Dietary apartheid: Mumbai gets a taste of food terrorism

Fish and rice are the staple of Maharashtrians and they don’t see why they should give up their diet to please later settlers, like the Gujaratis who hate even the smell of fish

Fish and rice are the staple of Maharashtrians but most Gujaratis can’t stand the smell of fish (Photo: Getty Images)
Fish and rice are the staple of Maharashtrians but most Gujaratis can’t stand the smell of fish (Photo: Getty Images)

Sujata Anandan

When they go abroad, open motels in the US, visit restaurants serving beef or when they marry beef-eating foreigners, why is it they cannot stand the smell of fish or meat being cooked in this country, fumed a Maharashtrian on social media earlier this month. He was referring to the Gujaratis of Mumbai, whose food intolerance is causing renewed friction between the two communities.

Some years ago, residents of a housing society in Kandivali, a largely middle-class Maharashtrian suburb in North Mumbai, were woken up early one Sunday morning by raucous squabbling between two groups.

The building was evenly divided between Maharashtrian and Gujarati Hindu and Jain residents. The Gujaratis were holding a Brahma puja that morning. One Maharashtrian family had invited friends to lunch on this particular Sunday and they were up early preparing a sumptuous spread for their guests. Fish, a favourite with Konkani Maharashtrians, and mutton, usually preferred by Maharashtrians belonging to the interior parts of the state, were both on the menu.

However, as soon as the pressure cooker began to steam and the aromas of meat and fish spread across the society, the Gujaratis were banging on the front doors of their Maharashtrian neighbours, forbidding them from cooking the non-vegetarian meal as the “smell” was wafting into the site of their puja.

The puja was a private one and not a society event, so the Maharashtrian couple told off the Gujaratis—they had been careful about not allowing any discarded bits to litter the society and they had a right to cook and eat whatever they wanted within their own homes, they said.

That should have been that. However, the Gujaratis refused to back down. The matter escalated to fisticuffs and one of the rudely woken and disgruntled-in-drowsiness residents alerted the police.

The cops rushed to the society and took a couple of the squabblers into custody, but even they acknowledged that everyone had the right to their own cuisine and no one could dictate terms to neighbours on this score. They advised the Gujaratis to move out of the society if they had any objections and let the Maharashtrians go with a warning that they should not litter public places with ‘non-veg remains’.

In a similar incident in another suburb some months later, the Gujaratis were even more aggressive—they started dumping garbage at the doors of the Maharashtrian residents, even dog poop and cow dung. The majority of the society in this case backed them up, completely ostracising the family and forcing the Maharashtrians out of the building.

This kind of food terrorism began in the late 1980s, when former prime minister Morarji Desai forced the shutdown of a non-vegetarian restaurant on the ground floor of his building, claiming that the odours disturbed his tranquillity.

He found some support from the government and authorities of his time, who ‘respected’ his standing and enabled that closure, although there was no law under which it could have been enforced.

This then became the norm, particularly after a Bombay High Court judgement a few years later allowed a largely Gujarati society to bar non-Gujaratis from occupying apartments, citing community sensibilities.

So it has escalated to the point that last year, three Jain trusts and one individual moved the Bombay High Court to demand a ban on meat advertisements, on the grounds that their families (including children) were forced to watch such adverts across print and electronic media. Such advertising was an utter violation of their right to life, to live in peace, and to their privacy, their PIL stated.

This time, though, the Bombay High Court was having none of it. Why are you encroaching on the fundamental rights of other people, the high court—which had earlier ordered a stay on the closure of meat shops during the Jain festival of Paryushan—asked.

In the earlier case, the high court had stated that being vegetarian or non-vegetarian was a personal choice and no meat shop could be ordered to close down for the comfort of vegetarians. Now the high court told the religious trusts that there was no law in the land that could be evoked to ban meat ads.

The demographics of Mumbai, where 48 per cent of its residents are from the middle or lower classes and the 30 per cent of Gujarati Hindu and Jain residents are wealthier, has made it possible for the latter to buy into more and more housing, pushing local Maharashtrians into a minority in these societies. It is in these lopsided spaces that the Gujarati folks are now getting away with unofficial bans.

The recent incident of a father–son duo in Mulund who misbehaved with a young Maharashtrian woman who had visited their society looking to rent a flat has also served to revive the issue of food intolerance.

The day after the Mulund housing society incident, a Maharashtrian youth was beaten up when he tried to enter a housing society in the northern suburbs but refused to chant ‘Jai Shri Ram’ like the residents demanded.

A Maharashtrian bachelor who cooks ‘non-veg’ for himself and his friends reported that the secretary of the society actually digs into the garbage bin and bag every day to check what he cooked the previous night.

BJP leader and former Maharashtra minister Pankaja Munde claimed she too had been turned down three or four times when she sought private housing after giving up her government accommodation.

And now the Maharashtrians seem to be regrouping, looking to reclaim Mumbai as their space.

Social media posts by young Maharashtrians have been raging against the shethjis and bhatjis—Gujarati traders and priests—and calling to banish them from Mumbai and Maharashtra!

Former Maharashtra minister Jitendra Awhad of the Nationalist Congress Party pointed out that the Kolis (fishermen), the Agris (who built Mumbai for the British) and the upper-crust Pathare Prabhus (who gave the city a cultural mooring) are the original inhabitants of Mumbai.

Surrounded by the sea, fish and rice have been the staple of all Maharashtrians. They do not see any reason why they should have to give up their diets for the food apartheid sought to be enforced by Gujarati migrants who settled here much later.

Even housing law experts have joined issue, stating that Maharashtra’s co-operative bylaws do not permit discrimination in housing on grounds of caste, community or food preferences.

The Maharashtra Navnirman Sena has now jumped into the fray and forced an apology from the father–son duo in their usual style. It is Raj Thackeray’s party and was once part of the original Shiv Sena under Bal Thackeray, who had harped on the Marathi manoos issue for ages.

However, they are also being blamed for the current situation in which Maharashtrians find themselves sidelined in their own state. Bal Thackeray’s alliance with the BJP subsumed the Marathi identity into Hindutva, a section of Marathi analysts feel, allowing the marginalisation of the Marathi identity.

This gained further momentum, they say, after Narendra Modi became prime minister in 2014. Raj Thackeray’s own business partners are also mostly Gujaratis, making it difficult for him to fight for the Maharashtrian cause, they argue.

Awhad, on the other hand, represents the Muslim majority constituency of Mumbra in the assembly, and says, “We (Hindus) were silent when Muslims were denied housing by societies on similar grounds. Now that we are facing the situation ourselves, we can feel how the shoe pinches. We will not allow this kind of discrimination to go any further.”

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