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When I moved to Mumbai seven years ago, I was told by all and sundry that it was the most cosmopolitan city in the country. Today, I can say with some confidence it is the most provincial metro in the country.
Any city that imposes a ban on food of any kind to appease the sensibility of a particular religion – first, a narrow sliver of upper caste Hindus and now, the Jain community – has lost any right to be called cosmopolitan and progressive.
The latest ban on butchering of meat of any kind – because of a 10-18 day long Jain ritual of Paryushan in which they undertake fasting – is a slap in the face of citizens’ rights. Not that this is new. The state earlier this year shot to ignominy when it banned the slaughter, sale and possession of cows and buffaloes.
Now, with an eye, no doubt, on the populous Jain population in Mira-Bhayander municipal area – they account for 1.5 lakh of the 8.5 lakh population there, according to some reports – and no doubt, their more affluent (read political funders) in South Mumbai and elsewhere, the BJP government has decided to impose a ban on all meat across the city for four days.
Already, Jain-dominated buildings in the southern parts of the city and some suburbs are notorious for not renting or selling to meat-eaters. From there, it was only a short hop to the rest of the city, even if for a limited period.
This is not new apparently. According to a report in Scroll.in, abattoirs across the state have downed shutters for 2-3 days during this fasting period since 2001, in keeping with a government diktat.
What boggles the mind, though, is why Jains would want to impose their dietary practices on others, especially for such a short period? How will it help them in any way? What possible solidarity can they expect from a collection of sullen-faced, temporarily-forced-vegetarian neighbours who will only resent this overbearing power play? If anything, they can expect stronger opposition next year than they did this year from the Shiv Sena, which represents the ordinary Maratha Manoos, who in most cases is a hot-blooded, meat-eating creature.
The logic behind this ban is the same as the beef ban – one group of people forcing their dietary practices on another because of so-called religious sensibilities. The only switch this time is that it’s a minority imposing its will on other, numerically superior religions. And while we are at it, let’s also do away with politically correct words like sensibilities’: these bans have nothing to do with sensibility, it’s only about religion.
In that sense, no major faiths are exempt, with the exception of Christians, who, luckily, have no dietary restrictions. Hindu restaurants rarely have beef or pork on the menu, and Muslim establishments will rarely serve pork. In fact, a Domino’s outlet in my neighbourhood doesn’t have pepperoni on its list of toppings, in keeping with the ‘sensibility’ of the neighbourhood it is in.
There is the separate, very valid argument that such bans will affect the livelihoods of butchers and associated industries.
There is another, just as valid, argument to be made that meats like beef and egg are an important and affordable source of protein, especially for lower income groups.
Mind you, this is not a stray incident. This is part of a creeping invasion into the private lives of citizens – from the lovers on Bandstand to the attacks on libraries, from the equation of dissent as sedition to the killings of rational thinkers, the state and its assorted arms, many unconstitutional, are circumscribing the lives of citizens into a slowly-crystallising, Orwellian box.
But the crux of all these arguments must point to one thing and one thing, only: a ban on food (or, for that matter, clothing or any number of personal choices that are not a threat to public safety or law & order or national security), is a violation of a citizen’s fundamental right to live freely, as he or she pleases.
That is what the Indian Constitution promises all its citizens: freedom of religion and freedom of personal liberty. Unfortunately, our founding fathers also wrote in enough caveats to muddle the waters (that literalists take great joy in pointing out), but the fundamental spirit of the Constitution is undeniable: that Indian citizens are free to live as they choose.
Anything that comes in the way of that must be opposed tooth and nail by the people, both in the courts and, if need be, in the streets.