Ludhiana & Mumbai: A few weeks before India’s Covid-19 second wave, one of the authors (Prannv) was travelling back home from Delhi to Ludhiana on an Indian Railways train, the Vande Bharat Express, headed to Jammu’s Katra, abode of the Vaishno-Devi Hindu pilgrimage site.
Upon requesting a non-vegetarian meal, the staff refused, saying, “Sir, yeh train toh Mata ke [Vaishno Devi shrine] tak jaa rahi hai, isspar non-veg manaa hai”(Sir, this train is going to the Vaishno Devi Mata shrine, hence non-veg food is not allowed).
Some questions arose: Why was there a presumption that every passenger on board the train was a Vaishno-Devi going, Hindu pilgrim, vegetarian by default? The Indian Railways is a government-owned opertion, so why is an entity owned and operated through a constitutional mandate failing to uphold fundamental rights against discrimination?
Earlier, on an Air India flight in 2019 from Goa to Mumbai, an air-hostess informed journalist Saba Naqvi that Air India had stopped serving non-vegetarian food to economy class passengers on domestic routes since 2017. One of us experienced this in March 2021.
On 12 July 2021, the government of Assam proposed to a law that would ban the sale of beef in areas predominantly inhabited by Hindus, Sikhs and Jains and within a radius of 5 km of a temple, the first state in the northeast to do so. Similarly, on 15 July, the government of Jammu & Kashmir banned the slaughter of cows, calves and camels on Eid-ul-Azha (Bakri Eid).
These seemingly unconnected events are evidence of India’s tryst with enforced vegetarianism, which is increasingly embedded into legislation and government policy in violation of the Constitution and judicial pronouncements and minoritarian, as it appears to be driven by a rise in vegetarianism among politically influential higher-caste Hindus.
The Making Of A Minoritarian Culture
The notion that India is not inclined to meat-eating is deep-rooted and obscures reality, as our analysis of government data indicates.
The myth that the majority of Indians are vegetarian has repeatedly been debunked by data from the National Family Health Survey (NFHS). The NFHS 2015-16, revealed that around 80% of Indian men and 70% of women eat either eggs, meat, fish or one or all of these. The latest NFHS-5 data from 2019-2020 reveals similar figures. Although NFHS-5 has only published state-wise reports of 18 states so far, a cursory analysis revealed that more than 80% men and women reported eating eggs, chicken, meat and fish in 15 of these 18 states.
A 2018 demographic analysis of decadal shift in food preferences in NFHS data (2005-2015) revealed “little change” in the incidence of vegetarianism in India. No more than 23-37% of Indians were vegetarian. Meat consumption is highest amongst Muslims, Dalits and Adivasis, with more than 80% of scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and Muslims reporting they ate non-vegetarian food, compared to 57% among so-called upper-caste Hindus.
But these data, published in the Economic and Political Weekly, also reflected an increasing assertiveness about vegetarianism among the higher castes, which reported a 12.4% decadal increase in vegetarianism.
This assertiveness about “purity” and “acceptability” has also led to expressions of disgust and intolerance regarding taboo meats: beef and pork, among other meats, in public spaces, universities, canteens and in expressing religious feelings.
A June 2021 Pew Research Center survey recorded 72% of Hindu respondents saying that anyone who ate beef could not be considered Hindu, higher than the number of Hindus who said that a person couldn’t be considered Hindu if they rejected belief in God (49%), never went to a temple (48%), or never prayed (48%). The survey also found that 77% Muslims said the same thing about anyone eating pork, more than those who said a person could not be considered Muslim if they did not believe in God (60%) or did not visit the mosque(61%).
While many private establishments and smaller-institutional frameworks across India have always had a culture of enforcing vegetarianism, evident today is the surge in government-backed legislation and public institutions that attempt to enforce a vegetarian mandate.
Culinary Separation By State Decree
For instance, a last-minute decision in February 2020 ensure the removal non-vegetarian entrees from a food festival celebrating culinary culture from the 4600-year-old Harappan civilisation; or decisions by some state governments as seen in the image below, the majority of which are run by India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), to not serve eggs in the mid-day meal scheme.
No more than 13 states served eggs to students in government schools, as of 2020, according to the latest data from Swati Narayan of the National Institute of Advanced Studies, who had worked on the #AndaDo initiative of the Right to Food campaign.
This phenomenon of enforced vegetarianism is as common in modern metropolitan India as it is in parochial small towns.
Despite these data, there has been an onslaught of legislation, particularly a rise in punitive anti- cow-slaughter laws, and open endorsements against non-vegetarianism, such as Gurugram’s closure of meat-shops on Tuesdays, or a now-deleted 2018 tweet issued by the ministry of health which classified non-veg as “junk food” under India’s current government.
While Haryana law governing butcher shops orders that they be closed once a week, some MCG members, the media reported (here and here) pushed for that day to be a Tuesday, a day many Hindus believe they are not supposed to eat meat. In late 2017, another municipal corporation, the BJP-ruled South Delhi Municipal Corporation, banned the display of non-vegetarian food outside eateries.
The prime minister, too, has expressed his discomfort with meat-eaters. In late 1990s, Modi had told journalist Saba Naqvi that “Maas khane wale logon ka vyavhar alag hota hai. (Meat-eating people have a different behaviour)”. Providing context, journalist Zahir Janmohamed later wrote that “in Gujarat, there is often a sense that meat eaters are an entirely distinct, and often lesser, category of people”.
In his fieldwork in Gujarat after the 2002 anti-Muslim riots, anthropologist Parvis Ghassem-Fachandi explained in his 2012 book, Pogrom in Gujarat, how non-vegetarian food carried negative caste-linked associations, linked to poor intellectual abilities, sexual rapaciousness and an inclination to violence among those who consumed it.
Fachandi’s analysis is echoed by the Pew Research data, which finds a strong correlation between vegetarianism, Hindu religious observance and support for the BJP. “Hindus who express a favorable view of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are more likely than others to be vegetarians (49% vs. 35%).” said the survey.
While India’s enforced vegetarianism may be growing, it appears to violate international law, constitutional provisions and judicial pronouncements.
The Legal Case Against Enforced Vegetarianism
Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which India is a party, includes “not only ceremonial acts but also such customs as the observance of dietary regulations, the wearing of distinctive clothing or head-coverings, participation in rituals associated with certain stages of life, and the use of a particular language customarily spoken by a group”.
Restriction of choices in the public sphere violates the text and the spirit of the Constitution’s Article 15(2), which expands the protection against discriminatory practices to “horizontal” relationships or those between citizens and other non-State entities, such as fellow citizens, private establishments, shops; in the words of B R Ambedkar, the chairman of the committee that drafted the Constitution, “anybody who offers his services”.
In Indian Medical Association vs Union of India (2011), the Supreme Court read into the meaning of the word “shop” in Art 15(2) to give an expansive scope that furthered the ideal of social democracy. a reasoning that makes it self-evident that the protection against hegemonic control over personal choices goes beyond municipal corporations, public-sector railways or airlines and includes non-state entities, such as housing societies, college canteens and workspaces.
So, the direct and indirect imposition of vegetarianism and scuttling down of choice would be a foreclosure on the right of “access to shops” enshrined in Art 15(2). As the data shows, a larger proportion of marginalised communities like Dalits, Adivasis and Muslims eat meat, eggs or fish. India’s non-discrimination doctrine has progressed to include indirect discrimination that disparately and disproportionately impacts the rights of the marginalized.
Another dimension of the constitutional vulnerability of this enforced vegetarianism is the right to privacy within the right to life and personal liberty in Article 21 of India’s Constitution.
A 2016 Bombay High Court ruling on a number of clubbed petitions is significant as it struck down sections 5D and 9B (which penalised the possession of beef and reversed the presumption of innocence) of the Maharashtra Animal Preservation Act, 1976, while upholding the rest of the Act’s provisions.
In doing so, the Bombay High Court also made reference to the Supreme Court’s 2008 judgement in Hinsa Virodhak Sangh vs Mirzapur Moti Jamaat & Ors. Even though in that case the Court approved the closure of slaughter-houses during the Jain Paryushan festival, it also observed how “[A] large number of people are non-vegetarian and they cannot be compelled to become vegetarian for a long period. What one eats is one’s personal affair and it is a part of his right to privacy which is included in Article 21 of our constitution…”
The Bombay High Court’s judgment emphasised this right of privacy in the context of an individual's food choices in both the “private sphere” (indoors) or outdoors.
“A citizen has a right to lead a meaningful life within the four corners of his house as well as outside his house,” said the Court. “This intrusion on the personal life of an individual is prohibited by the right to privacy which is part of personal liberty guaranteed by Article 21. The state cannot prevent a citizen from possessing and consuming a particular type of food which is not injurious to health (or obnoxious)”.
This jurisprudential push toward recognition of decisional autonomy, later re-emphasised by both Puttuswamy (2017) and Navtej Singh Johar (2018), showed how the practice of taking off non-vegetarian items from a menu and enforcing only vegetarian options violated Art 21.
In 2017, the Allahabad High Court acknowledged the right to choice of food in an order against the Adityanath government’s crackdown on abattoirs and butcher shops. The Court observed that not only was the State duty bound to facilitate access to healthy “foodstuffs” but that “Food that is conducive to health cannot be treated as a wrong choice...Food habits in this State have flourished and are an essential part of life as an element of the secular culture that has come to exist and is common amongst all sections of the Society.”
This health-oriented reasoning was also used by the Kerala High Court on 22 June 2021, while staying the Lakshadweep Administration’s decision to discontinue serving non-vegetarian food in mid-day meals.
(Prannv Dhawan is reading law at the National Law School of India University, Bengaluru. Sabah Gurmat is an independent journalist and student of law at the University of Delhi.)