Food bans are about appeasing majoritarian sentiments

  • Dhrubo Jyoti, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Sep 13, 2015 18:02 IST
An order has been given by the Jammu and Kashmir high court calling for the ban of beef after a PIL was filed by Parimoksh Seth. (Abid Bhat/HT Photo)

Things often come a full circle in history and politics but rarely as deliciously as the raging meat ban controversy. The BJP is behaving like the Congress, the Shiv Sena like the BJP -- and the Congress isn’t to be seen anywhere at all -- as the banning infection spreads across the country, from Mumbai to Rajasthan and Kashmir.

It is especially mouth-watering as parties have rapidly shifted their stances in a matter of months – the Shiv Sena was in vigorous support of the beef ban in Maharashtra but is now espousing an argument of rights and freedom of choice, never mind it has trampled upon that freedom for decades through its violent campaign against migrants and minorities.

Opponents of the Mumbai meat ban have forwarded two distinct strains of argument – one that everyone has an inviolate right to choose and freedom to live the way they want; and the second that the Jains can’t dictate the food practices of the overwhelming majority of Marathas because they are a tiny community.

The first argument is sound but is rarely upheld in India when similar questions are posed to the majority. Our society is distinctly majoritarian and though our Constitution is secular, our daily lives and popular cultures aren’t. Meat is expressly banned during several Hindu festivals and entire cities are cordoned off as vegetarian-only zones because of their religious importance.

A visit to any restaurant or even staid office canteens during the nine-day Navratri would frustrate anyone’s attempts to find non-vegetarian food. While searching for food, I have often been given a cold stare and a flat explanation – It’s Navratri -- as if it was reason enough for everyone to take an involuntary meat sabbatical. I can only imagine what the reaction would be if everyone was force fed meat for the same nine days – or compelled to fast during Ramzan.

The situation is the same across cities on the holy circuit such as Tirumala, Rishikesh or Katra. Using the excuse of a sacred religious shrine in the vicinity, the administration has banned meat products from the municipal limits of the city because flesh apparently offends the gods, never mind the myriad other forms of exploitation and oppression going on a stone’s throw away from the divine.

Food has a complex history in India, one that is intricately tied to notions of caste purity and pollution – notice the “pure” tag to vegetarian-only restaurants across the country. As a result, we have often shown our majoritarian tendencies as a society through imposition of dietary practices and therefore cannot suddenly take shelter in the “freedom of choice”.

We have wantonly violated the same choice by shutting down cities during Hindu festivals such as Holi and Diwali, where streets and public spaces are turned into areas of religious rejoice. Celebrations become community events and one can’t opt out, even if one “chooses”.

Remember how the beef ban ran roughshod over the “choices” of millions of people who weren’t upper-caste Hindus, many of whom lost their livelihoods because the administration imposed a selective restriction and the society didn’t protest. Here, the majority bent to the will of the minority, but only because of centuries of caste-mandated dominance.

The same argument about respecting sentiment is used in multiple ways: When a ban goes against the minority, they must respect the sentiments of the majority and submit, but when the majority is aggrieved by a ban, the sentiment of the minority cannot be allowed to dictate policy.

Either way, it seems like the majority cannot be offended. Ways of life that benefit the Hindus have been enshrined in many parts of India, be it in food, culture or worship without a care for the freedom or rights of many.

The only reason the Jain fast ban has riled so many people is that the majority is always used to getting its way. When meat vanishes off shelves during Navratri, it is “respect for sentiments” but a ban during Jain fast is appeasement.

Let’s stop pretending we care about rights and freedom because we don’t. We are up in arms because this time, our choices are getting curbed instead of those of other communities.

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