Vegetarian activism in India, unlike the West, is not limited to spot-shaming celebrities wearing fur or the token protest over a dinner table. Here, vegetarians suffer from a virulent strain of militant evangelism that makes them bend rules, create new ones, and form vigilante groups to bully others into vegetarianism. They will, upon brushing against a non-vegetarian stranger in a crowded Mumbai local train compartment, suggest that she should not eat meat as it increases ‘body warmth’, and when the stranger tells them their advice is unsolicited, tell her she also owes her ‘temper’ to her vile diet. When they band together in their conviction, extreme symptoms of their condition start showing up. They will spit on patrons of non-vegetarian restaurants in their neighbourhood, aggressively demand that malls shut down their non- vegetarian sections, and amend housing society bylaws to keep out non-vegetarians.
These militant vegetarians will, with saccharine piety, discuss the morality of their cause. How a diet of sprouts and tofu is not just a healthy and ethical choice, but a solution to world hunger and safeguard of the planet. Specious as these arguments are, they are usually marked less by concern for animal welfare and more by religious and caste chauvinism, and by related notions of the superiority of their own diet—and by extension culture—over that of others.
This extreme form of vegetarian supremacy is currently being played out in Palitana in Gujarat. Monks from Jain sects are trying to convert this town, considered a pilgrimage spot with hundreds of Jain temples, into an exclusively vegetarian zone. However, this town is not home to vegetarian Jains alone. Of the estimated 65,000 people living in Palitana, at least 17,000 are non-vegetarian Muslims.
The fracas began about a month ago, when, after holding a meeting with the sub-divisional magistrate of the town demanding the conversion of the town into a vegetarian zone, around 200 Jain monks went on an indefinite fast to push their case. The object of their ire is butchers and owners of eateries— mostly Muslim, incidentally—who sell chicken, eggs, and other meat items. The monks ended their fast on the fourth day after apparently receiving confirmations from two political leaders, BJP Member of Parliament Mansukh Mandavia and Gujarat’s Minister of State Tarachand Chheda, who visited them, that the proposal would be considered for implementation by the administration.
Virag Sagar Maharaj of Jambu Dwip, a subgroup within the Shwetambar sect of Jainism, who led the group of 200 fasting monks, appears incredulous when asked how a community of people can suppress the food habits of another. “Why should we allow animals to be slaughtered here? This is our Mecca,” he says. “Today they want meat, tomorrow they will want alcohol,” he says, ‘they’ being the town’s non-vegetarians, “Are we supposed to tolerate this?”
The attempt to convert the town into a vegetarian one started several years ago. After several pleas by Jain groups, a district magistrate notification in 1999 turned a 2.5-km-odd stretch of road that leads to Shat’runjaya hill, which houses many temples, into a ‘vegetarian zone’. This notification also covers 250 metres on either side of the road, areas where no non-vegetarian food would be allowed. However, Muslim groups contested this order and challenged its legality at the Gujarat High Court, where the matter is still awaiting judgment.
This time round, however, Jain monks are not just seeking a governmental nod for their plans. They have conceptualised what they term a ‘rehabilitation plan’. The monks have identified a total of 68 butchers and owners of non-vegetarian establishments and calculated that with a sum of around Rs 2 crore, they can persuade them to take up alternate livelihoods. “We are not leaving them without jobs,” Virag Sagar Maharaj says with an air of generosity, “We will rehabilitate them. We will give them a way out.”
These proposals, however, have resulted in deep resentment among Muslims of the affected area. Many of them are afraid of speaking on record, believing that this might bring them harm. A Muslim butcher says, “They say this [vegetarianism] is the true and right way. But we too have always lived here, and our way isn’t like that.” Razaq Ismail Saiyad, president of the All Muslim Jaman, a local grouping that is opposing the attempt to turn the town all- vegetarian, says, “The monks are offering money to either relocate or change our professions. But we don’t want their money and we don’t want to quit our professions.” He adds, “Qurbani (sacrifice) to us is as important as vegetarianism is to them.”
What ardent adherents of vegetarianism in India often fail to understand is that food is not necessarily a simple ethical pursuit. The origins of any diet can be traced to several factors, from the natural circumstances of people in any given location to changes through the flow of time. No one dietary preference is superior to another. In Mumbai, the failure to understand this has ensured large pockets of areas where no one but a vegetarian can live. Vegetarians have set up residential enclaves in various parts of the city from posh localities in Malabar Hill to modest middle-class localities in Matunga, Sion and Ghatkopar, and tweaked their housing complex bylaws to forbid the selling and renting of properties to non-vegetarians.
A few years ago, when Ashok Khamkar, the proprietor of a well-known store that sells spices, Khamkar Masala, wanted to purchase a flat near his store in Lalbaug, a predominantly meat-consuming Maharashtrian locality, the builders of two residential buildings refused to sell one to him. “I was shocked,” he says. “I have lived in this area since childhood and had never heard of a vegetarian-only policy. When I asked the builder for his reasons, he told me allowing meat-eaters would create ‘a bad vibe’ and ‘disturb the sanctity’ of the place.” Khamkar eventually found a flat in a nearby locality.
Bhumika, who requests that only her first name be published, lives in a residential complex in Mumbai’s swish Malabar Hill area that has abolished the consumption of meat. This marketing professional, along with her husband, however, has been leading the secret life of an occasional meat and egg consumer for over ten years. To indulge in what their Jain and Marwari neighbours consider unholy, the couple never buy meals from non-vegetarian restaurants nearby, or order meat and eggs. They always purchase these commodities several kilometres away on their way back from work. When they cook meat, it is always accompanied with the burning of incense to mask the smell.
Bhumika and her husband feel watched. While they were having a meal about a year ago, a neighbour dropped by on some flimsy pretext and expressed wonder about why such a seemingly non-spiritual couple always burnt incense during the day. “I feel some of my neighbours suspect us,” says Bhumika, “They often turn up unannounced. And I get the feeling they are also going through our garbage bags. But I never dispose the meat, or even egg shells, into the bags. The two of us take turns driving after a meal to throw whatever we need to.”
Some years ago, when two non-vegetarian eateries came up in Bhumika’s neighbourhood, vegetarian residents of the area bullied the owners of the restaurants into shutting them down. Patrons of Roti, a non-vegetarian eatery operated by Mars Hospitality, which runs several other successful restaurants, came in for special treatment. They would be sprinkled with spit from the residential floors above. On other occasions, the greeting was in the form of tumbling trash. Often, guests’ cars would get mysteriously scratched. The other eatery, a Domino’s pizza shop, was shut down after a local leader, BJP MLA Mangal Prabhat Lodha, led a group of vegetarians to protest against smells emanating from the outlet.
Vegetarianism, as it turns out, is a highly exaggerated virtue in India. A 2006 survey conducted by CNN-IBN and The Hindu found that overall only around 21 per cent of Indian families are purely vegetarian. In comparison, 44 per cent of all Indian families consume some form of meat. In fact, not just meat, historians and scholars have argued that Hindus in ancient India slaughtered all types of cattle, including cows, for both food and rituals.
Yet, earlier this year, a venerable newspaper from the South, as a leaked human resources department notice showed, asked staffers not to bring non-vegetarian food into the office dining area, as it ‘causes discomfort to the majority of the employees who are vegetarian’. The newspaper began receiving flak online, with many commenting on how the company’s move was a reflection of its caste-bias, since many employees at the newspaper are Brahmins. One of the editors defended the decision, remarking on Twitter, ‘… Vegetarianism is part of an increased sensitivity to animals & other species. Crazy to link this to a secularism debate’.
But linking the prohibition of meat to caste bias is not as crazy as some may claim. Two years ago, when Dalit student groups staged a beef festival at Osmania University, in an attempt to assert the culinary rights of Dalits and Muslims in public (after having taken permission from the police and college authorities), right-wing students from other unions attacked the festival and its organisers. Says B Sundarshan, one of the festival’s organisers, “We knew some people were upset. But we never expected protestors to behave in such a violent manner.” In the ensuing melee, two vehicles were torched, one student was stabbed, and several students were injured, leading to much tension on the campus premises for several weeks.
According to Deepak Gupta, president of the Maharashtra Gopalan Samiti (MGS), a vocal pro-vegetarian group, vegetarian activism has to be pro-active because Westernisation is seducing a younger generations of vegetarians to start eating meat. When the Aditya Birla Group started stocking meat at its chain of retail stores, More, the MGS led protests against the outlets, carrying placards that expressed shock that a vegetarian Marwari business house like Aditya Birla was dealing with meat products. The vegetarian group also spearheads protests outside shopping malls in the city that stocks non-vegetarian food. “A mall is a public space,” he explains. “And stocking non-vegetarian food along with vegetarian food is wrong. Every time we shop for groceries and vegetables at a mall, we have to deal with the awful sight and smell of a non-vegetarian section.”
The MGS also keeps cows rescued from illegal slaughterhouses at a farm the group operates in a Gujarat village near Vapi. Most of the locals of this area are tribal, whom they believe they are helping by asking them to convert to a vegetarian diet. “Last Diwali, we took them ladoos. They were so surprised. They had never even seen one,” he remarks.
Others like Ashoo Mongia, president of the Rashtriye Goraksha Sena in Delhi, is a vigilante who takes other members of his group on raids that he zealously conducts in Delhi’s grocery markets to ensure no one sells cow meat. After receiving tip-offs from the Sena’s network of contacts, Mongia also tries to intercept trucks suspected to be ferrying cows to slaughterhouses. “The law and police may be lax, but we will actively try to protect [the cow],” he says. Two years ago, when some students of Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University sought to celebrate a ‘beef and pork festival’ to mark their right to eat what they wanted, Mongia ensured that no such festival was held by filing a case against the proposed idea at the Delhi High Court.
In Mumbai, the hotspot these days of vegetarian activism is not any shopping centre or residential locality. It is the city’s sole abattoir in the distant suburb of Deonar. This slaughter- house, a constant subject of shut-down requests, especially during Jain festivals, is expected to be modernised soon, a move that will enable the city’s municipal body to increase animal- slaughter volumes and thus generate more revenue. Vegetarian groups, aghast at this development, initially filed a Public Interest Litigation against the proposal. This did not achieve their objective. So now, every few days, hundreds of them picket the slaughter-house’s gates, trying to refuse the abattoir’s employees passage. They have started SMS campaigns and online petitions against the move as well.
The protesting vegetarians offer various reasons for their behaviour. This ranges from how animal slaughter is unethical to how the meat of Indian animals must not be shipped to Gulf countries, which they consider a serious possibility—and risk. Rakesh Jain, a 27-year-old chartered accountant and a key member of one such group, Ahimsa Jain, offers yet another reason. According to him, any spike in animal slaughter will lead to powerful earthquakes. “Every time an animal is slaughtered, it has been proved that their tears cause Einsteinian Pain Waves,” he believes, citing research of dubious validity, “These waves lead to major seismic activity. Imagine what will happen when Deonar increases its output!” Oh dear.