When Devi Vishwakumar from Netflix’s hit series Never Have I Ever claimed that “no one in India eats meat,” she expressed the typical worldview of the Indian diet–one of strict vegetarianism. In fact, Devi, along with the majority of the population, is under a false impression: the reality stands that only about 20% of the Indian population is vegetarian.
With the nation’s increasing urban progress and modernization, the vegetarian diet has developed into both a point of political contention and a weapon that political figures use against India’s minority religions. A core tenet of Indian society is religion, none bigger in outreach and numbers than Hinduism. Although many Hindus are vegetarian, the current relationship between Hinduism and vegetarianism is more complex than it appears. Meat politics, in turn, has spurred a plethora of violence and repercussions that have trickled down to the general population and affect all aspects of the administration, which is most notably controlled by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The association between vegetarianism and Hinduism is indeed a glorified stereotype. Approximately 80% of India’s population is Hindu, but only 30% within this religious subdivision are vegetarian. Religious beliefs are not the sole cause of vegetarianism: various factors including gender and socioeconomic status also affect vegetarianism.
But first, the statistics: most notably, Hindus comprise 79.8% of the general population. Muslims constitute 14.2%, Buddhists 0.70%, and Jains 0.37%. The numerous religions present in Indian society have varying degrees of strictness with the “meat-eating” rule. Jainists require vegetarianism in order to promote nonviolence. Muslims do not eat pork but consider other meats such as chicken, beef, and fish to be halal (permissible). Buddhists also uphold a strong tradition of vegetarianism due to the Buddhist belief in the sanctity of life. All of these religions interact within the nation, although the world overlooks this complexity because Hinduism dominates the nation.
Additionally, the public worldview on the Indian diet tends to overlook the variances between meat-eaters and vegetarians. In relation to vegetarianism, Hinduism has differing levels of enforcement. For example, society expects women to carry on the tradition of vegetarianism in general. Women maintain a stricter vegetarian diet than men because they are held to a higher standard of “purity.” This is in part due to the fact that the women typically represent family and home life and thus carry the family’s honor. In this way, society views women as the ones needed to teach their children the vegetarian diet.
Essentially, those living in India are categorized into those who follow the traditionally “correct” diet and those who do not uphold the vegetarian lifestyle.
Socioeconomic status also affects dietary preference, as a vegetarian lifestyle is not always the most affordable. Devdutt Pattanaik is an expert on Indian mythology who provides insight to all aspects of Hindu culture from folklore to food. According to Pattanaik’s article “The Invisible Voice of Vegetarianism,” “…people who follow this form of vegetarianism [concerning the hierarchy of purity] crinkle their nose in disapproval and qualify those who eat meat and fish as ‘dirty.’” The households of those who follow a vegetarian diet typically have a higher income and are thus able to afford a cleaner food regimen. Higher income correlates to higher caste, and in this system, those who have greater income have more purchasing power to buy vegetarian options. Increasing caste is also associated with an increasing level of purity and higher morality. By the transitive property, vegetarianism is thus associated with morality. The association of these two factors leads those in India to desire the vegetarian tradition in order to maintain their status.
Hindu nationalism and the desire to erase religious diversity and implement a strict no-beef policy is taking over Indian society’s food politics. The recent Indian administration has developed meat-politics specifically in relation to beef. Politically, the BJP is representative of a strict protection of cows. Cows denote the sacred mother figure symbolizing all that is holy in the Hindu religion. Since the party is majority Hindu, it supports the idea of no beef in the general population’s diet. In 2017, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi banned both the sale and purchase of cattle, the movement against cow slaughter peaked. Accordingly, millions of farmers fell victim to the BJP as cattle prices fell and farmers struggled to sell their animals. The BJP’s religious affiliation has tied meat to politics in an unfair way, so that those who consume beef–or do not consume beef–tend to have a political affiliation.
Essentially, those living in India are categorized into those who follow the traditionally “correct” diet and those who do not uphold the vegetarian lifestyle. This in turn is disrupting the diversity of India, and further suggests that other social factors play into one’s decision to become vegetarian. These discriminatory practices separate the Muslim minority even further because their diet diverges from the traditional one. For example, McDonald’s was recently under fire for selling halal meat even though the fast-food chain in India is certified to serve it.
It is also important to note the duality behind the motivations for becoming vegetarian in India versus in the Western world. In India, vegetarians are seen as those who stick to tradition and principle, conforming to the norms of society. However, elsewhere, vegetarianism is seen as an act of justice–standing up for the rights of animals whilst holding on to morality in a way that rejects the status quo of eating meat.
With the progression of India as a nation, it is time that the country moves past defining its politics on the basis of a diet associated with purity. The nation only moves further into political and social stratification by allowing vegetarianism to stereotype individuals as “pure” or “impure.” Thus, the Indian administration’s association of vegetarianism in politics needs to be put to an end in order to allow its people to form their own identity free of the social pressures of meat politics. The Indian nation is diverse in a plethora of factors, including its diet, and the administration should reflect that in its policies.