? The problem is that all governments, under pressure from religious groups, have cheerfully trampled over secular and liberal principles to impose arbitrary restrictions in every area.
Yes, it is wrong for Muslims to be denied beef only because Hindus worship the cow. And yes it is even worse to deny them all meat because of an alleged affront to Jain sensibilities.
But it is, surely, as wrong for Hindus and Jains not to be allowed to read The Satanic Verses because of protests by Muslim groups.
Just as we say to Hindus: “Don’t eat beef if you don’t want to ,but don’t deny others the right to eat it”, we must also say to Muslims: “Don’t read The Satanic Verses if you don’t want to but don’t deny us the right to read it.”
But of course, no government ever says that. We have a long and dishonourable tradition of banning anything and everything to ‘protect religious sensibilities’. Rarely, if ever, do governments tell religious groups that if they are offended, well then, that’s too bad. It is not the job of a secular government to use its might to protect the delicate sensibilities of the easily offended.
To see the meat ban in perspective, we must move beyond today’s politics and look at a larger truth. For much too long, liberals have allowed religious groups to hijack the agenda by turning a blind eye. If all of us had stood up and said that religion and politics do not mix, we would not be in this mess today.
But we did not. And so, there will be more bans, more intolerance and more religious tyranny.
This is just the beginning.
(The views expressed are personal)