Can one person’s religious freedom interfere with another’s food preferences? And what if the freedom of one religious group is in conflict with that of another? The ban imposed in some States on the sale of meat during the Jain community’s annual fasting period of Paryushan is problematic for more than one reason, and militates against the food preferences of a majority of the people in the States concerned. Not surprisingly, the order of the Mumbai Municipal Corporation requiring slaughter houses and meat shops to remain closed for four days during the fasting period led to public outrage, and the Bharatiya Janata Party came under attack from the Shiv Sena, its own ally in Maharashtra, over the decision. When more States began announcing similar bans, the issue became contentious and took on a communal colour. Indeed, the Shiv Sena warned the Jain community that it risked being alienated from mainstream Indian society if it continued to insist on a ban on meat. In Jammu and Kashmir, meanwhile, the High Court called for the strict implementation of a long-forgotten law that prohibits the slaughter of cows, oxen and buffaloes. This fed into the political unrest in the Muslim-majority State, with separatist leaders calling for a shutdown in protest. That the States ruled by the BJP are the ones seeking to impose the ban on meat is not lost on anyone. After Maharashtra, the States of Rajasthan, Gujarat, Chhattisgarh and Haryana followed suit, raising the suspicion that the idea of a ban was meant to further the BJP’s political agenda. In Maharashtra, the government had already introduced a ban on beef; the bar on all meat varieties was therefore seen as an extension of the same Hindutva agenda.
Although such a move is nothing new, the publicity given to the ban this time, and it being extended from two days to four and eight days, resulted in much disquiet. Many sellers and consumers of meat are not opposed to a ban on the sale for a day or two; usually the days preceding and following those days would see an increase in sales and compensate for the day of the ban. But a bar for four consecutive days, and the wide publicity given to it, raised fears that the implementation would be strict and that those who did not conform might face prosecution. The stated rationale for the prohibition — which does not cover fish and eggs — is to prevent ‘slaughter’ during the period of fasting. But that did not convince the Bombay High Court, which termed the move “regressive” and “absurd” in a cosmopolitan city like Mumbai. By ordering a ban on meat for an extended period, the BJP governments have revealed a fundamentalist streak, and thus risked a backlash from some of their own core supporters.