Halal hegemony: How the issue is not just about food choices, but ban is not the answer

At a time when the nation is debating halal and halalonomics, my mind invariably goes back to Goa almost a decade ago. There’s something abo...

At a time when the nation is debating halal and halalonomics, my mind invariably goes back to Goa almost a decade ago. There’s something about Goa that has always fascinated me, apart from its beaches and foods. The place just slows you down, makes you care-free, introspective and observant.

So, there I was with my wife and friends — a Muslim couple. We were walking leisurely along a narrow Goan alley one afternoon, looking for an eatery with authentic local foods. We found one but as we entered its premises, my friend rushed ahead. “Maybe he’s too hungry,” I thought. By the time we could find a table, he was back, signalling us not to sit. The place didn’t have the food we were looking for, he said.

We resumed the search again. Soon, we were at the gates of another eatery. And again, my friend rushed ahead and came back with the same firman! Thankfully, we found the right restaurant next time and we settled for a sumptuous lunch and drink.

It was only later, and a chance overhearing of a conversation, that I realised that the entire restaurant hopping endeavour was halal-centric. I laughed it off when I first heard it. But I knew this was not a matter to be laughed away.

For, a strong, non-negotiable message was delivered to restaurants that day: That a section of consumers would not enter their premises if they ignored halal norms. Since keeping both halal and jhatka foods in a restaurant means doubling the running cost, the easy way out has been to bend to the “tyranny” of the assertive minority at the cost of the indifferent, laidback majority.

No wonder, in 2019, when American fast food chain McDonald’s publicly announced serving only halal meat products in India, it hardly came as a surprise. So was the case when Air India in 2017 confessed serving only halal meat on its flights, even though the majority of flyers were non-halal eaters. In the process, not just the silent majority but also other not-so assertive but devout minorities like Sikhs (who are forbidden from having halal meat) was taken for a ride. A Hindu was told to choose from products that’s Islamic in nature. Worse, a Sikh was made to feel undesirable.

The issue, however, is much more than what Nassim Nicholas Taleb puts forward in his book, Skin In The Game, where he explains how it is the most intolerant, howsoever minuscule they might be, who win in imposing their views on the majority. It is more about hegemony — cultural, social and economic. As the ongoing Himalaya controversy suggests, halal isn’t just about food. It’s about normalising the Islamic way of life.

I remember meeting an educationist in Bihar who complained how the masonry sector had been completely ‘halal-ised’ in the state. According to him, the raj mistrys mostly hailed from the Muslim community, while their assistant workers were primarily Hindus. He bemoaned how despite the majority of assistant workers being Hindus, they now take offs on Fridays. “It all began casually. But what began on an on-and-off basis a decade back, is now a well-established practice,” he said. This might be a local phenomenon, but definitely it shows a trend.

The educationist also reminded me how the meat industry, which was once in the hands of the Scheduled Castes and Tribes, is now being completely monopolised by the Muslim community. The SCs/STs are on the periphery now. “The same is happening, though it’s yet to completely pan out, in the dairy sector, which was once the monopoly of the Yadav community. Today, the younger generation, in the name of education and social status, are shifting out of their traditional profession. They are fine with working as clerks, security guards in some company in our metros, but not ready to work as entrepreneurs in the dairy sector wherein lies their traditional strength,” he informed.

The halalisation of the meat industry also brings to the fore the absolute marginalisation of the SC/ST communities. One wonders if this stands in contravention to the SC/ST Act, which makes the economic boycott of the SCs and STs “punishable with imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than six months but which may extend to five years and with fine”. After all, the halal trust website of Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind, one of the largest Muslim organisations in India, categorically states that the man involved in halal slaughter must “be a Muslim”, besides being “authorised” and “under the supervision of a certified Islamic organisation”. Of course, the slaughter of the animal should be done “according to Islamic rite including recitation of Bismillah Allahu-Akbar”. This halalisation of the meat industry has given Muslims hegemonistic control at the cost of the SCs and STs.

Halal meat, however, is just one part of the larger issue, as the ongoing Himalaya controversy suggests. Halal has now gone into sectors as diverse as Ayurvedic and cosmetics to vegan. A vegan product has nothing to do with meat. The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), India’s highest food certifying body, endorses this, and yet our desi companies are vying with each other to get a halal certificate.

On the face of it, this seems a pure commercial act. It’s an attempt to further smoothen the export process to 49 Islamic nations led by Pakistan and Malaysia that prefer halal products over others. So, an Islamic body is put up to authenticate the halal-ness of the stuff, thus making a mockery of the FSSAI certification that is officially required on edible products. Halal certification, in that way, infringes upon the role of FSSAI.

Dozens of private bodies, unrecognised by the government, have emerged over the years that certify the halal-ness of a product. And it’s a lucrative business. As per a 2019 article by Arihant Pawariya, Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind, for instance, charges Rs 20,000 for registration of an Indian company and Rs 500 for each product (excluding GST charges). To add to them all is renewal fee of Rs 15,000 as the registration is valid only for one year.

In a democracy like India, where the government has set up FSSAI to certify a product, it is nothing but extortion, especially for non-meaty products. Even if one takes into account the religious sensitivities of Muslims vis-à-vis halal meat, and for that a body exclusively comprising Muslims can be set up, the government can easily set up its own halal certification centre for non-meat products and earn easy money. The government, which doesn’t mind extorting Hindu temples for money in the name of managing them while pursuing a laissez faire approach with minority institutions, religious or otherwise, may find this idea quite appealing.

There are some in the BJP and Sangh who believe banning halal is the way out. It needs to be realised that ban culture more often than not backfires, but more importantly, it is antithesis to Bharatiya civilisational ethos. One form of illiberalism cannot — and should not — be fought with another. Moreover, at a time when the global media and pressure groups are waiting in their wings to write India’s liberal, democratic obituaries, this would be the last thing this country would want.

So, what should we do? On the non-meat halal issue, the government should think about setting up a halal certification board under FSSAI. Let the government run it for non-meat purposes, and let our private companies desperate to get this tag pay for it. Just one precondition: Only the exported non-meaty products will be given halal certificates.

As for halal meat, instead of banning, which is an incredibly bad idea, the government should instead make it compulsory for those selling/providing halal products to have jhatka alternatives readily available. They should be told matter-of-factly that choices can’t be curtailed in favour of one, more so Taleb’s “minuscule intolerant”. In our texts, good triumphs over evil in the end. Let this be the case in real life too.

As for the ‘halalisation’ of a few professions that initially belonged to the SCs/STs or OBCs, it’s the sign of a besieged Hindu mindset that has stopped us from realising that we are the descendants of entrepreneurs who could make fortunes with a dead mouse, as a Jataka story tells us. We belong to a culture where dharma and artha are placed above kama and moksha. Our distrust for money, entrepreneurship is too recent a phenomenon. And our obsession with mai-baap government and sarkari naukari is a post-Independence fetish. Maybe New India will revisit the eternal India and do the course correction. And when that happens, maybe we might reclaim some of the professions we thought were lowly.

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India World News: Halal hegemony: How the issue is not just about food choices, but ban is not the answer
Halal hegemony: How the issue is not just about food choices, but ban is not the answer
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