17/06/2016 11:11 AM IST | Updated 23/01/2017 11:04 PM IST

What The Great Meat Divide Says About Indian Politics

Lubomir Lipov via Getty Images
India, Spicy grilled chicken legs, close-up

Generalisations have a grain of truth. It is not hard to generalise that vegetarian Hindus are more likely to have an aversion to Muslims, given that Muslims eat meat, and they eat it with pride. It is, therefore, also easier for the Hindu right to convert vegetarians to their anti-Muslim cause.

Looking at the veg/non-veg map of India, based on new data, it is hard to not notice that states with greater vegetarianism are also more likely to have a strong presence of the Bhartiya Janata Dal and its parent organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh.

Research on undivided Punjab by Ishtiaq Ahmed has shown that meat-eating was a prime reason why upper caste Hindus kept Muslims away from their kitchens just like Hindu low castes. This became a social fissure, as Muslims, who were in a majority, felt insulted.

ALSO READ: Vegetarian India A Myth? Survey Shows Over 70% Indians Eat Non-Veg, Telangana Tops List

In the Bihar elections last year, Lalu Yadav told a TV reporter in the context of the beef debate, that some Hindus also eat beef. He added that they should not eat beef, but the media and the BJP ignored that addendum. For a good two weeks, the BJP in Bihar made beef an electoral issue. The RSS by morning and the BJP by evening were busy whipping up passions, suggesting voters that Lalu Yadav supports cow slaughter.

(Nahari, beef in spicy gravy from Lucknow)

The lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq in Dadri had just happened, and in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh, as well as the Delhi media, it was a big issue. Bihar's voters, however, didn't seem to care. Travelling in various parts of the state that election, one saw how wide-spread meat eating was in Bihar. In every village market of Bihar, poultry and fish sell like hot cakes. Even Brahmins eat meat in that state. The Bihari's lack of aversion to meat-eating is perhaps why using the political extremity of cow slaughter didn't work for the BJP.

The map shows only 7.5% of Bihar (or Biharis surveyed) were pure vegetarians. By contrast, 47% of those surveyed in Uttar Pradesh said they were vegetarian. It is therefore not surprising that the BJP has had a strong presence in Uttar Pradesh, even two chief ministers, but has never had a chief minister in Bihar.

All the south Indian states have less than 5% vegetarianism, with the exception of Karnataka, which has 21% vegetarians. Karnataka is also the only state in south India where the BJP has serious presence, being the main opposition party.

(Arvind Kejriwal and Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia, Speaker Vidhan Sabha Ram Niwas Goel eating food at lunch break during the Delhi Assembly Budget Session at Delhi Vidhan Sabha on March 30, 2016 in New Delhi, India. Photo by Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

The only serious exception to this generalization is Jharkhand, which reports 96.5% meat-eating.

Going by the paucity of meat-serving restaurants in Ahmedabad, it may seem as if the only Gujaratis who eat meat are the small Muslim minority. But given that Hindu lower castes also eat meat, it is not surprising that Gujarat reports nearly 40% meat eating.

The perception paradox of meat-eating in Gujarat is representative of the entire country, too. Not just foreigners, even many Indians think most of us are vegetarian. The perception is a symptom of how upper caste-dominated our public discourse is.

The state of Punjab suffers from a reverse stereotype. Many are surprised that Punjab has fewer meat-eaters (33%) than Gujarat. The image of Punjabis as a chick leg-piece chewing community comes from Punjabi migrants in the big cities. Truth is, Punjabi Hindus have had a deep history of the Arya Samaj movement, which spread vegetarianism among them. Ditto with Haryana.

The BJP and its associated Hindutva organisations have been using the fear-mongering of cow-slaughter to expand their constituency amongst Hindus. But the political extremity of beef is also a ploy generally to discourage meat-eating. Whether it was beef or not, has become such a part of political discourse that it connects with the larger agenda against all meat, mutton, chicken and fish. It is no wonder that the Modi government wants a separate canteen for vegetarian students in our colleges.

In practice, Hindus eating meat is so wide-spread that even RSS chiefs have been known to relish it. This data should serve as a wake up call for the BJP. Just as the BJP government in Goa is unable to ban beef because it wants Christian votes, the party should take it easy with its shuddh vegetarianism agenda across India.

Here's a map showing the dietary preferences across the country: