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Time veggies joined the Indian non-veg mainstream!

April 08, 2015 14:07 IST

The beef debate

'In a country like India, it is clear that respecting religions -- in politics or in the kitchen -- is disastrous,' says Amberish K Diwanji.

The Bharatiya Janata Party government in Maharashtra has banned the selling of beef derived from oxen and bullocks. Many in the Hindutva brigade have rejoiced at this decision, seeing it as another step towards a Hindu Rashtra, or at least towards a step where Hindu values are made supreme.

The argument used is that since Hindus are in a majority, their sentiments must be respected. Hindus revere the cow. Ergo: Muslims, Christians, Dalits, etc, should not consume beef.

Simple as it sounds, it actually creates more problems. There are two aspects here. The first is secularism, and the second is respecting the majority view and/or sentiments.

Let us take the first criterion. India is a secular country. If the BJP or any of its cohorts want to change the Constitution, they have to achieve that kind of majority to do so, with all its inherent consequences (in my opinion, if India stops being secular, it won't last beyond this century).

Secularism, in the Western concept, means we keep religion and State separate and distinct from each other. In India, over time, it has come to mean treating all religions equally.

The Indian concept is inherently more dangerous, because it is impossible to treat all religions equally given that all religions have practices that no modern civilised State can follow or allow.

For instance, let us take the banning of certain foods. Many Hindus claim that the cow is holy and hence killing cows is offensive to their sentiments and should be banned. This ban on killing cows has now been widened in Maharashtra and some other states to include a ban on killing oxen and bullocks, as part of the same 'sentiment.'

The problem is if we are to respect sentiments when it comes to diet, will we tomorrow ban the selling of all non-vegetarian food because it offends the sentiments of Jains and some sections of Hindus (Brahmins, etc)? (While defending the beef ban in the Bombay high court on Monday, April 6, Advocate General Sunil Manohar told the court that the state may consider banning the slaughter of other animals too, which forced Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis to clarify in the state assembly the next day that no such ban was on the anvil.)

This isn't as far-fetched as it sounds: In Mumbai, in various housing societies with a Gujarati/Jain majority, non-vegetarians are openly discriminated against and not sold apartments for fear of bringing home non-vegetarian food.

Then we must also consider the sentiments of the Muslim community, India's second largest community. Islam proscribes alcohol, so why not ban the sale of alcohol?

Drinking alcohol is far more damaging to the social fabric than eating beef, so surely there is a case here.

And going further, Sikhism forbids smoking tobacco so it is surely time to ban tobacco which everyone knows is truly dangerous.

Jains don't like onion and garlic, so time to stop eating and growing them.

And if tomorrow some new religion says drinking milk hurts our cows, surely we should stop that too.

The above paragraph would actually be funny were it not so tragic and appear probable. In a country like India, it is clear that respecting religions -- in politics or in the kitchen -- is disastrous.

Religion can dictate our individual diet; it can never dictate State policy. That is why the framers of the Constitution sought to keep religion and religious beliefs at a distance, the further the better.

By banning the killing of oxen and bullocks, the Maharashtra government has narrowed the difference in the name of majority sentiment.

This too has pitfalls. No doubt in a democracy, majorities matter. It was the decision of the majority that allows the BJP to rule India and Maharashtra today, and no matter how much some may abhor this view, it must be respected.

Fair enough, but when the majority starts deciding what we may or may not eat, we have to first ask: Who or what constitutes the majority?

India is home to perhaps the largest number of races, ethnicities, languages, religions, etc. No country can even come close. Take ethnicity, for instance: There is no single ethnic majority (the term Indo-Aryan consists of numerous ethnicities within).

In languages, Hindi as the first language of India is spoken by, at best, about 35 per cent of India, and less if dialects are listed separately. There is no single dominant caste in the country, though in states some castes do dominate.

Only in terms of religion does India have a huge majority. Hindus comprise over 80 per cent of India. The second largest religion, Islam, is a distant 13 per cent. The gap is sufficient for some Hindus to insist that Hindu beliefs be respected.

It is for this reason that over the years, though the Constitution did not ban the slaughter of cows, governments fearful of losing power found ways to respect this sentiment (via the Constitutional loophole that allows the preservation of milch animals).

But if the sentiments of a majority of Indians must be respected by all others, then let us look at this question in another way. The majority of Indians (including Hindus) eat non-vegetarian food. Then surely the minority vegetarian Hindus must respect this sentiment and consume non-vegetarian food.

Should we as a country even allow vegetarianism among a minority, when such a sentiment is disrespectful of the majority view that relishes eating mutton, chicken, and fish! It is time for vegetarian Brahmins, Gujaratis, and Jains to give up their vegetarianism, and join the non-vegetarian mainstream.

After all, some non-vegetarians might find vegetarianism offensive to their sentiments!

Narrowing down to Maharashtra, no one will deny that the majority in the state are non-vegetarian. So should the Shiv Sena and MNS be allowed to start forcing the vegetarian Brahmins, Jain, Marwaris, Gujaratis to respect this sentiment and start consuming fish, mutton, and chicken?

Is not the restrictions imposed by the vegetarians (whether in housing societies or 'pure veg' restaurants) disrespectful of the Marathi manoos?

Today, in the name of respecting the Hindu majority, killing of bullocks has been banned. Similarly, in the name of respecting the non-vegetarian majority, no Gujarati/Jain housing society must henceforth bar non-vegetarians from purchasing an apartment in such societies.

After all, besides religious majorities and minorities, there are majority-minority in terms of language (Marathi-Gujarati), caste (non-Brahmin-Brahmin, or non-Jains-Jain), etc.

Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis may have had his political compulsions in seeking to ban the killing of bullocks. But he should have realised why India chose secularism, and why previous chief ministers made haste slowly when it came to the question of killing bullocks.

His decision will unleash the religious bigots, and may well turn out to be a political disaster. Watch this space.

Image pubished only for representational purposes.

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Amberish K Diwanji