The Politics of Meat


The banning of meat in various states to honor Jain sentiments is not just about religious issues. It is interlinked with the economic and political heft of this community and Mumbai corporation polls in 2017

By G Moorthy in Mumbai

WHOLE week of debate over the slaughter and sale of meat in various states—but most notably in Maharashtra, Gujarat and Rajasthan—to honour Jain sentiments during the community’s festival of purification, Paryushan Parv, saw fresh outrage on the evening of September 15. A section of the television media stated that Karnataka, led by Chief Minister K Siddaramaiah, too had banned the slaughter and sale of meat during the impending Ganesh Chaturthi.

A malaise that seemed to have struck BJP state governments and its over-enthusiastic elected representatives across the country now appeared to spread to the Congress too. As the night wore on, it became clear that the Karnataka government had not issued such directives in the state but the Benguluru civic body had banned meat for a day on Ganesh Chaturthi, as it always did. But it still made news.

The alacrity with which news of the “ban” made it to headlines in the last few days pointed to a number of things in India’s discourse now. They revolved around the private lives and personal choices of citizens in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s India.

One, it touched a raw nerve because it meant that the government was now enlarging its footprint into our personal lives, directing what food citizens can and cannot buy on designated days. This was particularly galling in Maharashtra, especially in Mumbai city and the larger Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR) which was placed under the beef ban by the BJP government and an enthusiastic chief minister, Devendra Fadnavis.

It is a telling comment that the Bombay High Court had to step in to reduce the number of days of ban from eight, four and two to one day in parts of the MMR. Further, after a petition by the Bombay Mutton Dealers’ Association challenged the ban, the Court remind the government: “You cannot have this formula for a modern city like Mumbai.” The petition stated that the ban “favored a small percentage of the population and was against the secular fabric of the constitution”.

AHMEDABAD, SEP 17 (UNI):- Jain devotees during the sanvatsari pratikraman, a period for forgiveness and fasting, on the last day of paryushan  in Ahmedabad on Thursday. UNI PHOTO-128U
Jain devotees observing fast on the last day of Paryushan in Ahmedabad on September 15

Two, the ban sought to distinguish citizens into classes based on their significance to the BJP and its ideological battle. Thus, Jains and their lifestyle preferences during their festival were deemed more significant and superior to the inalienable constitutional rights of other citizens to choose and buy their food during those days. That one state after another, including Gujarat and Rajasthan, one municipal corporation after another in BJP-ruled states enforced the ban, often extending it by four and eight days, with proposals to extend it further, sent out clear signals to non-Jain citizens. It was bound to spark off sharp reactions from other communities, especially Muslims, Christians, meat-eating Hindus and Kolis.

To place this in perspective, Jains constitute less than 0.5 percent of India’s population. In Mumbai and MMR, this is higher at around four to five percent, but their economic, commercial, social and political influence far outweighs their numbers. In trades such as diamond cutting and polishing, gems and jewelry, stock and commodity exchanges, they dominate to an extent that the trades have come to be identified with the community.

For years together, they backed both the Congress and the BJP but, in the last few decades, their political preference for the BJP has been marked and overwhelming. Their unabashed pitch for Modi’s prime ministerial candidature turned into institutional support on the floor of the all-powerful Bharat Diamond Bourse in Mumbai two years ago. So, when BJP-ruled states and civic corporations picked up an old directive issued during previous Congress regimes to forcefully implement and extend the ban, the political motive would have been hard to miss.

Three, the ban was absurd and illogical in many ways beyond the personal rights over food. In Mumbai, a number of slaughter houses would remain shut for a day or two during the Paryushan Parv and, indeed, during major Hindu festivals such as Ganesh Chaturthi, but sale was allowed – without any of the brouhaha witnessed this year. Often, the local police would go around forcing them to close but it did not make headlines. This year, as the BJP government and its elected representatives in the assembly and municipal corporations raised the stakes over extending it to eight days and demanded a complete shutdown of all slaughter and sale of meat, the issue came to revolve around one community’s prestige against another.

In fact, the ban on slaughter and sale of meat is neither new nor has it happened out of the blue. In Maharashtra, for instance, the ban during the Jain festival was first proposed for a day in 1964, then increased to two days in 1994, both under Congress governments. It was subsequently re-introduced in 2004 under a Congress-Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) government. It was interpreted neither as a pro-Jain nor as an anti-Muslim decision. But in the climate where Fadnavis’ government has taken decisions that raised the hackles of Muslims—banning sale and possession of beef earlier this year, not extending the quota for Muslims in jobs and educational institutions but doing it for Marathas—the meat ban deepened the faultline and the trust deficit between the community and the government.

“There is a Hitler-like regime and the police is doing the rounds and asking shops to shut down,” alleged Zubin Kamdin, lawyer for Bombay Mutton Dealers’ Association, in the High Court. In the previous years, the ban was limited to slaughtering of animals for two days during the Paryushan period, but the ban on sale was being additionally imposed for the first time this year, he pointed out. Asked by the Court why the government had not banned fish and eggs during the Jain festival, the state advocate-general helpfully explained: “There is no slaughter of fish, they die when they are taken out of water” provoking much mirth all around. Indeed, if the ban was driven only by a pro-Jain sentiment, even the sale of onions, garlic and root-based foods such as potatoes should have been banned given that Jains eschew them.

SC judgement

Four, the political intertwining of the issue played a large part in keeping it on the boil. While the Congress, the opposition party in many states, including Maharashtra, and the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) silently watched the unfolding of this bizarre drama over food preferences and religious sentiments, other parties joined in. The Shiv Sena, for instance, picked up the gauntlet against the Fadnavis government. Party chief Uddhav Thackeray was unusually aggressive in opposing the ban, asserting that the party “would ensure that there is no ban on sale of meat”, exhorting his lieutenants to protest visibly and using the party’s newspaper to put the Jains in their place. Thackeray even managed to appear liberal for a brief while in the party’s 49-year-old history of intolerances. His cousin, Raj Thackeray, went more ballistic, not only opposing the ban but also reminding the Jains that “Mumbai belonged to Marathis”.

But there was more to their strident opposition. The Sena has had a number of grievances with the Fadnavis government, though it continues to be a junior partner in it. Its visible opposition to the meat ban would help it in two ways in the 2017 election to the BMC: to further consolidate its hold over
Maharashtrians and Marathi-speakers, many of whom are meat-eaters, and appeal to parochial instincts over the influence of Jains (and Gujaratis) over Mumbai. It helps to recall that Gujaratis and Jains were the first adversaries for the Sena, even before South Indians were targeted. The faultlines were renewed during the Lok Sabha and assembly elections last year as the BJP rode the Modi wave and cast aside its long-time ally, the Sena.

But, typical of the Sena, there were inconsistencies during the ban. The current fracas started in the Mira-Bhayandar Municipal Corporation, in the northern suburb of Mumbai, when it passed a resolution to ban the slaughter and sale of meat during Paryushan Parv. Jains comprise an estimated 1.2 lakh of the 8.5 lakh residents of Mira-Bhayandar. The civic corporation is currently run by the BJP-Sena. When the resolution came up for vote, the Sena members abstained, allowing it to be passed. In the BMC, the Sena is the party with the highest numbers, though it runs the corporation with the BJP. Here, it did not object to the resolution nor did it do so in the Navi Mumbai Municipal Corporation.

However, the Sena showed its belligerent opposition on the streets and the media.
The political intention was clear; it took precedence over other niceties such as constitutional rights and individual liberties. In fact, a delegation of Jain community leaders holding important positions in various trades, called on Thackeray after a week of raised temperatures over the ban. Thackeray issued a statement of compromise, putting the entire issue down to “misunderstanding on both sides”. Raj Thackeray’s idea of protesting with a meat garland/toran outside Jain temples drew sneers even from the most hardened Sainik.

The choicest cut of meat must go to Sharad Pawar’s NCP. Its representatives in Mumbai fiercely opposed the meat ban, calling it ludicrous. But in the Navi Mumbai Civic Corporation, which it presides over, the NCP was only too happy to introduce the ban and extend it to four and eight days. Pawar has not issued a statement yet explaining the contradiction.

Lastly, those who criticized the ban on the grounds that it was appeasement of a certain section of the population, were informed by Dinesh Jain, the BJP corporator who moved the resolution in Mira-Bhayandar that it was “not anti-Muslim at all but a question of religious sentiments” that Jain sadhus need not see meat hanging in shops during a period of purification. But as the popular sentiment against the ban gathered momentum, Jain sadhus took a break from the acts of purification and forgiveness to take to the streets against the meat ban.

And Dinesh Jain helpfully suggested that he would argue for a ban on liquor shops, sale and consumption during Ramzan next year. Clearly, the ban bandwagon is on a roll and cynical political calculations will keep it going for a while now.