What not to eat: Mumbai edition

“Don’t have a cow, man!” — Bart Simpson

BMC banned meat for four days in honor of the upcoming Jain holiday, and everyone on social media had a cow. Well, not a literal cow, a metaphorical one. Bart Simpson would have been appalled. Hashtags were started on Twitter (#meatban #BanTheBan). Photos of meat were posted on Instagram. New words were created on Facebook (Meatarian). Everyone was losing their collective minds.

Why? I mean, meat is murder, right? That’s what Morrissey and The Smiths taught us in the 80s.

That’s what Jains and many other vegetarians believe, right?

Death. Slaughter. Murder.

Who wants to support that? Honestly, no one.

But, that’s not what this meat ban is about. This ban isn’t about protecting animals. That was the reasoning behind the beef ban that took affect several months ago. Then, the argument was that the cow is such a sacred animal to so many Indians that it deserves protection. That’s not the argument now. Now, the argument is appeasement of one religious minority’s observances. Out of respect for Jains, no one should buy or sell meat on those days. I fully support giving India’s religious minorities a fair chance at life, work, and worship. Their beliefs and customs should be respected just like the Hindu majority’s beliefs. But, forcing everyone in Mumbai to adhere to the Jain custom is not tolerance. It’s the opposite, and it’s oppressive.

Instead, I would like to offer the Indian government an example from the United Arab Emirates. Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the UAE just a few short months ago and was greeted as a rock star. Yet, it seems that while he enjoyed Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum’s hospitality, Mr. Modi might not have fully absorbed the lessons Sheik Mohammed has to teach him and his political party about religious tolerance.

For those who don’t know, the UAE is a constitutional monarchy, and its ruling family is Muslim. Sheik Mohammed is, among other titles, the Prime Minister of the UAE, just as Modi is the Indian Prime Minister. Sheik Mohammed is also the Emir of Dubai, that dazzling city on the Arabian Gulf with the world’s largest mall, tallest building, and most expensive cupcake. He is the chief architect of Dubai’s reputation as a global city where business is encouraged. He realized long ago that the oil would run out, and Dubai would need other sources of revenue to sustain it. When the GDP is reported, the numbers are always broken into oil revenue and non-oil revenue. Under Sheik Mohammed, Dubai’s non-oil revenue growth has steadily increased (with the exception of the financial crisis in 2007 to 2010). How did he accomplish this growth? Not through bans imposed to satisfy one religious group or another, but rather through tolerance.

In the interest of fairness, I will say that not everything is as free in the UAE as it first appears. The image of Dubai as the most liberal of the GCC countries while well deserved does have a few caveats. Social media is controlled. It’s illegal to speak or write negative things against the UAE, the ruling family, Islam, and your employer. VPNs are illegal, and VOIP services like Skype are banned. So, yes, freedom of speech is somewhat limited. That limitation was one reason why I didn’t blog much while we lived there. However, in so many other ways, my life in the UAE was just like my life in the US. I drove a car, wore what I wanted (although I leaned toward more conservative out of respect for religious sentiments), and was free to come and go as I pleased. I lived a typical American suburban life. In the Middle East.

Then, came Ramadan, the holiest month in the Muslim calendar and a time for prayer and fasting. During Ramadan (often called Ramzan in India), Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. Breaking fast at sunset is a spiritual and communal experience for Muslims. As the majority religion of the UAE, Islamic rules of fasting could easily have been imposed on the entire population, but they weren’t.

Why? Tolerance.

During Ramadan, everyone (Muslims and non-Muslims alike) is banned from eating and drinking in public between sunrise and sunset. Brian did not even take coffee to work in the car. Many restaurants are closed. At first glance, this might seem just as intolerant as the meat ban because Muslim observances are imposed on everyone else just as the Jain observances were.

But, let’s take a closer look at how the ban was implemented. The ban was on eating and drinking in public, not in private. In private, you could do whatever you wanted. Grocery stores remained open. In fact, the first day of Ramadan, the Spinneys near my house was packed at 2 pm because everyone was buying food for the first Iftar. Moreover, many restaurants while not open for seated dining were still open for take away and delivery. PF Chang’s, in the Mall of the Emirates, did not begin serving food until Iftar was announced, but offered take away and delivery all day long. Furthermore, the food courts in the malls were still open. The food court area was hidden behind a large partition with the following signage displayed:

FOOD FOR NON-MUSLIMS AND CHILDREN

Behind the partition, about half the food court restaurants were open. Foreign tourists were happily munching hamburgers, fries, pizza, and even Bombay street food during daylight hours. Muslims did not see the food. Nor was anyone allowed to remove food from the partitioned area. Muslims could smell the food, of course, if they walked by, but even that was dampened by the partition. Moreover, the food court areas are large enough to be avoided if desired. The accommodation to non-Muslim shoppers is a critical concession, and why the UAE succeeds as a business haven where India often fails. Emiratis make it easy for foreign tourists to spend their money in Dubai. The ban on eating and drinking minimized the business impact as much as possible. The sale of food was not banned, just its consumption in public. That’s where tolerance comes into the picture. I respected that my Muslim neighbors were fasting by not eating and drinking outside my home, and they let me get all the take out delivered I wanted. Everybody wins.

A well-kept secret in Dubai is that if you brave the heat during Ramadan, you can take advantage of some of the best sales of the year. The more money the tourists spend, the richer the Emiratis will be. Everybody wins. Those tourists travel from around the world, and most aren’t Muslim. The last thing Emiratis want to do is discourage these tourists. Emiratis’ tolerance does not just extend to foreign tourists, but also to foreign businesses. And, that’s where India fails. Miserably. The Indian government does not make it easy for foreign companies to invest in India. Indian politicians have a history of appeasing small kitana stores at the expense of missing the bigger development picture. These bans in Mumbai are no different. They are appeasement measures meant to cater to a small, powerful, and most importantly, wealthy voting block instead of looking at the bigger picture of who is hurt by the ban.

So, who is hurt by the ban? Proponents argue it’s only four days. What’s the big deal? Well, to a small butcher who earns his daily wages from his small shop, those four days are critical to his family’s survival. What about his employees? Their families? In the UAE scenario, religious sentiment and the free market are both respected. In the Mumbai scenario, they aren’t. Little to no thought was given for the financial impact of the ban. The restaurants that would close without meat for dishes, the butcher shops whose owners and workers would be deprived of their daily wages, or the average Mumbai resident, whether Hindu, Christian, Muslim, or Parsi, who depends on meat as a daily food source—all were given short shrift in the name of so-called tolerance.

But, if the true purpose of this ban is to show tolerance of minority religious groups and beliefs, where’s the tolerance in robbing families of a daily wage? Where’s the tolerance in appeasing one religious group while disrespecting the beliefs of others?

Many ban proponents have argued that the ban itself extends back to 1994 or 1964, depending on which meme you believe. The proponents ask, “Why are people suddenly so outraged now?”

The answer: Twitter. We didn’t have Twitter in 1964 or 1994. If we had, trust me, there would have been outrage. That’s the beauty of living in a democracy: outrage, freedom of speech, or whatever you want to call it. Twitter and Facebook make it easy for you to voice your opinion and to troll those who don’t agree with you. Where would we be without technology? Certainly not outraged. Or maybe we would be, but it would be easier to silence our voices.

Still, the question remains, why the outrage now?

The simple answer: economics. Indians are feeling the pressure of inflation, and nowhere is that pressure felt more acutely than food prices. In the last few weeks, I have seen all sorts of (probably wrong) advice on social media about how Indians can bring down the cost of onions, milk, or other staples. In a country where so many children are malnourished and starve, even a slight blip in the price of food can mean the difference between life and death. Banning meat would raise the price of yet another staple. Most foreigners don’t realize that a majority of Indians eat meat. When we think of Indians, we imagine them all to be vegetarian like Gandhi. But, they aren’t. And, that leads me to the real reason Indians are outraged.

Indians love food. Their love isn’t a normal love like most countries have. Food is the great Indian obsession (well, that and sex). For Indians, food isn’t just necessary. It isn’t something you shove in your face without thought. Food is tied to Indian culture. Food is a central part of the Indian experience in a way that it isn’t in many other cultures. You cannot understand India, if you don’t understand its food. Like a rakhi on a brother’s wrist, food connects Indians, bonds them to each other, and represents an everlasting love and respect between people. Take away an Indian’s food, and you take away his or her connection to Indian culture. That’s right. By banning food, the BJP is going against Indian culture. But, that’s the real source of the outrage. This ban robs so many Indians of an integral part of their cultural identity. That identity is so critical that fellow writer Neil D’Silva has offered the term “meatarian” to identify his eating habits. By claiming his status as someone who eats meat, he is placing himself in dialectical opposition to vegetarians and rejecting the term “nonveg” because it implies he doesn’t eat vegetables, and that his choice is negative. Instead he offers meatarian as a positive choice. Because that’s what food is: a choice. A fundamental choice we make everyday. By telling Mumbaikers what not to eat, the BMC has robbed them of the right to choose, the freedom to choose. And, to quote fellow Texan Janice Joplin, “Isn’t freedom just another word for nothin’ left to lose?”

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