September 09, 2015

India: Why the BJP's Mumbai meat ban is good news for the Shiv Sena and MNS (Girsh Shahane)

scroll.in - 9 September 2015

Why the BJP's Mumbai meat ban is good news for the Shiv Sena and MNS

The BJP's attempt at minority appeasement may have a political cost in the commercial capital.

Photo Credit: Nicolas Mirguet/Flickr
The Bharatiya Janata Party and its parivar have for years harped on the Congress’s “minority appeasement”, identifying it as the hallmark of “pseudo-secularism”. Majority appeasement is a different matter entirely, if the time and effort the ruling party lavishes on Hindu causes is anything to go by, but Sanghis are not averse to a little minority propitiation of their own, provided the concerned community is a suitable one. No minority is more suitable than the Jains, a reliable source of votes and cash for the BJP for decades. And so it is that meat sales have been banned for four days in Bombay and for eight in the borough of Mira Road-Bhayander during the Jain festival of Paryushana.

In my last column, I commended Jain reverence for life, but the meat ban demonstrates how that reverence can become a tool for undermining the rights of others. The ban already has the imprimatur of our Supreme Court, thanks to a judgement handed down by Markandey Katju and HK Sema in 2008. Justice Katju has described it as his most difficult case, in a blog post written after his retirement. The Ahmedabad municipal corporation had issued an order shutting slaughterhouses during Paryushana, which was challenged by local butchers deprived of their livelihoods for nine days each year. The High Court sided with the butchers, and Justice Katju leaned their way as well, because, “it is one’s personal business what one eats... the impugned resolution seemed to violate the rights of the butchers as well as non-vegetarians”.

But he ultimately decided in favour of the municipal authorities, and has cited three reasons for his change of mind:
 “(1) The restriction was only for a short period of nine days. Had it been for a longer period, say, for several months, I would certainly have held it to be violative of Articles 19 (1) (g) and 21 of the Constitution.

(2) There is a large Jain community in Western India, including Ahmedabad, and in a country like India with such tremendous diversity of religions, castes, languages, ethnic groups, etc we must respect the feelings of all communities.

(3) The restriction was not a new one, but had been imposed every year for several decades. Reference was made in the judgment to Emperor Akbar and his respect for the Jains.”

Freedom's just another word 

In the same blog post, Justice Katju calls himself a “strong votary for freedom”, which goes to show that most Indians, even Supreme Court justices, have a very deficient understanding of freedom. If Justice Katju really believed in individual freedom, the case would have been an open-and-shut one in favour of the plaintiffs, because no religious community has a right to force its dogmas down the throats of non-adherents. The length of the stay on slaughter ought to have been irrelevant, for where can one draw the line once such impositions are allowed? What is to stop Hindus from wanting to prohibit meat sales during Shravan and Muslims from asking for eateries to close between sunrise and sunset during Ramzan? The beliefs of a Mughal Emperor and the previous history of the ban on slaughter were even less important in considering the rights of those negatively affected by the prohibition.

Our politicians, police and community leaders are always eager to use religious sentiments as an excuse to restrict what Indians can do or say or eat. Unfortunately, our constitution and judiciary, while more liberal than these groups, are insufficiently committed to protecting individual rights. As for the population at large, the majority is comfortable with a “kindly adjust” approach to these issues. So, liberals will rail against the new prohibition and news channels will have loud discussions, all to no avail. Without recourse to the law, which has already made up its mind, we have to fall back on community standards, and gauge how much respect of this sort non-vegetarians will tolerate. The good news is that the BJP may have overplayed its hand with the extended Prayushana ban. The two Thackeray-led Marathi parties, the Shiv Sena and Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, have come out against it and are likely to orchestrate blowback against the BJP.

A vegetarian versus non-vegetarian fight has long simmered in Bombay, thanks to the extremism of Jains and other affluent vegetarians, mainly Hindu Gujaratis and Marwaris. The area covered by the zip code 40006, one of the richest precincts in the entire country, comprising Nepean Sea Road, Malabar Hill and Walkeshwar, has no restaurants that serve non-vegetarian food, thanks to campaigns (including threats of violence) by vegetarian zealots. Housing societies dominated by Jains and vegetarian Gujaratis routinely block sales to prospective buyers who eat meat. Since most Marathis are non-vegetarian, the Shiv Sena and its ally the BJP have been on opposing sides in this tussle.

A new opportunity

In November last year, the MNS moved a resolution in the municipal corporation to ensure no builder refused to sell homes to non-vegetarians. The resolution passed with support from all parties except the BJP. It hinted at an emerging Sena-MNS strategy to woo back their base.

For years, the BJP in Maharashtra was considered a party of Jains, Gujaratis and Marwaris, along with a smattering of RSS-type Marathi Brahmins. Its voting bloc perfectly supplemented that of the Sena, and it appeared largely content in its role as junior partner. Last year, riding the Modi wave, it gained a majority in the state assembly, grabbing gouts of Marathi votes from the Sena and MNS. The meat ban is an opportunity for the Marathi parties to try putting the BJP back in its Gujarati-Marwari box.

Interestingly, the extension of the ban in Bombay from the usual two days to four has nothing to do with the BJP, which doesn’t have a majority in the corporation. The municipal commissioner Ajoy Mehta appears to have made that move himself, raising the question of whether he caved to a powerful lobby or acted on a personal bias. If it’s the latter, Mehta is unfit to stay commissioner of a cosmopolitan city.