The contagion of meat bans gripping state after state is producing a fog of mendacious arguments. It has to be stated clearly and in plain terms: These bans violate fundamental liberties, erode the secular character of the state, harm the causes of vegetarianism and non-violence they are ostensibly designed to encourage, and display deep disrespect for religion. No historical jugglery and rhetoric can get around this.
Take the historical jugglery first. It is true that even Congress governments often banned meat. But that only shows that the Congress was opportunistic and deeply muddled about individual liberty. It also freely connived with an invisible but insidious communalism. It is time we moved past the Congress’s mistakes and re-imagined India as a zone of individual freedom, not a prison house of communal piety. The “Congress did it” argument is a necessary historical diagnosis. It is not a remotely plausible normative claim.
The second mendacious historical argument is the practices of pre-modern states. We cite examples of Akbar or princely states observing various kinds of meat bans around festivals, or even prohibitions on beef. These were often treated as gestures to promote communal harmony. But it is a mark of just how confused we are about modern constitutional politics that we see pre-modern states as defining our constitutional and legal horizons. Many of these states could be benevolent, but they were embedded in structures that did not recognise individual liberty and rights in the modern sense.
Toleration or respect was dependent upon the benevolence of the ruler, not claimed as a matter of individual right. The state needed toleration because it did not grant rights; it needed gestures of inclusion because rulers freely professed the hegemony of their religion. In a modern state, it cannot be the state’s business to tell people what to eat, unless on public health or such grounds. The strength of a modern state is that it does not make rights dependent on a politics of gesture or benevolence. My liberty cannot be held hostage to someone else’s beliefs.
The third strange argument is that meat bans are a sign of respect. The more you ban in the name of religion, the more derision you will evoke for it. In the case of Maharashtra, respect is ostensibly being extended to Jains. This is a typical BJP move: Invoke minorities for what is essentially a play of brute majoritarian power. First, a real culture of respect in a diverse society would involve genuine reciprocity.
I wonder what the votaries of meat bans would think of compulsory fasting for non-Muslims on a number of days during Ramzan, since fasting itself would not violate any ethical principles. The respect argument is bunkum. It is asymmetric in getting others to give up their liberty for one religion. This is not respect; it’s an exercise of power. Respect is not something that’s imposed. Coercion is the antithesis of respect.
The other response to this asymmetry will often be to compensate by finding gestures of respect for other religions. But Indian secularism has been marred by this competitive politics of respect, which breeds group insecurity and competition. The state will always look partisan here. There are so many sensitive issues on which we have to delicately move towards a more modern regime based on citizenship — a common civil code or at least a framework for equal gender rights, the bizarre discrimination we have instituted where “majority”-run education institutions cannot have the autonomy that “minority” ones do — but these can only be tackled when the state does not exude a whiff of partisan and cultural hegemony.
The fourth self-defeating argument is that somehow these meat bans will actually promote less cruelty, or more vegetarianism. I happen to be a vegetarian. I believe there is too much unnecessary violence in the slaughter of animals for consumption and so on. I would prefer a world in which these beliefs were more widely shared and became default common sense. I hope these values can one day be defended not as beliefs of a particular religion, but as products of public reason. They should be objects of genuine ethical conversion. But we have not yet arrived at that point. State bans make the possibility of a healthy debate over these things less likely. They tie issues like vegetarianism or non-violence to sectarian identities, not to ethical values; they relocate them from the realm of rational and moral argument to the domain of cultural politics. The minute these values become an act of cultural power, they invite more resistance. It is hard to locate vegetarianism on a plane other than Brahmanism, Jainism or Sanskritisation, so just raising these issues becomes a matter of competing identities, not moral arguments.
In an era of individual liberty, the mere fact that something is imposed does and should make it an object of suspicion. Paradoxically, it is easier to discuss, even proselytise, these values when there is no threat of a ban. Similarly, there are issues with bans on liquor. There are genuine social issues with drinking in India, and the violence and devastation it brings. But the minute the spectre of massive state intrusion is raised by the prospect of a ban, it becomes harder to sensitively confront these issues. The more you use state power to ban things, the more they will be contested. Like our demands for bans on books, the intent is to assert community power and draw attention, not solve a real problem.
A genuine secularism in India requires that the forces of individual liberty be given priority over social orthodoxy, that our rights as citizens become progressively detached from our particular identities, that there is genuine distrust of the state’s intrusive power over individual lives. By pushing us back into the competitive politics of respect, the BJP is stoking the very fires it wanted to avoid. By making state power regulate intimate aspects of our lives, like what we eat and drink and wear, it is displaying its commitment to maximum government. And by constantly changing the narrative back to identity politics, it is displaying just how fragile and faltering its grip on new India is. No wonder the government seems distracted and confused.
The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, and contributing editor, ‘The Indian Express’
(This article appeared in print under the headline ‘Get off the ban-wagon’)