Vegetarians, non-vegetarians and public dining in India

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A brief history

1909- 1936

Vikram Doctor, How India’s veg and non-veg divide started, February 23, 2020: The Times of India

While education institutes and the railways did cater to different food habits as far back as the early 20th century, friction is relatively recent

The first recorded use of the word non-vegetarian

The website for the Merriam-Webster dictionary gives 1883 as the date for first recorded use of the word non-vegetarian. But The Times of India has one use of the term from 1878, in a report from one of its correspondents in the UK about some dietary economics in Manchester.

The writer refers to a meeting of vegetarians in Manchester where, presumably to popularise their diet, one had mentioned it allowed him to live on just sixpence a day. This was a tiny sum, even 142 years ago, and to counter doubts about whether this was possible, the writer gives details of a Manchester hotelkeeper who managed this feat even while having fish, eggs and meat twice a week: “The money expended on these nonvegetarian items would doubtless have gone further... if expended on vegetables.”

Vegetarian as a term had been around for 30 years by then. While diets that avoid meat had been recorded, and advocated for centuries, the term now commonly used was coined with the launch of the Vegetarian Society in 1847. This was partly inspired by members of a Christian sect created by the suitably named William Cowherd who, as Tristram Stuart writes in his history of vegetarianism, The Bloodless Revolution, “encouraged his congregation to see God dwelling in all creatures.”

Non-vegetarian must have come into use at some point as an extension of the first term, but the use remained limited because it was not needed. Meat eating was the norm and vegetarianism the exception — unlike India, the one country where vegetarianism is common enough for the opposing term to be needed.

When did vegetarian versus non-vegetarian become a divisive issue?

When did vegetarian versus non-vegetarian become a divisive issue? And this seems relatively recent, because while most community-driven food restrictions meant than Indians were always particular about what they ate, the situations where they might have had to eat other people’s food were few.

Restaurants didn’t exist in India before the early 20th century, and even then were meant mostly for Europeans. (Bombay’s Irani cafes, which formed one of the earliest spaces where different communities came together, famously had colour-coded crockery: pink for Hindus, green for Muslims, floral for everyone else). Travellers took their own food, stayed with community members or stuck to safe foods like fruits.

It is significant that some of the first mentions of segregated dining appear with the growth of institutions of higher education that got students from different parts of India. A TOI report from 1911 about the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, founded in 1909, mentions that the students are “Brahmins (Bengalis), nonvegetarian Hindus and Europeans who are grouped in separate messes, by which they are enabled to use separate kitchens.”

Another area where the issue crops up is in the national political meetings that the Indian National Congress pioneered. A TOI notice from 1916 about its 31stmeeting mentions that “vegetarian and non-vegetarian delegates will have to pay for board at the rate of Rs 2 and 2.8 respectively.” Boy Scout jamborees (meetings) were another place where provision of separate vegetarian and non-vegetarian food was made clear, perhaps to persuade reluctant parents that their children wouldn’t be taught more than how to tie knots and light campfires.

But the biggest influence on getting people to eat in public was the railways. In 1916, TOI published a report about how the Great Indian Peninsular railway was taking pains to make sure there was acceptable food for both Hindus and Muslims (other communities would presumably have to choose between them). By 1922, TOI was publishing ads where Indians seeking accommodation specified that non-vegetarian tenants should be acceptable, and by 1934, PS.Divadkar & Co was advertising “Delightful X’mas” tours of Delhi or Mysore with vegetarian and nonvegetarian catering.” And, responding to one of the biggest problems faced by Indians travelling abroad, shipping companies had started offering veg menus.

There are hints, at times, of possible frictions between vegetarians and non-vegetarians. A TOI report from 1936 records complaints about Muslim hawkers in the Fort area preparing non-vegetarian snacks during Shravan which “offended the sentiments of Hindu women and children.” But there is mostly just a sense of the need to find practical solutions to the needs of both groups, with no idea to use the differences as a way to divide.

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