In India, vegetarianism is not just a choice, it is deeply political. For many Hindus, Jains and Buddhists, vegetarianism is a religious obligation, and many Muslims feel just as strongly about eating meat. In a country where every nuance of human behaviour has religious overtones, dietary habits can split families and divide communities.
In this febrile culinary environment, Air India has taken the radical decision to stop serving meat to economy class passengers on all domestic flights. The move is intended to cut costs at India’s national carrier, which has racked up debts of 550 billion rupees (US$8 billion) through loans to buy new aircraft and loss-making side ventures.
While trimming menus might seem to be tinkering at the edges of this massive debt pile, the airline is hoping to save 80 million rupees (US$1 million) a year by switching to cheaper and easier-to-store vegetarian ingredients. Predictably, the decision to go veg-only has ruffled feathers amongst the flying public. Many Muslim passengers feel the new menus discriminate against Muslims, and carnivorous passengers of all faiths are outraged that international and business class passengers will still have the option of a full meat menu.
Some commentators have also accused the airline of trying to curry favour with the Indian government, which has introduced a string of new laws to appeal to hardline Hindu nationalists. The consumption of beef in particular has become highly political and there have been incidents of alleged beef-eaters being attacked by angry mobs.
Rival airlines however are viewing the meat ban as an opportunity to muscle in on the state carrier’s airspace. The latest adverts for rival airline Vistara show a lavish meat biryani next to a plain plate of vegetable pulao rice, with the caption ‘Chicken or Vegetarian? We leave the choice to you.’