“Food items that are banned will not be served,” announces the restaurant menu of Hotel Saffron in Thanesar, a pilgrimage town in Haryana’s Kurukshetra district. The caution — part of ‘Important Notes’ towards the end of the menu — continues despite its owner Anand Bajaj getting an interim stay against a government notification of October 2017 that had, while declaring Kurukshetra a ‘Holy City’, banned the sale and purchase of meat and meat products in the municipal limits of Thanesar and Pehowa.
On October 16, Justice Rajan Gupta said, “Prima facie, there is substance in the plea of the petitioner. Till the next date of hearing, no coercive steps would be taken against him in case he vitiates to sell the food items specified in the license.”
Despite the encouragement from the court, Bajaj is reluctant to openly announce the sale of non-vegetarian food, but hopes to soon start serving chicken. “Chicken dishes have a lot of demand,” he says.
Bajaj, who set up his hotel 10 years ago, had approached the High Court in 2017 with two simple questions: Can a state government, through a notification or an administrative order, regulate the sale of food items, including meat and meat products, when the licence for sale and purchase allows the same under a Central legislation, the Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006. Two, does the state action unreasonably restrict the fundamental right to carry on trade or business?
It was the second question that propelled Bajaj to move courts. “We have always had customers asking for non-vegetarian food. How do we tell customers that because this is a ‘Holy City’, you can’t eat what you want. Besides, we stand to lose our customers who would rather travel a few more kilometres and stay in a place where they get the food they like,” says Bajaj, 46.
His hotel falls within the 32.25-sq-km area that makes up Thanesar municipality. The hotel has 15 rooms and two multi-purpose halls to host parties and weddings. There are around 40 men on the rolls, including seven-eight cooks who can make any kind of food, including non-vegetarian, says Bajaj.
Just outside the municipal limits, on the stretch of a road connecting Thanesar to Pehowa, 23 km away, there is a line of shops that sell non-vegetarian food, including chicken, lamb and fish. There is no ban on bringing meat or meat dishes inside Thanesar or Pehowa; only on purchase and sale. A mere 4 km away from Bajaj’s hotel but outside the municipality, the Haryana Tourism Department’s Hotel Parakeet serves non-vegetarian food.
Hotel manager Sanjay Sharma, a vegetarian himself, says, “Even Amritsar is a ‘Holy City’, but you can find a range of non-vegetarian food there. To eat or not to eat something is an entirely personal choice. It’s not easy when someone who chooses to stay here asks for non-vegetarian food but we have to offer a ‘sorry’ instead.”
Bajaj says though the notification came in 2017, an informal ban has been in place for years, its roots going back to a proposal approved in 1974 by the then Thanesar Municipal Council for a ban on the sale of liquor and meat. The ban, usually enforced at the level of the district administration, had in 2014 led to “action” being taken against two hotels in Thanesar for selling meat.
It was in 2011 that Bajaj, along with four other hotel owners, first approached the High Court against the restriction. But the petition had to be withdrawn in October 2017 after the court was informed that the Governor had given his assent to the decision and that a formal notification had been issued for the ban.
Bajaj then filed a fresh petition in the High Court and a year later, the court issued a stay on the notification.
Bajaj, however, is aware that the relief from the High Court is limited to his hotel and restaurant and that the stay is only interim — till the next date of hearing, on January 29, 2019.
“Also, the government is yet to provide any response to our case. We only hope there’s a permanent decision and the parameters for ‘Holy City’ are decided properly,” he says.
Meanwhile, the breather from the court has raised hopes among other eating joints in Thanesar. Harish Luthra, the owner of a McDonald’s outlet down the road from Hotel Saffron, says he has sent a copy of the court order to the management for “advice” on whether they can start serving non-vegetarian food too.
“We have only been selling vegetarian food because, as an international brand, we didn’t want to be involved in any controversy. The court decision may be limited to just this one case but it applies to everyone because we also have a proper legal licence under the law,” says Luthra.