Since the population of Gujarat comprises about 15% Scheduled Tribes, nearly 10% Muslims, 7.5% Scheduled Castes and about 50% Other Backward Classes, and migrants — most of whom don’t have an ideological aversion to meat unlike the Jains and Vaishnavas — we can safely say that a predominant share of the population is meat-eating.
Recently, the BJP-ruled civic bodies in Vadodara, Rajkot, Bhavnagar and Junagadh launched a drive against hawkers and vendors running non-vegetarian food joints along streets and footpaths on the ground that selling such food in the open “hurts religious sentiments”. Subsequently, hundreds of food carts or stalls dotting the roads selling non-vegetarian food were shut by the authorities. To say that Gujarat is a vegetarian State is akin to saying that the people of the State are teetotallers since prohibition is in place. That liquor freely flows everywhere under the watch of the state is an open secret. Similarly, people regularly consume non-vegetarian food but increasingly not in the open for fear of censure.
Idea of vegetarianism
This is because Gujarat’s socio-cultural space is dominated by Jains and Vaishnavas. It is to cater to these elites that Pizza Hut opened its first exclusive vegetarian restaurant in Ahmedabad. Celebrity chef Sanjeev Kapoor also opened his first-ever, all-vegetarian restaurant in Ahmedabad in 2009. This dominant Mahajan culture is marked by beliefs in non-violence, teetotalism and austerity — social values emphasised by Mahatma Gandhi. While vegetarianism is seen as central to this culture, meat-eating has become stigmatised despite the fact that large sections of the society are meat-eaters. The Swadhyaya Parivar and Swaminarayan movements have strengthened the idea of vegetarianism too.
Most of the roadside food stalls selling meat are operated by the minorities, by lower-class/lower-caste Hindus or by migrants. None of them has any substantive say in the political affairs of Gujarat. Though the BJP has been in power in the State for more than two decades and controls all the urban civic bodies of the main cities with its expanded social base, only upper castes such as the Banias, Patels and Brahmins occupy the top positions in government. Their social and cultural beliefs determine social norms. It is not surprising that the first to protest against non-vegetarian food carts was Minister of Revenue and Law and Justice Rajendra Trivedi, a legislator from Vadodara. The Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation Town Planning Committee Chairman Devang Dani, a Bania representing the posh locality of Bodakdev, imposed a ban on stalls selling non-vegetarian food along public roads. In Vadodara, the Municipal Corporation Chairman, Hitendra Patel, issued the directive asking all roadside non-vegetarian food stalls to be removed if they are not covered.
Fear of censure
Reacting to the outcry that followed the ban, Gujarat BJP Chief C.R. Paatil said no action would be taken against vendors selling non-vegetarian food and added that he had directed all the Mayors not to take any coercive action against them. The Chief Minister stressed that the State was not bothered about what people ate. He said action would be taken only against street food carts selling “unhygienic” food or if they are seen obstructing traffic on city roads. However, the fear of censure remains. Bans like these, even if temporary, further stigmatise marginalised communities and religious communities in the State. That such bans are imposed without any contestation shows how dominant communities further assert their dominance and threaten people’s livelihoods and peace.