Across most of the planet, both eggs and milk, products that are produced by animals, go in tandem: you either consider them vegetarian or not. Madhya Pradesh's decision this week that it will not allow eggs in mid-day meals at the request of the Jain community has caused a furore, for imposing a minority vegetarian approach on a state that has plenty of malnourished children who could do with the affordable, protein-rich nutrition of the egg. But it also rakes up an old debate: what exactly counts as vegetarian in India?
This isn't a recent debate, in fact, it comes around every few years. In 2005, for example, the National Egg Coordination Committee, an association of more than 25,000 poultry farmers, pushed a campaign for more consumption of eggs using Mahatma Gandhi as its brand ambassador claiming he "endorsed" eggs as vegetarian. This immediately prompted angry response from political parties for associating Gandhi with eggs.
A New York Times report from 1987 reflects a very similar debate happening in India, and in 2012 the Indian Vegetarian Congress broke with the International Vegetarian Union after the latter announced that eggs were vegetarian. Few in India would connect the debate to the question of whether milk also counts as vegetarian, even though it is an animal product.
India's most-famous ambassador for vegetarianism did however pronounce his opinion on the subject. Mahatma Gandhi was clear that neither eggs nor milk can be counted in a purely vegetarian diet. "Milk is an animal product and cannot by any means be included in a strictly vegetarian diet," Gandhi said in a monogram entitled the Moral Basis of Vegetarianism.
"On the other hand, eggs are regarded by the layman as a flesh food. In reality, they are not. Nowadays sterile eggs are also produced. The hen is not allowed to see the cock and yet it lays eggs. A sterile egg never develops into a chick. Therefore, he who can take milk should have no objection to taking sterile eggs."
Gandhi himself explains his attempt to shun milk as well as eggs, although this ended up being somewhat unsuccessful because of health concerns. He settled on drinking goat's milk while asserting his hope that somewhere in the world, we could find a vegetable alternative to milk. Nevertheless he considered both eggs and milk about equivalent.
One fourth of India's vegetarian population actually seems to quietly go along with this. The Hindu-CNN-IBN State of the Nation survey in 2012 concluded that about 31% of Indians profess to vegetarianism while another 9% count themselves as "eggetarians," essentially vegetarians who will eat egg.
These are called ovo-lacto vegetarians worldwide, and they are believed to be the largest and possibly even the overwhelming majority of those who consider themselves vegetarians abroad. Those who shun all animal products, tend to be known as vegans, and consider eggs and milk to be the same sort of product.
A vocal portion of Indians would, however, disagree. Indian vegetarians' shunning of eggs can be vehement – a Jain Samiti spokesperson commenting on Madhya Pradesh's move said it would reduce "sensitivity" in children. But their championing of other animal products, like milk or even cow urine can be equally vehement.
This attitude, which is heavily determined by caste considerations, is more likely to be found in India's north and western states – corresponding to the ones that also don't offer eggs in mid-day meals – which is also likely to mean that, in a chronically malnourished country, those who need the affordable protein the most are being denied it.
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