Updated: December 11, 2021 9:35:13 am
How can you decide what I eat?” The Gujarat High Court’s angry question to the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation is a much-needed reminder that choice is at the crux of democratic freedoms — and that it cannot, and must not, be surrendered to divisive politics or the intrusive state. The court was responding to a plea by 25 street vendors, who say that the municipal authorities had seized their carts as a part of a campaign against the sale of non-vegetarian food in the city. Gujarat has recently seen political grandstanding around the sale of meat and eggs in the open, with BJP leaders in four major cities, Rajkot, Vadodara, Bhavnagar and Ahmedabad, last month cracking down on carts selling non-vegetarian food. Several arguments were deployed for this campaign of paranoia — that the sight of omelets and kebabs would offend the religious sentiments of one community; that the smell of non-vegetarian food was disagreeable; that it might even warp the minds of children. As the court pointed out, in the service of a political agenda, the municipal authorities decided to suspend the right of vendors to carry out their honest business and the right of their consumers to buy the food of their choice.
Like all campaigns that seek to divide, the propaganda against meat-eating rests on a dangerous, simplistic fiction. This is the myth of Gujarat as a vegetarian state. Or the myth that the majority of Indians are vegetarians because they belong to a certain religion. Both these misconceptions flounder on facts. According to the Sample Registration System Baseline Survey 2014, 71 per cent of Indians eat non-vegetarian food. Gujarat has a 40 per cent meat-eating population, which includes not just Muslims, Christians and Parsis, but also OBCs, Dalits and tribals. That is to say, mutton tapelu is as much part of a Gujarati meal as the panchkutiyu shaak. Perhaps, it is for this reason, and the political calculations that flow from it, that the BJP has had to roll back its campaign.
No community or religion in a diverse country like India can be reduced to a monolith. But the ongoing and growing contestations over identity and religion are forcing a homogenous idea of India that is not only at odds with its variousness and multiplicity, but also stigmatises other ways of living as inferior — or, worse, casts other religions as the other. Such culture wars have become a ruse for the political class to shrink individual freedoms, and bloat its own powers. The Gujarat High Court’s reprimand to Ahmedabad municipal authorities is, therefore, a welcome push-back. If the state oversteps its limits to interfere in the personal choices of citizens, the judiciary must continue to draw the red line.
This editorial first appeared in the print edition on December 11, 2021 under the title ‘Choice is a right’.