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Soot On The Melting Pot

The Jains want their pilgrimage spot, Palitana, declared a vegetarian zone. Is that justified?

Soot On The Melting Pot
Apoorva Salkade
Soot On The Melting Pot

Parimal, a nondescript neighbourhood in Palitana, near Bhavnagar, in Gujarat, is much sought after for the Jain pilgrimage town’s few Muslim-run non-vegetarian eateries. But it’s eerily deserted on what should have been a bustling, cheerful iftaar evening. Kababs and chicken lollipops are displayed promisingly on the menus of the stalls but the kitchens that roll them out have been shut down since the Gujarat government promised to look at Jain leaders’ demand that the pilgrimage town be made a vegeta­rian-only zone. The stall-owners are suspicious, reluctant to talk, and refuse to give their names. A seething resentment fills the air. “There’s nothing for us to celebrate this Ramzan,” says Haji Ghulam Ali, offering us goodies from the vegetarian entree to his humble iftaar meal. He’s the only one willing to be quoted. “Our business is hit, we’re on the verge of bankruptcy, and we can’t even eat our regular food!”

The government notification hasn’t yet come into effect. But in Palitana, it’s already futile—and generally has been difficult—to find non-veg food. The carts that used to sell omelettes and boiled or scrambled eggs around the town’s mosque and cemetery, on the outskirts, have vanished. Interestingly, this region is predominantly meat-eating. “As high as 55-60 per cent of the population are non-vegetarians—not just Muslims, but Kolis, Sindhis and Dalits also,” says Pravin Mishra, an Ahmedabad-based filmmaker, artist and columnist. The Jain presence is in a few thousands, largely a floating population of pilgrims and ascetic, peripatetic monks and nuns. In contrast, Muslims constitute 25 per cent of the resident population. It will be worst hit if vegetarianism is enforced.

Virag Sagar Maharaj. (Photograph by Apoorva Salkade)

Divya Shekhar Maharaj (above) opposes the campaign for a vegetarian Palitana. He thinks nothing will come of it.

But the monks spearheading the movement say it’s not a matter of numbers. “Palitana is like the Mecca or Kashi of Jains,” says Virag Sagar Maharaj, a leading monk. He invokes Jain lore. Palitana has been visited by all 24 Jain tirthankars. The Shat­runjaya hills are clustered with 3,000 temples and 27,000 statues. There’s the symbolic ord­eal of 3,600 steps, a 3.5 km climb that takes two to three hours. Jains come here to pray for moksha. The sentiment runs in laity too. “It’s the centre of our faith,” says Shireesh Kotari, international president of the Jain Social Groups Inter­national Federation. And Janki Shah, owner of a textiles company in Ahme­d­abad, says, “It’s one of our holiest shri­nes—our shashwata tirtha. We believe that, whatever happens, Palitana will never vanish from the earth. It is eternal.”

They draw on the concept of ahimsa, a central tenet of Jainism: you are not meant to hurt anything, not even a fly. “It’s not merely about preventing people from eating non-veg food. Our movement is based on the concept of Jeevdaya and is primarily against animal slaughter,” says Virag Sagar Maharaj. Although he does not justify it, sociologist Gaurang Jani says the demand for a no-meat zone in Palitana is linked to the strict vegetarianism Jains practise. And Vidyut Joshi, former vice-chancellor of Bhavnagar University, says, “I guess some ethos of the Jain religion has to be maintained at its biggest pilgrimage centre.”

The posters outside the ashram of Jambudweep, a subsect of the Shwet­ambar Jains, talk of 2,000 animals butchered every day in Palitana, 60,000 monthly and 7 lakh annually. They demand a “hinsa, kasaai, vyasan mukt Palitana”—sanitised of violence, butchery and vice, that is. It’s an organised effort. Each of the 68 butchers in town has been identified by name—and the kind of animals he slaughters. The Jambudweep group claims this is the first step in their rehabilitation. It offers butchers  a compensation of Rs 9 lakh and eatery owners Rs 5 lakh. So far, 15 butchers—the campaigners have agreeme­nts on notarised stamp papers as proof—have agreed to give up their profession.

Jain devotees at the main shrine atop Shatrunjaya hills. (Photograph by Apoorva Salkade)

“To ask another faith to change to what you think is right is an act of imposition. Ritual slaughter is as much an act of faith as ahimsa.”
Aakar Patel, Columnist

But Muslim residents of the Parimal area say the promises aren’t being made good.  And, compensation or not, it’s difficult to uproot oneself from a place or give up a trade. In Gujarat, there are hardly any non-Muslim butchers, so the demand for vegetarianism will mostly hit one community. Mishra says it’s a case of religion being used as a political and electoral tool. But it’s not just Muslim butchers; the Sikligar Sikhs, who breed pigs and trade in them, are also under the Jains’ scanner. Palitana looks like a starting point. Virag Sagar Maharaj wants to take the movement forward in all of Gujarat, and later, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. “The whole world,” he resolutely says, “should become ahimsak.”

What is unfolding right now is clearly a clash of faiths and opposing ways of life. “It seems all about ‘My faith is bigger than yours’, which defies the spirit of secularism and acceptance,” says Mishra. Ironically, the temples atop the sacred Shatrunjaya hills tell a different story. They reflect a history of peace and togetherness, of cultures and religions in harmony. At one of the holiest Jain sites here, there’s the Muslim shrine to Angar Pir, at which childless couples of every religion—including Jains—have been seeking  blessings since time immemorial.

All is not well within the Jain sect itself. There has been dissent amongst Jain monks too. One group accuses the other of being taken in too easily by the promises made by the administration. Monks are even being accused of having pocketed money meant for rehabilitating butchers. “It’s a stunt,” says Divya Shek­har Maharaj, a monk who has distanced himself from the movement, though he himself practises a very rigorous form of vegetarianism. “They have promised a lot but nothing has happened.”

“Contrary to popular belief, 55 to 60 per cent of people in Palitana are non-vegetarian. This includes, Kolis, OBCs, Dalits and Muslims.”
Pravin Mishra, Filmmaker, columnist

The proposal has led to sharp criticism from civil society. “Ritual slaughter is as much an act of faith for Muslims and Hindus as animal protection is for the Jains,” says Aakar Patel, a columnist. “To ask another faith to change to what you think is right is an imposition and fundamental intolerance.” According to education consultant Manisha Modha Patel, no group can treat a town as its private pro­­perty. At best, proscription of non-veg food can be applied at temple complexes. Already, since 1999, non-veg food is not allowed within 250 metres of Taleti, the point from which the climb up Shatru­njaya hills begins. The road leading to the Shatrunjaya river, too, is a vegetarian zone. Now, they want vegetarianism imposed in a 9 km radius. “Tomorrow,” says Manisha, “they may seek a ban on onion and garlic. What if Ajmer decides to declare itself a meat-only zone?” But Virag Sagar Maharaj counters by drawing on the example of Haridwar and Vaishno Devi, both vegetarian zones.

What the Palitana movement does prove is the influence of Jains in Gujarat. They form less than one per cent of the state’s population but dominate the economic space, and through it wield disproportionate influence on the social, cultural and political space. Many say the ascendancy in the ruling BJP of Amit Shah, Modi’s right-hand man, now slotted to be party president, is adding to their clout. Shah is a Jain.

Their dominance has also been creating the misperception that Gujaratis are vegetarian. Actually, 68 per cent of the population, according to the last census, eats meat—this includes tribals, obcs, Muslims, Christians, Parsis and Jews.

Meanwhile, Bhavnagar collector P.K. Solanki says that, at the moment, the Palitana municipality is inviting objections to the proposed move and has received 1,980 so far. Legal opinion is also being sought. The board of the municpality is likely to decide on July 30. The decision will be forwarded to the state government for appropriate action. Till then, Palitana remains in suspended animation. And iftaars will remain dhokla-khakhra affairs.

Eggless, Meatless...

  • Haridwar, Uttarakhand. No meat, no eggs, no fishing allowed in the Ganga, no alcohol.
  • Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri, Yamunotri, Uttarakhand. All hotels, guest houses, restaurants and eateries serve only vegetarian fare. There are no bars.
  • Jagannath Temple, Puri, Orissa. No sale or preparation of meat, fish, poultry, eggs in all restaurants in specific areas around the temple
  • Ujjain, Madhya Pradesh. No meat, fish, eggs or liquor except in certain parts of the city.
  • Vrindavan, Uttar Pradesh. No non-vegetarian food, smoking, drinking, no leather objects in the temple vicinity.
  • Golden Temple, Amritsar. No meat in the temple complex. No smoking in the city.
  • Katra, Jammu. Only pure vegetarian food, not even onion and garlic allowed.
  • Rameshwaram, Tamil Nadu. Only vegetarian food in the town though it is a major exporter of seafood.y Namrata Joshi in Palitana, Gujarat

—Compiled by Sakshi Virmani

Edited to fix blurb

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