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Big picture: who's eating meat in Gujarat, and why ban non-veg food stalls from public roads in Ahmedabad, Vadodara

Meat eating in Gujarat is already a deeply stigmatised activity. What then is the need to reassert the consensus around consumption of non-veg food?

November 17, 2021 / 11:27 AM IST
(Representative image) Food carts selling eggs are also covered by the recent Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation order, which came into effect on November 16, 2021.

(Representative image) Food carts selling eggs are also covered by the recent Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation order, which came into effect on November 16, 2021.

Gujarat is a land of diverse people. The Anthropological Survey of India in 1980 in its People of India series found that 70% of Gujarati communities claimed to have migrated from elsewhere, higher than the all-India average of 60%. Gujarat is also a state of great homogeneity, united by what has traditionally been called its ‘Mahajan’ culture.  The Mahajan culture is an upper-caste elite culture which is marked by a Jain-Vaishnava ethos and emphasizes pragmatism and reconciliation, important attributes in a mercantile society.

Important tenets of this pervasive Jain-Vaishnava ethos include teetotalism, thrift, prudence and Jeevadaya (non-killing). Non killing and, by extension, vegetarianism is a central motif of this ethos, and how powerfully it defines Gujaratis to themselves and to the external world can be gauged from the fact that anyone asserting that many Gujaratis are actually non-vegetarian feels the need to preface their claim as the sociologist D.L. Sheth does when he writes:  

Contrary to general belief (emphasis mine), a majority of the population in Gandhi’s Gujarat are meat-eaters. The 15 percent population of Tribals, 8 percent Dalits, 10 percent Muslims, at least about 20 percent belonging to smaller, lower OBC communities like the Chunvalia Kolis, Chharas, Thakaradas, Wagharis, etc., have all been traditionally non-vegetarians. Add to it the blue blooded Rajputs and the Christians.”

The dominant Mahajan ethos was strengthened by Gandhi’s values of simplicity, teetotalism and ahimsa. The soaring popularity of  Swaminarayan, the fastest-growing global Hindu sect with a belief in austerity and non-violence very similar to Jainism, gave it added weight. Among other things it cast a genteel veneer over the state even as it became the site of periodic outbursts of brutal caste and communal mass violence in the post-Independence era. 

The 1985 violence which metamorphosed from a caste riot into a communal one is seen as a political watershed, marking the decline of the Congress in the state and the rise of other parties. It also marked a new policy among the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies which was to bring varied castes under the common umbrella of Hindutva suffused with the Mahajan culture. 

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It is against this background that Gujarat’s vegetarian/non-vegetarian issue needs to be understood. 

Because of the dominant social and cultural ethos, meat-eating in Gujarat is a deeply stigmatised activity even as, it has been often pointed out, a large number of the state’s people are meat-eaters. Unlike alcohol, meat is not legally prohibited in the state. It is served in restaurants though street stalls and butchers shops are likely to be restricted to neighbourhoods inhabited by meat-eating communities. These and dhabas on city outskirts, where there is less chance of being caught out by a prying neighbour or relative, also attract the more venturesome upper-caste Hindus. 

The stigma over meat-eating has been a handy tool for vested groups to whip up antagonism against traditionally non-vegetarian communities. That these are also minorities or marginalised communities, Muslims and Dalits, among others, makes it easier to paint them in sinister colours and justify their further marginalisation. 

Such a clear consensus has been created by the dominant ethos that the media, the general public and politicians can refer to meat and its consumption as proscribed without fear of contradiction. The fallout of these social norms has been that anyone looking to eat meat outside of someone’s home in a large Gujarati city would know or be told exactly where to go. 

Apart from a select number of restaurants, meat stalls would tend to be collected in certain well-known areas. Apart from these, there are small stalls selling eggs and what are known in common parlance as ‘bitings’ -  meant to be consumed with the actually prohibited item of alcohol. These are few and not easy to spot.

Given these circumstances the recent reported move by civic bodies in Ahmedabad, Rajkot and Vadodara barring the sale of non-vegetarian items “along public roads and in the 100-meter radius of schools, colleges and religious places” is a little baffling suggesting as it does a teeming, proliferating phenomenon threatening urban infrastructure and citizens in a way that needs to be urgently controlled.

If this is not the case, what then?

The creation of a dominant ethos requires making assertions that are allowed to stand without contest. Equating non-vegetarian food with harm, offensive to all religion, its smoke disturbing, its carts as obstructing traffic (unlike other carts), are steps in creating a consensus in what foods are socially acceptable. 

But such a consensus already exists and has long existed in Gujarat. What then is the need to reassert it? It makes sense only if a desired ethos is sought to be created not inside the state but outside it. If the civic bodies’ apparently superfluous moves are meant to signal the attempt to spread the consensus beyond the state’s borders with an eager media amplifying its reach.
Amrita Shah is the author of 'Ahmedabad: A City in the World' (Bloomsbury, 2015). Views are personal.
first published: Nov 17, 2021 11:19 am

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