Ritika Achrekar, JHU:
Mumbai has been a safe haven for members of religious minorities for centuries. When Zoroastrians fled the Islamic conquest of Persia in the 8th century, they found a home in India where their religious customs have survived up to the present day. Similarly, Jews have been able to freely and openly practice their religion since they arrived in Mumbai from the Middle East in the 18th century. Today, there are eight synagogues in the city, and Mumbai’s Jews have risen to prominence in fields including business, the arts and the military. Although religious differences are generally well tolerated, for the past month there has been an enormous backlash against Mumbai’s Jain community, who comprise 4% of the population. This comes as a result of a proposed citywide ban on the sale of all meat products during the Jain holiday of Paryushan.
Paryushan is an eight-day observance of penance during which Jains pray, meditate and ask for forgiveness. An important aspect in observing Paryushan is fasting. Various Jain communities practice fasting differently – more orthodox sects abstain from eating food altogether for days, whereas others solely avoid “indulgent” foods. Almost all observant Jains however, avoid meat and other animal products during Paryushan. This year, the holiday fell between September 10th and September 17th, and following a request by Jain lobby group Ahimsa Sangh, Mumbai’s Municipal Corporation passed a bill banning the sale of meat, poultry and fish on September 10th, 13th, 17th and 18th.
Shiv Sena, an opposition political party that traditionally represents the interests of the Marathi people (the original inhabitants of the city who currently make up 42% of the population), was very vocal in its opposition to the ban. Party leader Uddhav Thackeray recently said, “We do not oppose the rights of people to observe their rituals. However we are against this move of asking people to forcibly turn vegetarian,” Thousands of Mumbaikars echoed this sentiment on social media, using the hashtag “#meatban” on websites such as Twitter to call attention to the issue.
Supporters of Shiv Sena along with members of like-minded political party Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, set up stalls selling chicken and lamb in defiance of the ban. Although the police initially detained these demonstrators, their point of view eventually prevailed.
On Monday September 14th, halfway through the ban, the Bombay High Court lifted any restriction on the sale of animal products for the remaining days of Paryushan. The Jain lobby appealed this ruling, but the Supreme Court endorsed the Bombay High Court’s decision. Supreme Court Justices T.S. Thakur and Kurian Joseph explained that a ban cannot be imposed on people and that “there has to be a spirit of tolerance and accommodation. Some sensibilities are called for. It cannot be in the spirit of conflict.” Based on this ruling, it is unlikely that a meat ban will be imposed in the future.
The short-lived ban raises questions on the distribution of power in the city of 12 million. Although Jains make up a small portion of the population, they are very influential and are believed to have the highest per capita income in India. Many believe Mumbai’s beauty lies in its cosmopolitan nature and its culture of open-mindedness. Every Sunday, people of all faiths flood Father Agnel’s church in the neighborhood of Bandra to recite the seven novenas. Every spring all of Mumbai joins the Hindu majority in celebrating Holi with bonfires, color-powder fights and Bhang, a traditional cannabis-infused drink. Mumbai’s Municipal Corporation has a long history of supporting religious minorities, but this support should never extend so far as to inconvenience the majority. India was founded as a secular nation and the imposition of religious practices has no place in its largest and most diverse city. Minorities, no matter how powerful, have a responsibility to coexist as part of a city inhabited by people from all corners of the world. In order to preserve the spirit of tolerance and acceptance, the Greater Mumbai Municipal Corporation must prioritize personal liberties over religious accommodation.