The Rebellious Act of Consuming Meat in India: Non-vegetarianism and Taboo

by | May 13, 2024

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About Samriddhi Chatterjee

Samriddhi is a Law graduate from Gujarat National Law University, currently pursuing an LL.M. in Human Rights Law from Central European University, Vienna.

Food-delivery company Zomato recently came up with an “all-vegetarian fleet policy” wherein vegetarian food would be delivered by a different set of delivery drivers wearing green to ensure food segregation. As this could have led to discrimination faced by those delivering non-vegetarian food, the policy was rolled back. However, it sparked an age-old debate in India: are Indians predominantly vegetarians? According to Government data, about 70% of Indians are non-vegetarians. A person’s caste, religion, and linguistic identity determines their dietary practice, all of which are intrinsically linked to cultural rights. People in the West still largely believe that Indians are predominantly vegetarians and this is often held up as ideal. The agenda is also promoted by the Government, and vegetarianism is imposed on citizens. However, the reality of vegetarianism in India requires reconsideration. Vegetarianism in India is not a conscious choice for the majority, but rather an issue of birth identity which is heavily politicised.

In recent years, Government and extremist groups have made a record number of attempts to prevent the sale and consumption of meat. Recently, the Uttar Pradesh Government imposed a ban on halal certified food. From a crackdown on beef for promoting Hindutva propaganda, to attempting to ban any kind of non-vegetarian food in some places and events, the Government attempts to impose a homogenised culture on people. State universities have also started to either ban non-vegetarian food from their cafeteria or impose food segregation. Any difference in diet that stems from caste, linguistic, or religious identities is seen as a threat to a unified nation and so attempts are made to homogenise cultural practices.

Discrimination based on dietary choices permeates people’s daily lives. To maintain the “purity” of neighbourhoods, non-vegetarian people are often denied houses, whether for rent or sale, and the discrimination deepens with intersections of caste and religion. Children from non-vegetarian families in schools are isolated and alienated from their vegetarian peers as they express disgust upon learning their dietary habits. Mob lynching of cattle-rearers, especially from Muslim communities, has also been rampant without any sort of State intervention.

Dietary practices vary widely even within caste groups. Upper caste individuals, particularly in eastern, northeastern, and certain southern regions of India, consume meat, including beef. This suggests that cultural practices often transcend caste boundaries, particularly influenced by linguistic identities. This diversity challenges the notion of uniformity and highlights strategic reinforcement of certain caste cultures, particularly from northern and western India.

In Ahmedabad, there were alleged attempts by the Municipal body to prohibit vendors from selling non-vegetarian food, under the agenda of anti-encroachment drive. The state argued that it was not directed to just non-vegetarian carts, and so the High Court dismissed the petitions but observed that people were free to consume whatever food they liked. In Chennai, there was a petition before the High Court to evict shops owned by Muslims selling beef located near a temple. The High Court firstly remarked that the petitioners had not provided any evidence to suggest that sentiments of Hindus were hurt, and secondly, eating meat in general was not a punishable offence under the Indian Penal Code. The Courts, however, tend to gloss over individual liberty and cultural practices behind one’s diet.

Indian vegetarianism should be understood in this context: culture, religion and caste influence people’s food practices. The Supreme Court has ruled in favour of beef bans and slaughterhouse closures, citing Article 48 of the Indian Constitution. The Court in Mirzapur Moti Kureshi Kaseab Jamat held that there was a need to balance fundamental rights and Directive Principles (in the context of cow slaughter). This ignores the cultural aspects of food choices and the marginalisation and discrimination faced by non-vegetarians. In a more recent judgment, the Allahabad High Court, in dealing with slaughterhouse closures, stated that food choices are part of the right to life under Article 21. Right to choice of food can also be understood to have links with Article 29, which guarantees the right of preservation of distinct cultures. Right to choice of food was recognised as part of the right to privacy several years ago in the Hinsa Virodhak Sangh case. While further jurisprudence on choice of food is required from courts, particularly the Supreme Court, defending cultural rights as the foundation of a secular democratic society is critical to preserving India’s rich diversity.

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