Their better selves

Vegetarianism and virtue

By Mukul Kesavan
  • Published 14.09.15
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The ban imposed by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation on the sale of meat, fish or poultry on days when observant Jains fast constitutes what Americans call a teaching moment.

To start with, it teaches us that radical vegetarianism is intolerant and mean-spirited as all absolutisms are. Moral certainty turns crusading vegetarians into political fanatics who use the State to make others defer to their sensibilities. The Mumbai ban might seem exceptional, but it is really no different from a housing cooperative refusing to sell an apartment to a buyer who isn't a vegetarian. Both cases represent an attempt by a cabal to impose its dietary preferences on strangers who want to live independent lives in their own homes. Housing cooperatives may be within their legal rights to discriminate against non-vegetarians in this way, but morally this is a form of coercive intolerance.

But it isn't seen as such. Vegetarian bigotry gets a free pass in India. Worse, vegetarianism is used as an alibi for other sorts of bigotry. Many housing societies and apartment complexes in India and especially in Mumbai don't rent or sell homes to Muslims. Apologists for these Muslim-free mohallas routinely argue that they aren't excluding the Muslim, they are keeping out his inner carnivore. It's perverse to invoke intolerance to justify discrimination, but in India this argument gets people nodding in agreement.

Shuddh vegetarian neighbourhoods will cite the smell of meat cooking and the way in which that blood-born odour taints the air in defence of their exclusions. "The smell!" they exclaim. What about the smell? Since when did smell become a good reason for discrimination? If there are desis who hate the smell of garlic, there are firangis who can't bear the stink of asafoetida. If residential neighbourhoods begin to organize themselves on olfactory principles every meal will become a battleground for sniffing busybodies. The logical extension of the idea of the vegetarian neighbourhood will be glassed off sections (like smoking areas) in public restaurants where vegetarians can graze unassailed by the scents of animal parts cooking. Carnivorous housing societies should be allowed to formally bar vegetarians to protect their members from the odour of their sanctimony.

The second thing that the Bharatiya Janata Party's Jain-appeasing ban teaches us is that the ban has nothing to do with the BJP. Yes, several BJP-ruled states have notified bans on the slaughter and sale of meat for varying periods, but these bans have been in force for many years through the tenures of several governments run by different political parties. There is a lesson to be learnt from this.

There is a consensus amongst political parties that the general public, and the markets that supply it, ought to defer to Jain sensibilities. Why is this tiny religious minority the object of such solicitude? Indian pluralism is a wonderful thing; witness the number of religious holidays we have on our calendars, but we haven't yet seen municipalities ban alcohol during Ramazan, the Muslim month of fasting, or stop the sale of cigarettes on Guru Gobind Singh's jayanti. So why are Jains such a special minority?

Because they aren't a minority. Whatever the doctrinal differences between Jainism and Hinduism, Jains and Hindus are indistinguishable sociologically. Members of the two communities intermarry, interdine, even share caste identities. The tradition of vegetarianism within Hindu communities in Gujarat and Karnataka, to take just two examples, has a great deal to do with the historical influence of Jainism on these regions.

Vegetarianism is hegemonic amongst Hindus. Even carnivorous Hindus will allow that vegetarianism is more satvik (virtuous) than non-vegetarianism. The rigour and consistency of Jain vegetarianism make Hindus feel inadequate. Jains begin to seem like double-strength Hindus. By honouring Jain sensibilities and banning the sale of meat, Hindus pay homage to their better selves.

This delegation of virtue to other communities is not unprecedented. Anxieties about the historic subordination of Hindus in medieval times led north Indians to valorize Sikhs as keshdhari Hindus, as the sword arm of the community. In the way that community discipline and their martial traditions made Sikhs role models for valour, the strictness of their vegetarianism made Jains exemplars of Hindu virtue. And this is why we have seen governments in Gujarat, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra impose these bans in acknowledgment of Paryushan parv - not just this year but in years gone by, and not just governments run by the BJP but those run by the Congress as well.

Which brings us to the last and most important lesson. The history of the republic has sometimes seen a majoritarian, cross-party consensus build on certain issues. Inattentive liberals tend to focus on the poisoned fruit of this consensus only when the BJP is in office at the Centre. This blinds them to the stealthy instatement of a 'Hindu' common sense. The current hand-wringing about the meat ban is a good example of this tendency.

The ban is significant not because it reveals the BJP in its true colours; it is significant because the entire political class has sported the same colours on this issue for years now. The furore last year about the sangh parivar's experiments with ghar wapsi and the BJP's demand for a national debate on conversion was amnesiac in exactly the same way. The BJP might now be in the vanguard of the bid to ban conversion, but the savarna paternalism that wants the State to police an individual's choice of faith isn't confined to that party. The grotesquely misnamed 'Freedom of Religion' laws passed by several Indian states - which require citizens to notify petty officials of their intention to convert so that these worthies can judge if their decision is based on real conviction and not inducement or coercion - were pioneered by Congress governments in the early decades of Independence.

The BJP builds upon an insidious common sense institutionalized by bad laws and illiberal precedents written by several hands over many decades. To ignore the complicity of other political parties because they aren't avowedly majoritarian is to trivialize dangerous ideas by underestimating the degree to which they already deform the republic.

mukulkesavan@hotmail.com