Veg code for India?

It seems the meat controversy refuses to die, with one leader or the other raking up the issue provocatively. The latest to join the row is BJP leader Mahesh Sharma, the Union Minister of State (Independent Charge) for Culture and Tourism. It appears he has a voice independent of his party’s on one of the controversial issues rocking the country.

In an interview with India Today Television, Sharma, among other things, said the meat ban should be extended to the nine-day festival of Navratri, also known as Dusserah. “If the sacrifices of a few help maintain the religious sentiments of a section of society, there is no harm in doing this,” he said. The minister’s views on Quran and Bible, cultural pollution and renaming of Aurangzeb Road in New Delhi are going to raise several political storms and the Modi government is bound to come under pressure to clarify its stand. People also would like to know whether the government would endorse the minister’s stand on the religious-cultural issues raised in the interview.

At the moment, his call for meat ban during Navratri festival next month may not go down well even among his own party men and allies as it happened in Maharashtra over Mumbai civic body’s attempt to impose a four-day ban on meat during the Jain festival.

The ban has brought to the fore, once again, differences between the ruling BJP and its ally Shiv Sena in the Maharashtra government, with SS and Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) taking to streets to protest the order.  Meat traders’ legal challenge in the Bombay High Court had forced the government to scale down the ban to two days, leaving a bad taste in BJP mouths.

However, there is more meat than meets the eye in later developments. While some Jain leaders called on SS chief Uddhav Thackeray to clear “misunderstandings” over the meat ban, MNS activists put up a non-veg food stall in front of a Jain housing society to denounce it. Throwing civilized behavior to the wind, some protesters had even eaten chicken publicly at the stall, in an apparent move to insult the Jains.

However, the Jain community and Shiv Sena leaders had sorted out their differences with each side stating its position. While Thackeray is reported to have told the Jain leaders that his opposition was only to the imposition of ‘ veg code ’ on other religions, the former explained that it was not their demand to ban meat for other communities. Their stand clearly implies that some BJP leaders are overenthusiastic to extend ‘non-meat days’ using non-Muslim festivals as a ruse to implement what is dubbed ‘veg code.’ Minister Rahul Sharma seems to have endorsed it in his TV interview.

Meat-eaters fear that if the BJP-ruled states keep increasing ‘no non-veg’ days as Hindu festivals of one kind or the other fall on almost every day, meat will vanish from the market. Worse, it will be sold in black at exorbitant prices. Whether their fears will come true or not, what should be clearly understood is food preferences are personal and curbs on them go against the spirit of the Indian Constitution that guarantees fundamental freedoms under Article 21. Is there any provision in the statute to ban meat on selective days to honour the sentiments of some communities on festival days? If their sentiments are to be honoured, the initiative should come from the people, not from the government, voluntarily in deference to others’ wish. Veg or non-veg, food habits and choices should not be a ground for political battles.

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