When it comes to dietary habits, one would expect the State to concern itself with matters of nutrition, adequate or otherwise, among children, women and the poor. As the first year of its being the Government of Maharashtra comes to a close, the elected representatives of the people seem to have developed an unhealthy appetite to exert control over its people’s dietary habits. In fact I do not recall a single instance of any significant media coverage related to ‘nutrition and health’. We have however, seen the beef ban and more recently, the proposed meat ban for four days of Paryushan in Mumbai.
While the two separate bans, one permanent and the other for a period of four days, effects different groups of people and communities, they do seem to suggest a line of thinking on the part of the powers that be. In order to understand this line of thinking, let us look more closely at the two different acts of state control over the everyday dietary habits of people.
The beef ban does not just restrict traditional dietary habits of Muslims, Christians and in many cases even poor people as well as people from lower castes. What it actually does is it legitimizes the notion of a second-class citizenry. It whispers to us that it is okay to not respect the rights of people who are at a numerical disadvantage. Here the reigning political ideology finds resonance among a class of people who are dictated by a burning desire for supremacy, even if it comes at the cost of their humanity. This is a class for whom the weak and the downtrodden are a problem and a menace. The other, silent ally is an unsuspecting middle class, who are continually reminded by the current establishment of the untold horrors and indignities they’ve had to suffer. This is accomplished by renaming roads, rewriting history and reviving forgotten acts of violence that instead of soothing old wounds, keeps them festering, only to erupt into something gory at an opportune moment.
Interestingly for a state that has often stumbled trying to implement its civic improvement schemes with catchy slogans and mega ambassadors, has been able to bring to bear all the required might and machinery to make sure this ban was properly implemented. Nobody believed this would be the case. Bans have a way of being subverted by the twin forces of necessity and resourcefulness, which have displayed their collective genius on many occasions. Last drink orders happen well past the 1:30am deadline in some Mumbai bars. But this was important and it had to succeed on the ground. A few early reports of meat seizures followed by arrests have ensured that the ban for now is well and truly in effect in popular consciousness. Also by allowing the sale and consumption of buffalo meat the statement that gets made is not one of wanton pursuit of discriminatory politics against minorities but a reasonable demand, resulting in the demarcation of a false middle-ground.
The objects of the rants on social media against the beef ban were primarily the state actors and its ideologues. It was possible to take that position with ease, since it was against a partisan policy and against the secular fabric of our national imagination. Much of that ease has been taken away by the more recent ‘meat-ban’ for four days during the Jain festival of Paryushan. The same voices that were against the anti-minority position of the beef ban, are today accusing a minority community of being appeased. The State is lambasted for its blatant pursuit of double standards and a resumption of beef sales for the festive days of Eid are being demanded. The difference is, this time its not just minority communities and the poor from low castes who are being restricted, it’s also the mainstream meat-eating Hindus who are being asked to make a sacrifice. Much of Bombay Maharashtrian middle class consumes chicken and mutton, not to mention the swathes of migrants from Bengal, Bihar and other states where meat is common, if not central to their dietary habits. However, meat eating is rarely a daily affair and it is not uncommon across India to find days that have been marked off for self-regulation, through observances of vegetarianism and temperance.
As of today, the Maharashtra based political parties have declared they will not allow this ban to be implemented. Overnight, the Jain community in Mumbai find themselves in an unenviable position. What indeed is the Government trying to do here? The strategy seems to be, to continuously divide us?—?the people, into communities of conflicting interest. This approach depends on the anger of people denied some part of their everyday life, turning their anger on those who are seemingly being rewarded by the bans. Imagine this as an ongoing process that eventually goes beyond dietary choices. The moment we protest the ban against meat sale or consumption during a few sacred days for the Jains, we become the narrow, self-serving people policy makers want us to be. Where all we seek is the right to assert our choices, our freedoms without consideration for others. This is a brand of politics that seeks to break down the larger community of our cities, through acts of punishment and reward that reinforce the idea that we can only win when someone else is losing. That might be true in the case of politics but it cannot be the driving philosophy of a community or humanity as a whole.
How do we determine the right way to respond to such strategies that seek to reward one group of people by placing, what seems like small punitive demands on another? The Sena are surely not going to let go of this opportunity to win points with their voter base and in the process make the Jains the new enemies of the Maharashtrian community in the upcoming BMC elections. What kind of a stand do we take as a people?
The state wants us to feel and behave like insular entities shorn of humanity and the capacity for understanding of the sentiments of our fellow beings and when we protest the Paryushan meat ban we aid them in this misadventure. It becomes important to understand that while the beef ban needs and must be actively opposed at every given opportunity the meat ban presents a different challenge. This is not the time to vent our frustrations at the Jain community. They are merely following their own belief, which is being politicized with an agenda that they themselves probably are not party to.
If the people of Mumbai could unite in pledging meat free days voluntarily, for not four but all eight days of the Jain festival we would send this government an important message. That we are a people and community with big hearts, capable of a little sacrifice for the sake of our friends, colleagues, neighbors and lovers, who follow different faiths and customs. That we will not be fooled by these policies of enslavement that works on the principle of punishment for one as reward for another.