It is said in China: “First, you eat with your eyes”. If the South Delhi Municipal Corporation (SDMC) has its way, the visual feast in many parts of the capital will soon conform to strictly saatvik standards. The BJP-controlled civic body has proposed that eateries cease to display their non-vegetarian wares in the open — because food “may be contaminated” by Delhi’s pollution and “hurt the sentiments of the vegetarian public”. The Aam Aadmi Party and the Congress have pointed out that the proposal, which needs to be passed by the assembly, is an attempt at communal polarisation by the BJP. Given the zeal with which BJP governments have used public policy to politicise and police eating habits, that allegation is not unfounded.
The SDMC may argue that there is no restriction on eating meat and the move is meant only to protect public health. For that argument to hold water, however, it must provide evidence of the immunity of vegetables to the ill-effects of pollution. Moreover, there is mounting evidence that the SDMC is only falling in line with a troubling pattern of state policy and vigilantism that is cramping individual freedoms, including dietary habits. After all, cow protection laws, often enacted by Congress governments in accordance with Article 48, a Directive Principle of State Policy in the Constitution, have never been enforced as zealously and indiscriminately as they have after the BJP formed governments at the Centre and in a growing number of states.
Beef, a cheap source of protein, has become a prime target for vigilantes who harass and kill and count on a climate of impunity. Beginning with the murder of Mohammad Akhlaq on the suspicion of storing beef in 2015 by a mob in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh, gau rakshaks have attacked, intimidated and murdered in the name of the cow. Now, it would seem the project is being extended to all non-vegetarian food. In Maharashtra, the sale of non-vegetarian items was prohibited during Mahavir Jayanti and earlier this year, the Haryana chief minister said no new meat shops would be allowed in residential areas.
According to a survey by the Registrar General of India released in 2016, over 70 per cent of Indians are non-vegetarian. The food habits in Delhi, a city of migrants, are as diverse as the people who flock to it, make it their home, and help build it. Instead of policing eateries to protect imagined “hurt sentiments”, the SDMC would be better employed if it implements that much-touted — and sadly relegated — slogan: “Minimum government, maximum governance”.