Sensible people usually find it hard to agree on anything with the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, the political party of Raj Thackeray which has desperately tried and failed to create a constituency around xenophobia in Maharashtra. But once in the rarest of whiles, its methods, distasteful as they are, find themselves on the right side of the fence. The party is currently on an agitation against bullying by vegetarians, and it is a worthy cause.
This is what the MNS is threatening to do: start food stalls selling non- vegetarian items outside housing societies in Mumbai that have turned themselves into ‘vegetarian only’ zones. The trigger is a non-vegetarian Maharashtrian family filing a police complaint against their vegetarian neighbours, accusing them of harassment because of their dietary habits. Such bullying is not new. India is replete with commercial establishments—malls, multiplexes, corporate office canteens and even railways outlets—where vegetarianism is enforced. We can understand those considerations: if I own a restaurant, I should have the right to decide my menu; and in my home, I decide what is to be cooked. The problem, however, is vegetarians ganging up and deciding what should or should not be cooked in their neighbour’s kitchen.
Being the party it is, the MNS has a self-serving end in all this, but that is the nature of politics. For Thackeray’s party, this is not a vegetarian versus non-vegetarian issue; rather, it is one pitched as Gujaratis trampling over the rights of Maharashtrians. But even a large number of Gujaratis are non-vegetarians. India—it still comes as a surprise to many—is a largely non- vegetarian country, including Hindus. And yet the image is one that is exactly the opposite. The reason for this is that vegetarians have dominated the country both in money (vegetarian Marwaris and Gujaratis make for the cream of the business community) and in thought (the Brahmin caste has had a stranglehold on knowledge for thousands of years). Underneath this slice of society, however, much of the rest of India has happily consumed meat and fish. One can respect those who consciously practice vegetarianism as a form of non-violence, but at the heart of the kind of vegetarian bullying that we see in India is caste, the idea of ‘purity’ and ‘impurity’, of their environment and person being ‘polluted’ by ‘inferior people’. The vegetarian bully pitches it as a religious issue, something offensive to his being. It is the same psychology that was used a hundred years ago in refusing to touch someone of a ‘low caste’. The degree of discrimination is relatively mild in this case, but in independent India the extreme practices based on these principles are held as criminal in the statute books.
In this conflict, we interestingly see two cultural bullies—one fomenting a modern version of casteism and another seeking to thrive on hatred towards ‘outsiders’—arrayed against each other, and it is always good when obscurantists go to war. Hopefully, they will leave each other bloodied in the battlefield because then the rest of humanity will get enough leeway to progress towards a better liberal world.