Meat politics vs. jurisprudence in India Who decides what goes on your plate?

06, Jul 2021 | Sanchita Kadam

The choice of what food we eat or do not eat, is both dictated by cultural choice and economics. Regimes, especially authoritarian ones impose restrictions on this choice. Here we explore who decides what people eat in which Indian state, and how meat is politicised to impose “upper” caste culture upon the “lower” castes. Also, how courts have tried to balance constitutional provisions and fundamental rights while dealing with the politics of meat consumption.

On June 22, Kerala High Court stayed an order passed by the Lakshadweep administration to close down dairy farms on the islands and change the midday meal diet of school children by excluding chicken, beef, and other meat from the menu. The UT administration had decided to shut down dairy farms and auction off the animals which did not go down well with people residing in the UT. The inclusion of meat and eggs in mid-day meals has persistently been a contentious issue.

In the state of Gujarat in the mid-1990s – early 2000s Dalit and Muslim mothers would be warned if they packed a boiled egg in the tiffin(s) of their school-going children. In April 2000, in its cover story on Gujarat, Face to Face with Fascism, co-editor, Teesta Setalvad had reported how, in the three years previously, “Members of the RSS–BJP–VHP combine have deliberately raked the whole issue of slaughter on Bakri Id, since 1997.” Waljibhai Patel, the doyen of the legal struggle for Dalits and minorities in the Gujarat High Court through his organisation, the Council for Social Justice (CSJ), told CC, “Jains are barely 0.2 per cent of the population but are extremely wealthy and influential. Hence the hue and cry around Bakri Id that also falls close to Mahavir Jayanti. Digambar Jains have a fortnight of observance of Paryushan.”

In 1997, Jains demanded that the slaughterhouse be closed for two weeks in consideration of their sentiments. Waljibhai asks, “Seventy–eighty per cent of the population that includes SCs, STs and the religious minorities are beef-eating, how are they expected to survive?” He further told the publication, “We challenged this move in the High Court challenging the state’s right to tell us what to eat and what not to eat? They even tried getting restaurants to shut for a full month during the month of Ramzan in 1997 on the ground that the smell of non–vegetarian food offends their sensibilities!”

The writ petition in 1997 resulted in a Gujarat High Court order directing that the slaughterhouse be re-opened. But the influential Jain lobby again voiced the same demand the very next year — this time with the BJP in power. Once again the CSJ approached the court and the HC directed the slaughterhouses to remain open for the entire fortnight, barring the first and last days. The politics over meat-eating that targeted both Dalits and minorities reared its head in the state of Gujarat, recognised as the harbinger of hardline Hindutva, authoritarian politics in the country.

It is not just the mid-day meals that the issue of meat has been raised. In May 2017, the Central government attempted a complete ban on slaughter of cattle including – cows, buffaloes, bullocks, calves and camels- but this decision was stayed by the Supreme Court as it interfered with livelihood of people involved in leather and tanning industry as well as the meat production industry.

India has consistently witnessed the politicisation of food culture, be it in mid-day meals or the food on the plate of a common man. Such politics goes hand in hand with the politics of caste and religion. It has been largely observed that right wing states are more likely to get rid of meat and eggs from the mid-day meal scheme that is supposed to provide food of nutritional value to children attending government schools to check growing malnutrition among young children. The irony is that the decision regarding exclusion of eggs from mid-day meals is usually taken by upper castes in positions of power while their children do not attend government schools and take benefit of these schemes. It is people from marginalised sections and Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes whose children attend government schools and are in need of the nutrition that mid meals aim to provide, yet these beneficiaries are not represented in the positions of power who ultimately make such decisions. Studies reveal that most of rural India, the coastal states and the north-east have meat-consuming communities.

This, despite the fact that the majority population in India are meat eaters, and meat consumption is high especially among the SC and ST communities and of course India’s religious minorities. Thus, it is merely an attempt of the upper castes imposing their values or their eating habits upon the lower castes. A strong case has been made for inclusion of eggs in mid-day meals hailing eggs as nutritional superfood with longer shelf life as also source of rural employment.

In Chhattisgarh when BJP came to power in 2015, eggs were removed from midday meals saying it hurts religious sentiments of the people. In 2019, when a Congress government came to power, it re-introduced eggs in midday meals to fight chronic malnourishment among school children; while it kept bananas in the scheme for vegetarian preferences. The party in opposition, BJP, claimed that the move will force vegetarian children to eat eggs.

In Madhya Pradesh as well, in 2019 when the Congress government sought to introduce eggs in mid-day meals, Leader of Opposition Gopal Bhargava from BJP, said inclusion of eggs in the government’s mid-day meal may turn children into cannibals. “Our culture prohibits non-vegetarianism. We can’t force anyone to eat (eggs). If we teach this right from childhood they may end up becoming cannibals when they grow up,” he said.

The debate around meat or eggs on the plate is always rife with contentions around “beliefs and religious sentiments” of people. While the truth remains that the majority of people in India are meat eaters and the egg consuming population is higher than the meat eating population. Consumption over the egg is dogged by both religious beliefs and contradictory views over cholesterol content in the egg.

In the 1980s the National Egg Coordination Committee (NECC) India, launched a campaign ‘Sunday ho ya Monday, roz khao ande’. The campaign became an instant hit and enjoys recall even today. “That campaign was launched in response to prevalent religious beliefs which made people avoid eggs – as part of non-vegetarian – food on certain days of the week,” recalls national vice-chairman, NECC, Sandeep Mehta, speaking to Hindustan Times. But that does not mean that poultry farmers weren’t affected by the medical flip-flop over eggs. “About 20 years ago, the cholesterol worry was making many give up eggs. Our business had been seriously affected,” recalls Mehta. Despite the need for a reasoned and rational debate, the right wing upper caste men in power have always tried to impose “vegetarianism” upon all.

Meat politics v/s Indian judiciary

In 2018, a PIL was filed by Healthy Wealthy Ethical World Guide India Trust seeking a complete ban on export of all types of meat (including beef, fish, pork, poultry) and all related products by the government or by private parties. A bench of Justice Madan Lokur and Justice Deepak Gupta while hearing it, said it cannot issue an order that everybody should turn vegetarian. In February 2019, a bench headed by then Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi refused to entertain the plea.

In May 2017, Madurai bench of Madras High Court stayed the central government’s notification banning the sale of cattle at animal markets for slaughter. The notification issued on May 26, 2017 stated that cattle sold in animal markets can only be used for agricultural and such other purposes, and required cattle traders to give an undertaking that the animals being sold at markets would only be used for agricultural purposes. The new rules formulated under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act disallow the sale of cattle – cows, buffaloes, bullocks, calves and camels – for slaughter in animal markets.

Thereafter, in July 2017, a bench headed by then Chief Justice of India JS Khehar extended the stay imposed by Madras High Court stating that “The livelihood of people should not be affected by this.” The Centre had then told the court that it would re-consider certain aspects of the Rules owing to objections from the public.

In 1958 the cattle slaughter laws imposed in states of Bihar, UP and Madhya Pradesh were challenged before the Supreme Court in Mohd. Hanif Qureshi v. State of Bihar 1958 AIR 731 for violating fundamental rights. The court had held that restrictions on the slaughter of cattle did not infringe on the petitioners’ freedom to practice their religion under article 25 since it had not been established that the sacrifice of cows on the religious holiday of Bakr-Eid is of an obligatory or essential part of the Islamic religion as opposed to being optional. The court observed that since the country was in short supply of milch cattle, breeding bulls and working bullocks, a total ban on their slaughter is a reasonable restriction to impose in the interests of the general public. The court however, also held that a total ban on the slaughter of bulls, bullocks and she-buffaloes after they had ceased to be useful was invalid under the Constitution.


In Abdul Hakim Quraishi And Others vs The State Of Bihar 1961 AIR 448 Supreme Court held that the high age requirements, the introduction of procedural hurdles, and additional appeal processes involved in issuing a certificate imposed unreasonable and disproportionate restrictions on the rights of the petitioners in the case.


In Haji Usmanbhai Hasanbhai Qureshi & Ors. vs. State of Gujarat 1986 AIR 1213 upheld an amendment to the Bombay Animal Preservation Act banning slaughter of bulls and bullock below the age of 16 citing that scientific development has proved that longevity of cattle and their useful span of life has increased.


Some years later, when the Madhya Pradesh government tried to circumvent the judgement in Mohd. Hanif Qureshi by a complete ban on slaughter of bulls and bullocks, the Supreme Court struck it down in Hashmattullah vs State Of Madhya Pradesh (1996) 4 SCC 391 while observing that there had been no change in circumstance since the Hanif Qureshi judgement.


However, the Hanif Qureshi judgement was partially subverted in 2005 in State Of Gujarat vs Mirzapur Moti Kureshi Kassab (2005) 8 SCC 534 by a 7-judge Constitution bench by upholding an amendment to the Bombay Animal Preservation Act, 1954 which meant a total ban on the slaughter of bulls and bullocks of any age; which was earlier restricted to bulls and bullocks of age 16 and under. The court reasoned its departure from the Hanif Qureshi precedent stating that the petitioner’s business is not affected in that they are “not prohibited from slaughtering animals other than the cattle belonging to the cow progeny.” The court had also observed that food security was a greater concern in the past but that was no longer the case as also that fodder shortage is no longer an issue and the question of wasteful drain on the feed required for active milch does not arise. The court had also observed that Bulls and bullocks remain useful past a certain age, since urine and dung are tremendously useful for the production of manure and biogas, particularly as renewable sources of energy.


In Hinsa Virodhak Sangh vs Mirzapur Moti Kuresh Jamat & Ors (2008) 5 SCC 33 the Supreme Court upheld a temporary nine day closure of municipal slaughter houses during Jain community’s Paryushan festival considering their religious sentiments and the public interest objective to preserve mutual respect and tolerance between India’s diverse communities.


Gujarat and Cow and Bullock Slaughter

In August 2020, SabrangIndia carried a two-part exclusive investigation (The Missing Cows of Gujarat) that revealed how even Cow Protection Laws have failed to protect the animal in the state. Investigated by Abdul Samad— former Dean of Bombay Veterinary College, Faculty Dean and Director of Instruction at Maharashtra Animal and Fishery Science University with more than 35 years of experience in veterinary research —- that revealed how Gujarat’s farmers, hindered by an unrealistic legislation steeped in rhetoric and a dishonest objective, are illegally culling and disposing of the bovine animals: a close scrutiny of the 2012 Livestock Census data figures on breeding cows and female calves, the expected population are revealing: whereas in 2019 the figures of cows in the state should have been 114.04 lakhs, in reality only 76.26 lakhs cows were reported in the census. 

 The data shows that around 37.78 lakh cows went missing during the period, which means these were illegally culled and disposed of by the farmers. The missing cow phenomenon was not a one-time aberration but consistent. The second part of the Investigation revealed disappearing bullocks in the western Indian state revealed how Gujarat’s farmers have dodged an impracticable Cow Protection Law. The point being made is that even after the Supreme Court’s endorsement of a stringent amendment to the Gujarat Cattle Preservation Act in 2005, has failed to protect either bullocks, male calves or cows, never mind the political rhetoric behind the law.

Who decides what goes on your plate?

The Constitution has assigned “preservation, protection and improvement of stock and prevention of animal diseases; veterinary training and practice” in Entry 15 of seventh Schedule in State List while “prevention of cruelty to animals” is Entry 17 under the Concurrent List. Further, Article 48 which comes under Directive Principles of State Policy states, “The State shall endeavour to organise agriculture and animal husbandry on modern and scientific lines and shall, in particular, take steps for preserving and improving the breeds, and prohibiting the slaughter, of cows and calves and other milch and draught cattle.”

Thus, ban on slaughter of cattle has been predominantly imposed by states, and when Centre tried to impose it nation-wide it was stopped by the Supreme Court. So depending on what political party is elected, it will decide what goes on your plate. It states like Kerala, West Bengal, Arunachal, Mizoram, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Tripura and Sikkim, cow slaughter is still not banned, and the same is relative to the socio-cultural demographics in these states as well as the ideology of political parties being elected in these states.

In the rest of states, while cow slaughter is banned, there is also restriction on other cattle of the cow progeny at varying levels. While courts have always tried to ensure that right to carry on trade under Article 19(1)(g) is not violated, many of these regulations imposed by states have been in some way or the other allowed to continue under “reasonable restrictions” in the interest of the Directive Principles of State Policy that run concurrently with fundamental rights.


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