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Explained: Why meat-eating cannot be banned in ‘vegetarian state’ Gujarat

Events over the last two weeks show how unlikely it is that meat-eating can be banned in Gujarat.

Written by Leena Misra | Ahmedabad |
Updated: November 23, 2021 10:17:50 am
After the lockdown forced many restaurants to shut in cities such as Ahmedabad, some that reopened dropped the red dot from their menu, and others turned into cloud kitchens, largely because of the economics. (Representational Photo)

In his 2017 Budget speech, then Chief Minister Vijay Rupani had declared that Gujarat would be a “vegetarian state”. The announcement coincided with his government adding more teeth to the cow slaughter law, which now awarded a life term to offenders, and came a few months ahead of the Assembly elections that year.

After the lockdown forced many restaurants to shut in cities such as Ahmedabad, some that reopened dropped the red dot from their menu, and others turned into cloud kitchens, largely because of the economics.

Events over the last two weeks, however, show how unlikely it is that meat-eating can be banned in the state. BJP functionaries of municipal corporations in four major cities — Rajkot, Vadodara, Bhavnagar and Ahmedabad — declared a crackdown on carts selling non-vegetarian food on the streets. State BJP president C R Paatil had to hush up the city unit leaders, and assert that there was no ban on meat eating and that people had a “right” to eat what they want.

The myth & the reality

In 2003, when Gujarat was recovering from the previous year’s riots, then BJP MLA Bhavin Sheth from Ahmedabad’s Ellisbridge constituency, under the watch of then MoS (Home) Amit Shah (now Union Home Minister), forced shut food carts selling non-vegetarian fare from the street outside IIM-A, which was part of his constituency. Those food carts have not yet returned. Sheth is a Jain, a community declared as a minority, and an influential community in Ahmedabad occupying powerful political positions.

Gujarat’s image of being vegetarian takes from this impression about Ahmedabad where you can even get pizza and vadapav in categories called ‘Jain’ (no onion, garlic or tubers) and ‘Swaminaryan’ (without onion or garlic), the latter taking from the large following of the Swaminaryan sect.

Marketing about Gujarat also has focused solely on its vegetarian fare. The recipes for the local spicy mutton curry, prawn and fried paaplet (pomfret), largely remain a secret preserved in private kitchens or innocuous non-vegetarian dhabas along the state highway.

Sociologists and historians assert that the belief that Gujarat is a vegetarian state is a myth. As per the Sample Registration Survey of 2014, Gujarat has a 40 per cent meat eating population, which is even higher than in Punjab and Rajasthan. And these are not just Muslims, Christians and Parsis, but also OBCs, Dalits and Tribals.

Gujarat is also a major fish producer, contributing 17 per cent of the country’s marine produce. The Kharwa and Koli OBC communities of Saurashtra and South Gujarat, are largely into fish production. However, fish-eaters in Ahmedabad, who would depend on the fish sold from mobile vans of the government-supported Gujarat Fisheries Central Co-operative Association Ltd, near IIM-A, for quality products, have had to look for other sources after the association suspended the sale in 2014 because of “protests from locals”, say officials. Ahmedabad has low tolerance for non-veg food being sold or consumed in the open. Most egg- and chicken-eating members of vegetarian Gujarati families consume it outside of their homes.

BJP’s balancing act

When the BJP has planned a conscious outreach to OBCs with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s new ministry inducting a number of OBC ministers, and when Uttar Pradesh, where more than half the population is non-vegetarian, is going to polls, the party brass has realised that upping the ante on meat-eaters would upset the election math. With the presence of Gujaratis in the central decision-making dispensation growing, the party had to make the right noises to assert that what happened in Gujarat was not reflective of its overall mindset.

It might also have dawned on the party leadership that criminalising meat consumption was not the same as criminalising cow slaughter or alcohol consumption. While the latter two positions could win over Hindus and pro-prohibition voters, the BJP could lose a large chunk of votes by declaring a ban on meat itself.

All this was evident in the party’s starkly contradictory positions at the state and city levels last week. Beginning with the Rajkot Municipal Corporation which is home to Rupani, the issue went into a tailspin through Vadodara, Bhavnagar and Ahmedabad, where BJP mayors, standing committee chairpersons or civic committee heads announced drives against carts selling non-veg food for reasons ranging from “hurting religious sentiments of those following Hinduism (Rajkot) to “the sight (of non-veg food)” not being pleasing” foul smell, and “leaving negative impact on minds of young children” . Junior BJP leaders might have imagined the issue would win over Hindus, but it ended up sending a scare among migrants as well — many of whom made a living out of selling egg dishes on handcarts, and many for whom this was the only affordable nutritious meal.

But Paatil, in a media interaction in Rajkot on Saturday, reiterated how everyone in this country “has the liberty to decide what to eat. It is not appropriate to remove a person selling non-vegetarian food from a cart. There is no such provision in the law either. People are free to sell anything which is not prohibited. So, there is no question of removing carts (from roads),” he said.

He added that all mayors had been instructed not to take any such action against non-veg food carts.

While Rupani, a Jain, could get away with declaring Gujarat “vegetarian”, Paatil, who has roots in Maharashtra, could not risk the decision being attributed to him. Surat, his home city, and Navsari, his constituency, have a large traditionally non-vegetarian population, which also includes upper caste Hindus, Parsis, and migrants from many states. It was also the only city that did not add decibel to the noise against non-vegetarianism.

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