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Eat up your greens: Caste system for veggie options causes uproar in India

New Delhi Letter: Zomato food app’s plan for riders in green uniforms making vegetarian deliveries in green containers signifying eco-friendly cuisine leaves meat-eaters seeing red

An online campaign criticising an Indian multinational restaurant aggregator and food delivery app has helped avert a potentially incendiary divide between vegetarians and meat eaters across large parts of the country.

The culinary faceoff followed the launch this month by Zomato of a food delivery service catering exclusively to its vegetarian clientele.

Zomato head Deepinder Goyal said on the social media platform X that spillovers from delivery boxes had occasionally resulted in vegetarian orders “smelling” of the accompanying – or previous – non-vegetarian ones. Hence Zomato, he said, would set up a corps of riders in green uniforms to make vegetarian deliveries in similarly coloured containers, thus signifying eco-friendly cuisine.

Zomato’s customary red uniforms and cartons, Goyal added, would continue to operate, but would be associated with non-vegetarian deliveries.


Within hours of this declaration, hundreds of indignant Zomato users, wary of being publicly outed as meat-eaters in their respective Resident Welfare Associations (RWAs) and neighbourhoods via Zomato’s delivery riders’ uniforms, launched an online crusade against the new arrangement.

They accused Zomato of reinforcing caste “norms”, among other similar criticisms, forcing the company to withdraw the new scheme last Wednesday. Zomato said all its riders would revert to wearing red uniforms and carrying containers of the same colour, thereby guaranteeing anonymity of their food content.

Innumerable RWAs – which represent the interests of residents of urban localities – and housing guilds across India, including in New Delhi, Mumbai and other metros, prohibit residents from either cooking or consuming meat and fish at home.

Eating beef is unthinkable, as India’s majority Hindu community considers cows to be holy, and worships them as deities. Over the past decade, under prime minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party-led government, tens of millions of cows were being cared for
until death in special ashrams.

Hindus, especially high-caste Brahmins, are broadly typecast as vegetarians, with meat-eating restricted to the lower castes. But even they have kept this “profligate indulgence” under wraps for fear of social censure, as inherent Hindu religious sentiment considers meat-eating to be impure.

Consequently, the majority of India’s state-run establishments such as schools and universities never serve food that is “non-veg” – a peculiar Anglo-Indian classification characterising cuisine that includes dishes featuring chicken, mutton, fish or eggs.

Beef-ban politics is part of the BJP’s attempt to project India as a country of vegetarians, which is evident from restrictions imposed on non-vegetarian food in educational institutions

—  D N Jha, historian

However, residents of many vegetarian-only apartment blocks and localities, especially youngsters, are “closet” meat eaters, consuming it either in restaurants or surreptitiously at home, having smuggled it inside in cooked form. Making non-vegetarian dishes at home is not an option, as doing so generates distinctive odours that alert the neighbourhood meat-watch detail, leading to potential penalties and social reproach.

Meat-eating has acquired a political hue under BJP rule. After coming to power in 2014, the party imposed nationwide bans on beef consumption, outlawed cow slaughter and prohibited meat consumption in several north Indian religious towns. It also periodically imposes “meat-free” days during Hindu festivals.

In late 2021, the BJP government in Modi’s western home state of Gujarat banned the street sale of all non-vegetarian fare, including eggs and fish, in four major cities, on the grounds that it offended Hindu religious sentiments.

The same year it banned the sale of meat in the Hindu temple town of Mathura in northern Uttar Pradesh state, 180km from Delhi, and in July 2022 a man from a nearby town was jailed for wrapping meat in a newspaper with pictures of Hindu deities.

But Hindus were not always vegetarians, according to eminent historian D N Jha, who revealed in 2001 that they frequently slaughtered cattle and consumed beef in ancient Vedic times, an era Modi venerates. Quoting from religious texts in his book The Myth of the Holy Cow, Jha, himself a high-caste Brahmin, concluded that right-wing Hindu organisations such as the BJP have wrongly asserted that Muslims popularised beef-eating in India. Hindus, he argued, did so themselves centuries earlier.

Following his revelations, the historian, who died in 2021, had received death threats from militant Hindu groups, which vandalised his Delhi home. They also burnt copies of his book and secured an injunction banning it, forcing Jha to get it published in London. The scholar was also provided with police protection for two years.

“Beef-ban politics is part of the BJP’s attempt to project India as a country of vegetarians, which is evident from restrictions imposed on non-vegetarian food in educational institutions,” Jha said in an interview with the Times of India in October 2015. It was also seeking legitimacy from the past, and in the process was concocting history, he added.