Meat-eating in India carries a stigma. More palpable as one moves beyond the country's metropolitan areas, the stigma is strong enough for people to rebuff marriage alliances, landlords to refuse tenants, hotels to reject guests, and – depending on the meat one eats – mobs to lynch.
Although this food-based discrimination has neither legal standing in the country nor scriptural sanction, an old moral view that plant-sourced foods are pure and foster peace, whereas meat is dark and fuels depravity, gives the stigma its teeth.
Here are four reasons to defy this stigma and its morality, and to unabashedly endorse non-vegetarianism in the country.
1. India is a colossal non-vegetarian country, where meat is the food of the masses
According to the national census, over 70% of Indians are non-vegetarians. The national sample survey further reveals that the majority of people from all religions eat meat. That's over 840 million meat-eaters spread across every part of the country, constituting a majority in every state barring four (namely Gujarat, Haryana, Punjab and Rajasthan).
Violence against women in non-vegetarian states... happens to be slightly lower than in vegetarian states.
The bigotry against non-vegetarianism then jars not only with the constitutional precept of equality to all, but also with the country's democratic ethos. It's a tyranny of the minority.
2. The idea that non-vegetarianism promotes violence and depravity is really bunk
Consider, for instance, the relation between non-vegetarianism and the rate of violent crimes in Indian states. States such as Haryana and Rajasthan, where most people are vegetarian and the average monthly meat consumption of 95 grams is the lowest in the country, are as violent as non-vegetarian Goa and Kerala, where most people eat at least 2kg of meat a month. Whatever the reasons for violent crimes in India, meat-eating needn't be skewered for them. By all accounts, the occurrence of crime has little to do with what's on people's plates.
Meanwhile, violence against women – including assault, domestic violence, rape, sexual harassment, stalking and trafficking – in non-vegetarian states, where widespread meat-eating is supposed to incite libidinous depravity, happens to be slightly lower than in vegetarian states. Non-vegetarian states, it turns out, provide less hostile conditions for women. This is true even when we consider more reliable indicators such as female literacy rates and sex ratios instead of the crimes recorded by the police.
3.Non-vegetarianism indicates greater equality in India
Lower levels of crime against women in non-vegetarian states, in fact, point to a broader underlying culture of social equality. A culture in which people are not discriminated on the basis of their innate traits, customs or habits.
A variety of metrics on social equality – sex ratios and literacy among women, the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes – speaks to this. On any of these metrics, historically marginalized people are almost on par with the rest of society in non-vegetarian states whereas they languish far behind in vegetarian states.
Author's graphic; Note: SC and ST stand for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes
The consistent pattern that emerges across these metrics testifies to the social benefits of being in non-vegetarian states: less discrimination, greater equality. It's then greater equality – rather than greater depravity and violence – that distinguishes the non-vegetarian Indian states from their vegetarian counterparts.
It's greater equality – rather than greater depravity and violence – that distinguishes the non-vegetarian Indian states from their vegetarian counterparts.
And this pattern isn't mere happenstance. Widespread meat-eating in non-vegetarian states indicates greater acceptance and tolerance, even if implicitly, of diverse food habits and life-style choices. Non-vegetarianism is part and parcel of the culture that makes these states more egalitarian. It's only fitting that this non-discriminatory culture, including acceptance of meat-eating, is openly and resolutely embraced by almost all of India.
4. Non-vegetarian cuisine is an intrinsic part of the country's culture
Beef ularthiyathu, Chettinad chicken, dum biryani, hilsa curry, kebabs, prawn fry, rogan josh, smoked pork and vindaloo are as much and as equal parts of Indian cuisine as are aloo mattar, chana masala, curd-rice, lentil soups, palak paneer and rasam.
To scour the dregs of history to establish their antiquity in these lands or their provenance is a worthwhile academic pursuit, but to foist a hierarchy on these dishes based on their origins or for their presumed virtues is as inane as imposing a hierarchy among Indian languages based on their roots or dreamt up notions of their chasteness.
Taken together, these reasons make a case for why non-vegetarian food in India should not be stigmatized. In fact, there's much to champion its cause in the country – as the food of most Indians, for its intrinsic relation to social equality and culture in the country, and for the relish it composes on our taste buds and in our lives.
Even ardent vegetarianism needn't... require a stigma on non-vegetarianism; it needn't be exalted on the basis of a false morality; and it needn't entail tyranny...
And, by the way, the case for non-vegetarianism in India is not aimed at denigrating vegetarians or vegetarianism. There are very many good reasons to be vegetarian. Good health, thrift, environmental sustainability, non-violence and respect for all sentient life are noble pursuits.
But, even ardent vegetarianism needn't involve violence to fellow human beings who happen to have different food habits; it needn't require a stigma on non-vegetarianism; it needn't be exalted on the basis of a false morality; and it certainly needn't entail tyranny in the world's largest democracy.