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Some years ago, I said to a fellow writer after a sharp rise in the number of book bans demanded by assorted pressure groups in India, “Soon they’ll grow bored with banning books, and they’ll look for other things to ban — meat, falling in love, western music.”
Many of these groups were from the intolerant rightwing, some from the intolerant left. They were joined by India’s different religions, scenting opportunity: Hindu, Muslim and Christian fringe groups competing to see who could score the highest in the banning stakes. Demanding a ban on a book, an artist or a film was a low-cost way of getting publicity — indeed, many political careers were built on successful bans.
Back then, I was being facetious. But between India’s “anti-Romeo” squads — vigilante groups operating outside the purview of the law that have a mandate to harass single men suspected of sexual harassment, as well as young couples meeting each other “without permission” — and the often-murderous campaigns of cow-protection activists, responsible for a wave of terrifying attacks and lynchings of Muslims suspected of storing beef or transporting cattle, I’m learning to be careful of what I say, even in jest. (Beyoncé and Justin Bieber aren’t banned. Yet.)
Back home after a pleasant break in London, the adjustment to the new environment has been swift. My favourite fish home-delivery service has a new warning label on its website: “No Beef, No Pork”, it says, naming the two meats most likely to spark communal tension.
Militant Hindu groups and some mainstream upper-caste Hindus insist that beef should not be eaten and that cattle should not be slaughtered in deference to the sacredness of cows — although this ignores the high prevalence and longevity of beef-eating traditions among other Hindu castes and tribal communities.
There is no official meat ban in neighbouring Noida, the large, prosperous and previously cosmopolitan satellite city in Uttar Pradesh. But many shops have stopped selling any meat at all, even chicken, after a crackdown on slaughterhouses in the state. A week ago, more than 200 members of the far-right Shiv Sena forced meat and chicken shops to close on the other side of Delhi, in Haryana’s Gurugram, until the nine-day festival of the Navratri had ended.
Perhaps my sense of dismay at this fresh wave of food-policing was sharpened by recent visits to cities — inside and outside India — where multiculturalism has translated into tolerance of other people’s dietary preferences. A London restaurant that serves halal-only meat might sit side-by-side with a vegan café; in Goa, many parts of India’s north-east, and states in South India such as Kerala, a restaurant that serves beef thalis might be a few kilometres down the road from a “pure veg” establishment. The only rule of thumb people follow is respect and tolerance for each other’s preferences, and all this requires is the basic ability to not police your neighbour’s plate.
Apologists for the many parties and state governments that have started to press for slaughterhouse closures — an action that has a significant impact on the ability of traditional butchers, many of them Muslim, to earn a living — jump from one defence to another. Slaughterhouses are unhealthy; vegetarianism is healthier; meat-eaters, especially beef-eaters, should display their tolerance by not eating meat in deference to the outraged noses and sentiments of vegetarians; those complaining can eat their steak abroad, since foreign cows are traditionally not considered sacred, and so on.
All of these debates suffer from a major flaw — they cite one form of majoritarian, upper-caste Hinduism or Jainism in a country whose tastes in meat-eating and food in general are more varied than you would find even across Europe’s multi-faceted populations. (Imagine Paris or London residents being forced to follow only one set of food rules — for the sake of argument, croissants as the default bread instead of pitas and naans — and you might see the absurdity.)
But vegetarian intolerance has been deployed as a political weapon for a while now. In the 2000s, states such as Maharashtra and Gujarat saw the rise of vegetarian-only buildings, which seems like a harmless enough preference until you realise that it works as a form of housing discrimination, excluding Muslims, Parsees, Christians and Hindus with their own meat-eating traditions. In 2007, Hindu religious leaders strongly protested against the inclusion of eggs in school midday meals — eggs could have been an optional extra, but even this was not deemed acceptable. And there is a growing demand to create larger and wider meat-free zones around temples, extending in some cases to a demand to keep entire temple towns vegetarian.
This is nothing but force majeure, and it leaves behind an unpleasant taste: what will those who want to change the way we eat target next about the way we live?
Nilanjana Roy is the author ‘The Wildings’ and ‘The Hundred Names of Darkness’ and lives in Delhi. @nilanjanaroy