NEW DELHI, India — When Mumbai learned the government was going to ban meat in the city for four days this month, things got ugly.
Residents tolerated a beef ban imposed in March, and even survived rumors that the state may go liquor-free — but being denied their chicken tikka for half a week was just too much to bear.
This particular meat ban, surprisingly, was first approved 41 years ago in deference to the Paryushan festival of the minority Jain community, but was not strictly enforced. The eight- to ten-day celebration is a period of penance and non-violence for Jains, who fast, meditate and ask for forgiveness for past offenses during the period.
The Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai passed a resolution in 1964 banning the slaughter and sale of meat in Mumbai on Sept. 13 and 18, which fall during the festival. In 2004, the state government passed a similar ban on Sept. 10 and 17 across the state, which again wasn’t enforced, so non-Jains were able to buy and consume meat anyway. This year though, the local corporation issued a circular stating its intent to impose the ban on slaughter and sale strictly.
Local political parties immediately jumped into the fray, demanding that the religious sentiment of the Jain community should not deprive the local Marathis, who are native to the state of Maharashtra, of their daily fare. The Shiv Sena, a Hindu right-wing political party infamous for its extreme beliefs, accused Jains of “religious fanaticism,” and took to selling fish and live chickens on the streets to defy the ban.
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Things took a turn for the bizarre and offensive when another local party decided to escalate protests further. Cooked chicken was strung up whole on a rope and displayed outside a Jain community hall where the festival was being celebrated. Protesters also ate and cooked the chicken outside the hall — a grave and deliberate offense to Jain customs of vegetarianism and strong opposition to slaughter.
But the protests were not only about a contest for power among religious and political groups. The Bombay Mutton Dealers Association filed a petition in the Bombay High Court because of the financial impact the ban would have on their daily wages and sales.
According to the petition, the ban of previous years only prohibited slaughter, not sale, and was limited to two days instead of four. The petition claimed that the ban was unconstitutional, violating India’s mandated policies of secularism and right to freedom. “There is a Hitler-like regime and the police is doing the rounds and asking shops to shut down,” said Zubin Kamdin, the lawyer for the petitioners.
The High Court was quick to deliver relief, stating that the ban was not feasible and was unclear on how and why it was being imposed. “How can you stop sale? Will the police and the municipal officers enter houses and say meat can’t be eaten?” asked the judge.
The municipal corporation withdrew the two additional days of the ban, and the High Court, in a subsequent ruling, revoked the ban on sale on the one remaining day, and limited it to slaughter.
However, less vociferous cities than Mumbai have not come away with similarly happy results. Bans of different durations have been imposed in the states of Chattisgarh, Rajasthan and Gujarat. Incidentally, all these states are currently ruled by the Hindu right-wing party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The increasing bans on meat, porn and television content are all seen as examples of the ruling party’s agenda to transform India to a more conservative Hindu version of itself, in the name of morality and respect. Many Indians, though, have a very different idea of how respect for religious sentiment should manifest.
“I really think they would have achieved a lot more by requesting people not to eat meat than by banning it,” said Anushka Rashada, a designer based in Mumbai. “Prohibiting something is the fastest path to rebellion.”