The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Uma turns twin towns dry & vegetarian

Bhopal, Jan. 29: In a rush to mould Madhya Pradesh to her beliefs, chief minister Uma Bharti today declared Maheshwar and Amarkantak “holy cities” and banned the sale of liquor, meat, fish and eggs there.

The move drew howls of protest, led by her predecessor Digvijay Singh. Describing it as an “act of fascism”, he wondered how in a democratic country a government could determine people’s eating habits. Uma is a strict vegetarian.

Moreover, the decision would affect the religious rights of Muslims, particularly during the approaching festival of Bakr Id when they make animal sacrifices, he added. Digvijay further argued that if the restrictions applied to two temple towns, why were others like Maihar and Omkareshwar left out'

The former chief minister said the decision reeked of bias and was aimed at diverting people’s attention. “Was this an election promise of the BJP or mentioned in the manifesto' And what is she going to do about Ujjain’s famous Kal Bhairon temple where people make liquor offerings'” he asked.

The ancient city of Ujjain has also been declared a “holy city” but official sources said the restriction on sale of liquor and meat would be enforced only during the month-long Simhasth Kumbh Mela scheduled to take place between April and May. Ujjain will host the festival after 12 years.

Several Hollywood stars like Pierce Brosnan and Demi Moore are likely to take a holy dip in the Shipra during the festival. The Kumbh mela is a fascination with Hollywood stars, with Madonna, Sharon Stone and Richard Gere reportedly having surfaced in one edition or the other.

While politicians, religious leaders of the minorities, intellectuals and even dieticians are up in arms against the vegetarianism being enforced by Uma, the chief minister is unfazed. She said it was a “unanimous” decision taken by the cabinet that met at Maheshwar yesterday.

The temples and the mighty fort complex reminiscent of a glorious past stand in serene dignity in the sleepy town as the Narmada flows by. Uma, who chaired the cabinet meeting, said she would try to “restore” the town to its past glory and importance.

Bordering Chhattisgarh, Amarkantak is situated at an altitude of 1,065m at the conjunction of the Vindhya and the Satpura ranges. Like Maheshwar, Amarkantak is a renowned pilgrimage spot and is said to be the source of the Narmada and the Sone.

A senior IAS officer also questioned the efficacy of the measures. He said having served in the region, he was convinced that enforcement would not work. “The porous border with Chhattisgarh would encourage bootlegging and supply of substandard meat. If the ruling party is serious about such a measure, it should motivate the people to voluntarily give up these habits,” he said.

In Maheshwar, weaver Sadiq Ali was fuming. He wondered how he and his children would get the “necessary protein diet”. Claiming that he and others like him would continue to eat as they wish, Sadiq said: “We are prepared to face the consequences.”

Retired bureaucrats said the Uma regime would have been better off restricting meat and liquor sale only during the Ujjain Kumbh. “Everybody would have been considerate for the month-long festival. Or else, in Maheshwar and Amarkantak, areas around the religious places should have been earmarked,” a former chief secretary said.

A prominent dietician in Bhopal said the move might pose health problems as the government is limiting access to cheap sources of protein like beef and egg. “The state could have avoided getting into the area of people’s eating habits,” she said.

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