The Jain festival of Paryushan is celebrated every August or September. But this year, its arrival between September 10 and 18 has sparked unhappiness among meat eaters on the outskirts of Mumbai.

Last week, the municipal corporation of the northern Mumbai suburb of Mira-Bhayandar passed a resolution to ban the slaughter and sale of meat during this eight-day period of fasting and abstinence for the Jain community. Jains are estimated to comprise around 1.2 lakh of the 8.5 lakh residents of Mira-Bhayandar, where the municipal corporation is currently run by the Bharatiya Janata Party-Shiv Sena combine.

For more than a decade, many government-run abattoirs across Maharashtra have ceased operations for two to three days during Paryushan in line with a state government order from 2001. This year, at the Mira-Bhayandar corporation’s general body meeting on September 4, BJP corporator Dinesh Jain proposed that slaughter houses and meat shops in the region should be ordered shut for all eight days of the festival. The BJP won the vote with a majority.

Although the state government is yet to give its final nod to the meat ban in Mira-Bhayandar and clarify the exact dates, the ban is likely to be imposed from September 10-18 when the Swetambara Jain sect observes Paryushan. (The Digambara sect will celebrate the eight-day festival from September 18, but Swetambaras form the bigger section of the community in Mira Road and Bhayandar.)

On Monday, Mumbai city also followed suit, as the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai issued an order to ban the sale of meat for four of the eight Paryushan days: September 10, 13, 17 and 18.

Not surprisingly, the civic authorities' decision to honour Jain sentiments at the cost of other citizens' freedom to eat what they want, to say nothing of eight days of business for slaughter houses and meat shops, has evoked a sharp reaction from meat-eating residents in Mira-Bhayander and Mumbai: Muslims, Christians, Kolis and other Maharashtrians.

“What politics do the city authorities want to play?” asked Wellington Rodrigues, president of the Cross Garden Chapel in Bhayandar. “Is it even legal to ask other people to stop eating something only because it hurts their sentiments?”

Rodrigues’s anguished question, however, happens to have a definite answer. A 2008 Supreme Court judgement by Justices Makrandey Katju and HK Sema actually grants municipal corporations the power to impose a ban on meat slaughter during Paryushan.

The background

The story of the Supreme Court judgement began more than a decade ago in Gujarat, where the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation accepted requests by Jain organisations and ordered all municipal slaughter houses to remain closed during Paryushan, a sacred time when Jains not only fast but emphasise the principle of ahimsa (non-violence).

This was not new: various associations of butchers and slaughter houses alleged that civic authorities across Gujarat had been imposing such closures on abattoirs in various cities since 1993. At times, the bans lasted for eight or nine days; at other times, abattoirs would have to remain shut for 16 days. The shutting of the slaughter houses led to a block in the supply of chicken and mutton to meat shops, impacting the livelihoods of everyone in the sector.

A coalition of butchers, under the Mirzapur Moti Qureshi Jamat, challenged the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation’s order in the Gujarat High Court, on the grounds that it violated their right earn a livelihood. When the court ruled in favour of the butchers, Jain trust Himsa Virodhak Sangh challenged the verdict in the Supreme Court, where the matter was heard by Justices Makrandey Katju and HK Sema.

The apex court reversed the high court judgement and upheld a municipal corporation’s right to shut down slaughter houses during Paryushan.

Lessons from Emperor Akbar

The judgement by Katju and Sema is grounded in the idea that eight or nine days in a whole year is not a long time for slaughter houses to shut shop for the sake of tolerance within India's diverse society.

“We have to take a balanced view of the matter….there is a large population of the Jain community in the states of Rajasthan and Gujarat…out of respect for their sentiments, surely the non-vegetarians can remain vegetarians for nine days in a year,” the judgement says.

The 14-page verdict also spends a considerable amount of time explaining the judges’ stance through anecdotes about Mughal emperor Akbar, described as “the architect of modern India who gave equal respect to people of all communities”.

In 1582, Akbar is said to have invited and received a delegation of Jains at his court, and Jainism’s doctrine of non-violence ended up making a strong impression on the Mughal king. Akbar is said to have curtailed his food and drink, abstained from meat eating for several months in the year and renounced hunting, his “favourite pastime”. By 1587, he had prohibited the slaughter of animals for half the days in the year.

The judgement says:
“If the Emperor Akbar could forbid meat eating for six months in a year in Gujarat, is it unreasonable to abstain from meat for nine days in a year in Ahmedabad today? It was because of the wise policy of toleration of the Great Emperor Akbar that the Mughal empire lasted for so long, and hence the same wise policy of toleration alone can keep our country together despite so much diversity.”

While making the case for meat eaters to respect Jain sentiments, the judgement noted that some people “on a short fuse” were increasingly resorting to violent protests against anything that “hurts the sentiments of their community”. “These are dangerous tendencies and must be curbed with an iron hand,” said the judgement.

‘We will not obey the ban’

For Jain trusts, this Supreme Court verdict has been a strategic tool even in other states beyond Gujarat.

“The order was meant for Gujarat, but the implication is that any municipal corporation can use the Supreme Court judgement to justify a ban on animal slaughter during Paryushan,” said Rajendra Joshi, a trustee of the Viniyog Parivar Trust, a Jain non-profit organisation that has also been a driving force behind Maharashtra’s ban on the sale of all beef earlier this year.

In Mira-Bhayandar, too, this 2008 verdict could come in the way of anyone challenging the civic authority’s decision to keep meat shops shut during all eight days of Paryushan this year. Some challengers have had a breakthrough – the fishing community of the coastal city, for instance, have reportedly convinced mayor Geeta Jain to exempt fish from the ban – but most others admit there is little they can do.

“All this is happening because we have a new government, and it’s not ours,” said Rashid Qureshi, a butcher at beef shop in Mira Road. “Till last year, we had to shut shop only for two days of Paryushan, but eight days is too much. We are not going to obey this order. How will we earn if we do?”

While some butchers claim that Jain trusts give monetary compensations – around Rs 3,000 a day – for each day that they miss during Paryushan, others claim the compensation is an eye-wash.

“Last year, we never received the compensation we were supposed to, even though we stayed shut for two days for the sake of the Jains,” said Zeeshan Shaikh, a butcher at a chicken shop in Naya Nagar, a Muslim-dominated area of Mira Road.

Most meat vendors and consumers in the city agree, however, that the Jains have succeeded in gaining greater power in Mira-Bhayander despite being a minority. “Housing in this city is heavily segregated on the lines of vegetarians and non-vegetarians, so even though Jains have a small population, they are concentrated in larger numbers in some wards,” said Rodrigues. “This has helped them win civic elections and wield power.”