By Abdul Bari Masoud

In a landmark verbal ruling, the Gujarat High Court put a spoke in the wheel of the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation’s move to control the food habits of its citizenry. While hearing a plea by vendors whose carts were seized from the main roads by the Ahmedabad civic body last month, Justice Biren Vaishnav observed that it could not stop the residents of the state from eating non-vegetarian food  and  warned it that such actions should not be carried to “satisfy the egos” of some people.

On November 15, the local civic body caused a sensation when it announced that non-vegetarian food vendors will be removed from public roads. The decision was made because of the “nauseating scent” from the booths “impacting the minds of young children,” according to Devang Dani, Chairman of the AMC’s Town Planning Committee. Even the AMC’s Estate Department has justified the removal of the stalls citing “obstruction of traffic”.

The general public, however, did not accept these flimsy justifications, and the municipality soon faced a strong backlash, notably on social media, where it was bombarded with anti-drive memes and comments. Authorities forcibly removed many handcarts over the next three days in what has been regarded as an excessive and ill-advised move. The city was filled with a sense of dread and uncertainty. The associations of food vendors were concerned about their livelihoods. The Laari Galla Ladat Samiti, a council made up of 17 lakh street sellers from across Gujarat, has warned to protest the action.

The 25 street vendors whose carts had been seized went to the Gujarat High Court against the AMC action. Hearing on the plea, the court’s single judge bench Justice Biren Vaishnav pulled up the Ahmedabad Corporation, observing, “Today someone has a nightmare and tomorrow morning you’ll stop people from selling everything. Don’t do it under a drive to satisfy the egos of some people.”

The petitioners told the court that municipal corporation officials ransacked the area where the vendors were selling food and even impounded the carts in an “inhuman manner”.

Advocate Ronith Joy, representing the vendors, said that non-vegetarian food was being sold in Gujarat for centuries and the Constitution did not ban its sale in the state.

The bench also cautioned the local body that such actions should not be carried under political pressure.

“…because the party in power says you don’t want to eat eggs, you want to stop them, you’ll pick them up and take them away? Why are you doing that?,” Justice Vaishnav said.

The civic body, however, said that the drive was not against eateries selling non-vegetarian food but was aimed to remove illegal shops on roads that were causing “hindrance to public and traffic, or absolute blockage of pedestrians”.

“Petition filed under misconception because there is no drive to remove all non-vegetarian carts. I have taken instructions. I am saying that encroachment on roads, which is a hindrance to public and traffic, or absolute blockage of pedestrians,” the lawyer representing the civic body said.

At one point, Justice Vaishnav asked the AMC: “What is your problem? How can you decide what I should eat outside my house? How can you stop people from eating what they want? Suddenly because someone in power thinks that this is what they want to do?”

“If I have become sentimental, I withdraw it. Welcome acting on encroachments. It is your power.  But don’t just confiscate because today morning someone says I don’t want something,” Justice Vaishnav said. The lawyer replied, saying that “can never be my lord”. Justice Vaishnav later dismissed the petition.

The demands for the removal of non-vegetarian food carts from roads have mostly come up from local BJP leaders in different cities of Gujarat but the BJP-led state government has said it has no problem with different food habits of people.

“Some people eat vegetarian food, some people eat non-vegetarian food, and the BJP government does not have any problem with it. There have been demands to remove particular ‘larries’ (carts) from the road.

“Our only concern is that the food sold from food carts should not be unhygienic,” chief minister Bhupendrabhai Rajnikant Patel said, addressing a BJP programme at Bandhani village in Anand district.

The corporation’s town planning committee had specifically mentioned that non-vegetarian food would not be allowed to be sold on handcarts along main roads or within a 100-meter radius of schools, universities, and religious places. Earlier, Rajkot, Bhavnagar, Junagadh, Vadodara and other cities’ municipal bodies have taken a similar decision.

Gujarat is considered the first Hindutva laboratory and it is not the first and only attempt to restrict Gujarati cuisine preferences by an ultra-right wing party to impose a single national and cultural identity. This had happened in Italy during Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime, and it is a well-known fact that the ruling party’s members take inspiration from the Nazi ideology.

MYTH ABOUT GUJARAT VEGETARIANISM

There is nothing further from the truth than the prevalent myth that Gujarat is a vegetarian state. Gujarat has more meat eaters than those in Rajasthan, Haryana and Punjab, according to the Sample Registration System (SRS) baseline survey conducted by the Registrar General of India in 2014.

Even if one ignores meat consumption and focuses solely on meat production in the state, the data refutes the vegetarian myth. Meat output in Gujarat has more than doubled since 2004, rising from 13,000 tons in 2004-05 to 33,000 tons in 2018-19, according to data from the Reserve Bank of India. While some of the meat is exported, the Gujaratis consume the majority of it. The Brahmin/Baniya combination as well as Jains, who has had a social and economical hegemony over other communities for decades has primarily reinforced Gujarat’s vegetarian myth.

As the sun sets, one can see hordes of connoisseurs of non-vegetarian thronged towards the meat-based food stalls in the major cities and towns of the state. Ahmedabad’s Astodia Darwaza is a well-known address for non-vegetarian food lovers. It is a 15th century monument of the walled city that overlooks the present-day city’s traffic-clogged road. Every evening, thousands throng the laari/handcart eateries along the main road in search of specialties that rival those found in five-star hotels. This did not change even after the AMC declared that non-vegetarian food would not be allowed to be sold on handcarts along main roads.

The Ahmedabad unit of the All India Majlis Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) staged a protest against the drive and presented Mayor Kirit Parmar with a tray of eggs.

Speaking with Radiance on phone from Ahmedabad, AIMIM city president Advocate Shamshad Pathan said the court’s order was an oral order and not a written one as the civic body did not issue any circular to remove the food vendors. 

“The Mayor was forced to come out and meet us at our demonstration,” he explained. He was unable to produce a copy of the injunction prohibiting the sale of non-vegetarian cuisine. This is due to the fact that such a system does not exist. It was not shown to us, and it was not made public or shared with the press,” said Pathan.

This move is simply the prerogative of a political party and its partisan agenda. While it impacts Dalits, Adivasis and Muslims the most, it goes against the common man as well.

“It’s unconstitutional since it goes against Article 19 of the Constitution, which ensures our right to pursue any livelihood we want.” He also cited a nine-judge bench of the Supreme court judgment in  2017 which  held that the right to privacy is a fundamental right and expanded the idea of privacy to “food preferences and animal slaughter”.

In another case, the Supreme Court said, “What one eats is one’s personal affair and it is a part of his right to privacy which is included in Article 21 of our Constitution.” The apex court has also made oral remarks on the choice of food. In 2020, quashing a petition to ban halal meat on the ground that it was painful to the animals, the Supreme Court said, “Tomorrow you will say nobody should eat meat? We cannot determine who should be a vegetarian and who should be a non-vegetarian.”

On harassment of vendors, Pathan said  the harassment by cops is so old and routine that some vendors have accepted it as a reality.

Concurring with his views, city based activist Dev Desai told Radiance there is a BJP government in Gujarat, and the ruling party also controlled several municipal corporations. They want to create a wedge between people on the basis of food habits.

While I applaud the court’s decision, I believe that all such decisions that harm or attempt to break constitutional values should be overturned by the judiciary, Desai added.

Mohammad Shafi Madani, Secretary, Social Service, Jamaat-e-Islami Hind told Radiance that it was a part of BJP’s polarising agenda but the court has frustrated it. Madani, who hails from Gujarat, said 18 out of 25 meat vendors were non-Muslims who had approached the court.

Commenting on the Gujarat High Court observations, M R Shamshad, Advocate, Supreme Court, said, “It is a fact that meat is an item of food habit for a large section of the people in India. It is also a fact that food habits and vending thereof is undisputedly connected with the right to life and livelihood. Harsh regulatory measures cannot be sustained in the eyes of law only because it is not a part of the food habits of many other persons in the same society. Food that is conducive to health cannot be treated as a wrong choice of a class of persons.”

The State is under obligation to regulate the process of its supply, keeping in mind these valuable rights of individuals.

We have milk, grocery, vegetable supply regulations. Why are the regulations with respect to supply of meat items so harsh that it becomes difficult to make them freely available? he asked.

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