September 16, 2015, 12:01 AM IST Sagarika Ghose in Bloody Mary |  Edit PageIndia  | TOI

In a mostly non-vegetarian land, good governance can’t be food governance

The ban on sale and slaughter of mutton by BJP-ruled states during the Jain festival of Paryushan to ostensibly protect the sentiments of the Jain community, raises the question of whether governments exist to protect sentiments. If the state can ban slaughter of mutton, is this one step away from banning azaan in mosques because ‘sentiments of Hindus’ are being hurt, or banning Durga Puja celebrations because ‘sentiments of iconoclasts’ are being hurt, or banning the sale of alcohol because ‘sentiments of teetotallers’ are being hurt?

Just as it was not the government’s job to ban Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, or to ban the play Mee Nathuram Godse Boltoy, protecting culture or protecting sentiments is not the state’s mandate. Governments exist to uphold constitutionally provided legal rights, not to take stances based on cultural mores of particular groups. Articles 14, 19 and 21 guarantee freedom of choice.

RSS is now at the zenith of its political power since Independence, with its ‘guidance’ of the Modi government openly demonstrated in the recent coming out party of RSS-government deliberations. But even though RSS today enjoys unprecedented political influence, the cultural aims or cultural nationalism of RSS cannot become the instruments of modern governance. The meat ban seems to have little to do with protecting the sensibilities of Jains, but everything to do with Sangh ideas of nation building through kitchen building.

Vegetarian brahminical Hinduism is mostly a Hindi belt phenomenon, even though former PM and UP brahmin Atal Bihari Vajpayee was famously nonvegetarian. Maharashtrian brahmins who founded RSS may be strictly vegetarian but Maharashtra as a whole is almost entirely meat and fish eating. Bengali and Kashmiri brahmins are nonvegetarian as are coastal brahmin castes like the fish eating Saraswats.

In fact to cite the well-known 2006 CSDS survey on food, not only are a whopping 69% Indians non-vegetarian but 45% brahmins are also non-vegetarian. So why is a narrow vegetarian brahminical Hindu sanskriti being selectively imposed as a pan Indian cultural norm?

Culture is perhaps the compromise the government has reached with RSS in return for the Sangh’s tolerance of the government’s economic agenda. As Modi sarkar attempts to push neo liberal economics, a path Sangh outfits bitterly oppose, culture may be the one area where the government will have to cede to Sangh demands in return for cooperation, or at least no resistance.

Thus meat ban, beef ban, and (now reversed) porn ban could all be part of a metaphorical new Ram Mandir agitation tailored for NDA-II. The RSS-affliliated Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh may have withdrawn from the general strike against labour reforms in return, as was reported, for stopping GM crop trials but the government can’t always take Sangh cooperation on economic ideology for granted without conceding ground on cultural ideology.

Yet the meat ban is politically risky when majority of voters are nonvegetarian. Vegetarianism is generally an upper caste choice, SCs, STs and OBCs being mostly non-vegetarian. Importantly, bans in general alienate the urban neo middle class, a key propeller of the Modi wave. As an impatient electorate searches for ‘aspiration’, restrictions on individual freedom and the ‘good life’ are unlikely to win approval. A photo-op with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg on the one hand and a government that enables social policing on the other send out rather confusing signals.

We don’t need to hear ruling party spokespersons claiming on TV that restrictions on meat are justified because mosques blare azaan, to conclude that ban on mutton is only a cultural euphemism for asserting Hindu-ness versus Islam.

Whether in the war against Nestle and Maggi noodles or against meat, the protection of the ‘pure’ Hindu kitchen from the polluting influences of western multinationals and Islamic invaders of the palate seems to be uppermost. In the caste hierarchy defined by purity and pollution, levels of pollution increase exponentially as one goes lower down the social order. In the household hierarchy, after the temple, the kitchen is the purest part of the Hindu household, where pure (and poor) brahmins were often employed as cooks.

The fixation on diet is thus to keep the kitchen pure and so by extension keep the nation pure and free of foreign influences. So meat – associated with Muslims – is supposedly anti bharatiya sanskriti. Attempts to police the modern urban kitchen are of course hopelessly counterproductive at a time when the upwardly mobile Indian’s palate is being thoroughly globalised from Italian to Mexican cuisines.

Imposing a ban on the sale of beef in J&K is probably intended as a message to the rest of India about the taming of Kashmir under the umbrella of Bharat, but has the potential to become dangerously polarising. Already there is a backlash, with PDP leader Mehbooba Mufti asserting there will be no change in policy towards beef. And does it make any sense to impose a meat ban in Chhattisgarh where tribal diets include meat? Even in Rajasthan, many Rajput castes are non-vegetarian.

Food politics is nothing but identity politics, part of the sanskritisation inducement held out by Hindu outfits. Become-vegetarian-get-a-higher-caste is the subliminal message, as if eating meat is a political act against an imaginary Hindu sanskriti. For BJP governments to impose meat bans is totally at odds with the mandate of 2014 given for a forward looking India, not for an imaginary Vedic Utopia. The Sangh’s cultural mission has to take second place to the constitutional duties of a government, because good governance is not food governance.