Just Like That | Behind the enduring veg vs non-veg debate - Hindustan Times

Just Like That | Behind the enduring veg vs non-veg debate

Apr 14, 2024 08:00 AM IST

Recent controversies over politicians' food choices highlight the nuanced relationship between dietary preferences and religious beliefs within Hindus.

Pandara Park in New Delhi is famous for its eateries. In particular, non-vegetarian ones like Havemore and Gulati have acquired legendary status. These are not upmarket joints but serve delectable food. Every evening, large crowds are waiting to get a table to savour the tandoori chicken, kebabs and wide array of naans, rotis and parathas served there.

Is vegetarianism the new credo of Hindu evangelists?(Unsplash) PREMIUM
Is vegetarianism the new credo of Hindu evangelists?(Unsplash)

A day before Navratri started on April 9, I went there, after ages, to have dinner with some friends. The crowd was even bigger than normal, since from the next day, in deference to Navratri, Pandara Market would only serve vegetarian food. It seems as if a lot of people wanted to have their fill of non-vegetarian delicacies before they would be deprived of them for the next nine days.

Many members of my family keep the Navratri fast, and some don’t. This is entirely in keeping with what the Hindu way of life is, where there are no mandatory fiats, and people make their own choices about how they define their Hindu-ness.

This led me to think: Is vegetarianism the new credo of Hindu evangelists? I have nothing against vegetarianism and have often resolved to become vegetarian myself. Yet, it is also my view that the Hindu faith does not sanction coercion to enforce a mandatory code of who should eat what and when. If people, of their own volition, abstain from eating meat during Navratri, it is entirely their choice. If restaurants feel that they should not serve non-veg food at this auspicious time, that is also their choice.

Contrary to what a minority of high-decibel Hindus feel, India is not a vegetarian country. According to several surveys, vegetarians are a minority, constituting only 23 to 37 percent of the population, while non-vegetarians number 63 to 71 percent. Data from the 2019-21 National Family Health Survey (NHFS) states that 70.6 percent of women and 83.4 percent of men eat non-vegetarian food daily, weekly or occasionally. The consumption of meat varies from state to state. As high as 97 percent of the population of Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal and Jharkhand eat meat. In the northeastern states, the vast majority are meat-eaters. By contrast, in Gujarat, Rajasthan, Haryana and Punjab, less than 40 percent of the population eats meat. Punjab, famous for its tandoori chicken, chicken korma, Amritsari fish and seekh kebabs, comes as a surprise.

The NHFS also clearly shows that the overwhelming majority of Hindus are non-veg. Recently, a video of Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Tejashwi Yadav went viral where he can be seen eating fish. The BJP accused him of betraying Hinduism by eating fish during Navratri. Tejashwi, for whom I hold no brief, vociferously clarified that the video was of the day before Navratri. But the fact that he had to do so, tells its own story. Especially, in Bihar, where people sometimes accept dinners only if non-veg is being served, and Maithili Brahmins consider fish their staple diet! So much so that fish is even served during Shraddha, and in an otherwise poor state, nearly seven kg of fish is consumed by Biharis yearly on a per capita basis.

In West Bengal, fish is served as bhog or religious offering during Durga Puja and Dashami. In the famous Kamakhya temple in Assam, animal sacrifice is part of the nitya puja. I have myself observed a Brahmin priest while talking to me, cut off the heads of several pigeons as though he was cutting vegetables. Moreover, Dalits and tribals are mainly meat eaters, and taken together, constitute a large part of the population wooed for votes by all parties.

Historians have argued that the practice of vegetarianism came about largely due to the influence of the rise of Buddhism and Jainism, and even then, it was largely confined to the upper castes. It may surprise many that today, India is the sixth largest meat exporter in the world. Our buffalo meat exports were as high as $3.17 billion, even during the economically volatile years of the Covid-19 pandemic.

To my mind, therefore, imposing vegetarianism, or privileging it as a fundamental aspect of the Hindu faith, is simply inaccurate. A few days ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi lashed out at Rahul Gandhi and Lalu Yadav for eating mutton during ‘Sawan’. Yes, people of all faiths need to be sensitive to the religious sentiments of others, but this new trend of telling Hindus what to eat and drink is, frankly, very un-Hindu. In this context, Veer Savarkar was truly modern. Vikram Sampath, in his majestic two-volume biography of Savarkar, quotes Savarkar as being against cow worship, and categorically eclectic where food was concerned. Savarkar writes: “Religion is in the heart, the soul, the spirit; not the stomach! No food is prohibited. Anything healthy, nutritious and tasty must be generously and merrily indulged in, no matter who has cooked it or where it was available.”

Pavan K Varma is author, diplomat, and former Member of Parliament (Rajya Sabha). Just Like That is a weekly column where Varma shares nuggets from the world of history, culture, literature, and personal reminiscences with HT Premium readers. The views expressed are personal

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