“Ane ardho dozen eenda aapjo,” (and half a dozen eggs please), I say to the owner of a provision store near my house in Ahmedabad. I am given six eggs packed discretely in a newspaper bag. It feels like buying sanitary napkins, the exchange is so minimal in words. A fast-food joint right next to this provision store sells mock chicken lollipops. Okay, let me explain. They are made of potatoes but look like chicken lollipops, and ditto the case with kebabs and other items that provide to a vegetarian foodie some comfortable alternative to non-vegetarian food. I mean there’s no dearth of such surrogate food in India, is there?
In my community of Sindhis, those who begin to follow the Radhaswami satsang eat a specific version of nutria-nugget subzi that is meant to taste like mutton but is called Radaswami baadji. This kind of proxy-fulfilment is evident even in mocktails and fruit beer and wine bars that are not wine bars.
My point is that we (from the state) and others (not from the state) may continue to be surprised, mortified even by how the topic of vegetarianism and the prohibitive rules against meat sales and consumption keeps coming up in Gujarat. However, this matter is not comprehensible through contexts of citizenship and freedom of choice. It can be contested in courts on those grounds, but in order to understand the nature of this pathology, we need to see what happens in Gujarat, ordinarily.
The two examples I began with involve two different forms of visuality. The sight of real eggs is an anathema to most customers who are not there to buy eggs, hence the eggs must be hidden from their view lest they stop coming to that store. The sight of mock lollipops and kebabs is a visual reminder of the prohibited items without the guilt of having eaten them. These negotiations characterise everyday life in Gujarat.
The sight of meat would be a reminder to the upper-caste Hindu and Jain Gujarati of the prohibited parts in the psyche which they have managed to cleanse out through a range of strategies. Among the first is not to give a home to a meat-eating family in a colony or neighbourhood. In the 1980s my family had a tough time finding a house because Sindhis are known as non-vegetarian, ergo, Muslim-like.
It is a different matter that many Sindhis in Gujarat have now taken to vegetarianism. The second strategy has been to keep communities (read Muslims) away from sight so that neither their presence nor their lifestyle reminds the Hindu Gujaratis of what and who they do not want to see. And this collapsing between the what and who also needs to be understood.
Gujarat takes the principle of “you are what you eat” quite literally. The third strategy is to make the life of non-vegetarian restaurants precarious so that while some survive, a large number become suddenly vegetarian and South Indian or Punjabi restaurants doing paneer dishes. The fourth strategy is not even to socialise with, or visit homes of families that eat meat, and should you do visit, do not accept any food from them.
Myth of vegetarian state
Now some of these forms of abstinence may be common across vegetarian communities in India. However, in Gujarat, they all exist without resistance from within. All this may lead us to assume Gujarat is a vegetarian state – and while figures of meat-eating population vary from 40% to 60 % – the truth is that it is not a fully vegetarian state except in the mind of its self-chosen custodians.
Amrita Shah has persuasively argued in her recent piece for Moneycontrol that vegetarianism is Gujarat’s commonsense or mythicised face and not its lived reality. There is certain rhetoric by which this myth-making has taken place. The Gujarat State Gazetteer of 1989 generalises vegetarianism by outsourcing it to “western style”.
Non-vegetarianism in Gujarat is common but made to feel illegitimate. Meat selling and consumption happens in Gujarat, but it must be away from the sight and sensory world of the upper-castes. To ask for a restriction on displaying meat is to go just one step further in the existing scheme of things.
It is to say not only that I must not see, but I must also avoid that rare and accidental occasion of stumbling upon its sight if I am in that part of the city. In other words, should Ahmedabad or Vadodara be my city, it must be on my terms and whom I represent. The recent ban on non-veg food stalls is not only a violation of freedom to eat but also the prerogative to see and smell only what I wish to as a Hindu or Jain citizen of the state.
Rita Kothari is the author of several books, most notable among which are The Burden of Refuge and Unbordered Memories. She teaches at Ashoka University.