September 11, 2015

India: Meat bans and food fundamentalism as BJP strategy ( Smruti Koppikar )

Hindustan Times

Meat bans and food fundamentalism as BJP strategy

Smruti Koppikar | Updated: Sep 10, 2015 16:33 IST

It’s the season of madness in Mumbai. But it’s more than a beef ban here and a meat ban there though the bans are a part of the madness.

For a start, there is a grand plan to rob the city of its most significant carto-cultural marker, its coastline. The proposed coastal road, when constructed, will forever interfere in our vision of the sea from the beaches and Marine Drive, besides further skewing the equation against public transport. But chief minister Devendra Fadnavis has staked his credibility on ensuring that the coastal road is built.

To imagine a change in Mumbai’s shoreline would have been madness till he came along.

Fadnavis brought in what his experienced predecessors would have shied away from: the ban on beef. It was widely criticised and mocked at, given the multi-culturalism of the city, its vibrant food cultures and its aspiration to be the next global financial centre. The ban led to some tension and many hilarious moments when the meat with arrested traders turned out to be not that of cows.

A number of other irrational things have happened – the Bandra-Kurla Complex (BKC) which must be the well-endowed and most hip area of the city was chosen to be a ‘smart city’ within the city; there was a fierce debate about Mumbai’s nightlife when Aaditya Thackeray presented it as his bright idea, unmindful of the fact that Mumbai has always had a nightlife without a political leader orchestrating it; there was chatter about redeveloping the Mahalaxmi Race Course and de- reserving parts of the Aarey forest, t wo oasis of green that Mumbaiites believed would never fall to the rapacious builder lobby.

But the madness is most reflected in food favouritism and prejudices.

Non-vegetarian food choices became the reason to openly deny accommodation to Mumbaiites in a vegetarian-dominated housing society. Those who defied the covert ban suffered physical attacks. Now, the ban on meat during Paryushan, for four days in Mumbai and eight days in neighbouring Mira-Bhayander, is giving currency to the term food fundamentalism.

This ban is old – it was a one-day ban in the 1960s, two days in the 1990s – but it has been stretched to four and eight days now. Both in Mumbai and MiraBhayander, BJP leaders were at the forefront of ensuring the ban and demanding a longer one to appease the Jain community. This ban does not include fish and eggs, though these too are forbidden in Jain cuisine. There is no ban on garlic, onion, and root vegetables which too are not part of a Jain’s thali.

Jains constitute not more than 5% of Mumbai’s population. The ban puts a considerably larger section of Mumbaiites into a peculiar problem; Muslims will have to figure out how to conduct Bakri Eid during the ban, and it forces all meat-eaters into abstinence.

There was no ban on liquor during Ramzan, of course.

This food fundamentalism is not a happenstance. Many BJP leaders belong to the Jain community and it contributes financially to the party. Besides, the ban perfectly overlaps with the party’s own socio-political agenda to infuse its ideology into secular aspects of life. But it goes beyond appeasement of Jains.

It is a part of the BJP’s strategy to become the principal player in Mumbai’s socio-cultural life. Its leaders worked to ensure that a section of the hundreds of dahi handi mandals would owe allegiance to it

The apex body of Mumbai Sarvajanik Ganpati mandals has been challenged by another organisation with ties to the party. Its cadre network does not rival that of the Shiv Sena. The party’s attempt, therefore, is to expand its web of influence in Mumbai’s life at multiple levels that will bring it dividends, including in the 2017 civic elections.

From the coastal road to selective food bans, there is a method to this madness.