India’s highest court has said that it cannot force the entire country to become vegetarian, after activist groups filed a case demanding a ban on meat exports.
The comments came as India marked the nine-day Hindu festival of Navratri, during which stoic followers stop eating meat, fish, eggs, and even onions and garlic as a mark of their devotion.
But the Indian Supreme Court was not convinced by the petition to ban meat from a group called the Healthy, Wealthy, Ethical, World Guide India Trust.
“You want the whole country to be vegetarian? Ban meat exports?” asked the justice.
The court added that it “cannot pass an order that everyone should become vegetarian” and that, in any case, export issues were for the government, not the judiciary, to decide.
Pulling just short of dismissing the petition outright, the court deferred any official decision until the new year.
Butchers’ shops often shut down during the Navratri fortnight, and some that remain open have been attacked by Hindu extremists in and around the Delhi area.
Critics of equating Hinduism with vegetarianism say the choice is cultural rather than religious – in other words some provinces have traditionally not eaten meat for historical reasons rather than as a mark of faith.
The petition argued on grounds of animal welfare, rather than any religion, and said that the “state-supported business of killing living creatures actively and continuously violates the constitution”.
The Trust’s submission added: “The business of meat trade is brutal, toxic, and destructive of animal and human life.”
However, the court was not swayed by the argument, ruling that there was no obvious constitutional violation on legal grounds.
The petition claimed that in 2012, India was responsible for nearly a quarter of the world’s buffalo meat export trade alone, and today is among the world’s top beef exporters, including some beef withheld from the domestic market as cows are deemed holy.
While India has a vast vegetarian population – a figure often popularly quoted is two-thirds – researchers have often questioned the credibility of that number.
A recent National Family Health Survey in India found that only 30 per cent of women and 22 per cent of men describe themselves as vegetarian.