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India: Ahmedabad meat ban: Does the law give Indians the right to eat the kind of food they want?

Sunday 19 December 2021, by siawi3


Ahmedabad meat ban: Does the law give Indians the right to eat the kind of food they want?

From partial restrictions to total bans, the judiciary has swayed in its interpretation of this question.

Umang Poddar

Nov 18, 2021 · 12:30 pm

Ahmedabad meat ban: Does the law give Indians the right to eat the kind of food they want?

Representational image: Kebab being grilled at a food stall in Bangalore. | Manjunath Kiran/AFP

On Monday, the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation banned stalls from selling meat, fish and eggs on main roads and within 100 metres of schools, colleges and educational institutes. Municipal bodies of three other cities in Gujarat have put similar restrictions.

This is not new: what Indians are allowed to eat has been a matter of debate for a long time. It has occupied the minds of India’s freedom fighters, Constitution framers, legislators and judges. While the conversation has mostly been regarding the slaughter of cows and beef-eating, there have also been other instances such as meat being banned during particular festivals and at religious places – all of which impacts what a person can eat.

The matter is so controversial that the courts themselves have gone both ways, sometimes upholding the right to what people want to eat but at other times favouring aspects of religion and culture.

Righ to nutrition

In 1958, a butcher Mohammed Hanif Qureshi challenged cow slaughter laws from three states – Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. These statutes banned the slaughter of cows, bulls, bullocks and calves. The challenge was that these statutes infringed the right to carry on trade or occupation as per Article 19(1)(g) of the Constitution and the right to exercise religion as per Article 25 of the Constitution.

The Supreme Court, sitting in a five-judge bench noted that these animals were important for the country’s economy as well because they provide milk and are useful in agriculture, therefore regulation of their slaughter is justified. It allowed the slaughter of bulls, bullocks and buffaloes when they stopped being useful, which is when they stopped breeding, giving milk or being useful in agriculture. However, it upheld the ban on the slaughter of all cows, whether they were useful or not.

In its order, the court was careful to take into account the nutrional needs of Indians. One of the reasons for the court partially allowing the slaughter of bovines was that these animals were a staple food and a source of protein for a large number of people. The court held that for “a large section of the poorer people”, consuming beef and buffalo flesh was a matter of “necessity”. “Poorer people, therefore, who can hardly afford fruit or milk or ghee are likely to suffer from malnutrition, if they are deprived of even one ounce of beef or buffalo flesh which may sometimes be within their reach,” the court said.

Photo Credit: Indranil Mukherjee/AFP

Going back

However, within a few decades, the Supreme Court changed its mind on how important the right to eat food of one’s choice was. In 2005, the Supreme Court, in State of Gujarat v. Mirzapur Moti Kureshi, overruled the Qureshi judgment, using the argument, among others, that since only a small number of Indians ate beef, it could be banned.

The bench upheld a law in Gujarat that put a total ban on the slaughter of cows, calves, bulls and bullocks, regardless of whether they were useful or not. The court noted that only 1.3% of meat-eaters ate beef, and that the concept of food security has changed considerably since the 1958 judgment. “Consequently a prohibition on the slaughter of cattle would not substantially affect the food consumption of the people,” it said.

“The main source of staple food which is consumed both by vegetarians and non-vegetarians is supplied by vegetables,” the court argued. “It will, therefore, not be correct to say that poor will suffer in availing staple food and nutritional diet only because slaughter of cow progeny was prohibited.”

The majority decision was passed by six judges, while one judge dissented. “Interestingly, the six majority judges in Mirzapur Moti (supra) were vegetarians,” noted Rohinton Nariman, in his book Discordant Notes.
‘Deference to the religious demands’

Earlier, in 2004, the Supreme Court had upheld a ban on the sale of eggs in Rishikesh, Haridwar and Muni Ki Reti.

The court said, “banning public dealing and trade of non-vegetarian food items in municipal town of Rishikesh along with adjoining towns of Haridwar and Muni Ki Reti has been taken in deference to the religious and cultural demands of large number of residents and pilgrims who visit regularly”.

“Geographical situation and peculiar culture of the three towns justify complete restriction on trade and public dealing in non-vegetarian food items including eggs within the municipal limits of the towns,” it added.

In 2008, the Supreme Court held that a nine-day closure of slaughterhouses in Ahmedabad during the Jain festival Paryushan was a reasonable restriction on the right to carry on trade or do business in meat.

The court noted that this ban was not for a “considerable period” and “surely the non-vegetarians can become vegetarians during those 9 days out of respect for the feeling of the Jain community”.

However, the court also mentioned that had the ban been for a considerable period of time then it might have been invalid.
Source: Sample Registration System, Baseline Survey, 2014, Registrar General of India.

Let citizens alone

In 2016, however, the judiciary again backed the right to choice of food when the Bombay High Court reviewed Maharashtra’s beef ban. The High Court struck down certain amendments to the Maharashtra Animal Preservation Act 1976 which punished consumption and mere possession of beef and put the burden of proof on the accused to show that they had not violated the law.

“As far as the choice of eating food of the citizens is concerned, the citizens are required to be let alone especially when the food of their choice is not injurious to health,” the court said. “The State cannot make an intrusion into his home and prevent a citizen from possessing and eating food of his choice.”
Choice of food as right to privacy

In 2017, a nine-judge bench of the Supreme Court held that the right to privacy is a fundamental right. The court noted that the idea of privacy has expanded to “food preferences and animal slaughter”. In an earlier case, the Supreme Court had said: “What one eats is ones personal affair and it is a part of his right to privacy which is included in Article 21 of our Constitution”.

The Supreme Court has also made oral remarks on the choice of food. In 2020, there was a petition to ban Halal meat on the grounds that it was painful to the animals. While quashing the petition, the 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”.