Last month, McDonald’s announced that it will be opening its first purely vegetarian restaurants in India.
If you’re headed to the Golden Temple in Amritsar or Vaishno Devi in Kashmir and decide you’d like to grab a burger at the local McDonald’s, you won’t find the Big Macs and Chicken McNuggets but rather an array of vegetarian options such as the McSpicy Paneer, the McAloo Tikki and the Veg Pizza McPuff.

It’s not quite as radical of a step as it might initially seem: you can’t get a hamburger or bacon cheeseburger at any of the existing McDonald’s in India as they already avoid beef and pork so as not to offend the sensibilities of their Hindu and Muslim customers respectively.

“McDonald’s respects local cultures and has adopted our menu and dining experience to local preferences,” a McDonald’s spokeswoman said in a statement.

Respect for the local culture and preferences is admirable. But going “pure veg” was McDonald’s only option if they wanted to open restaurants near these sacred pilgrimage sites, as the area surrounding the Golden Temple and the entire town of Katra (the base camp for pilgrims who visit Vaishno Devi) are meat-free zones.

In India, local governments can institute such bans on the sale of meat because the constitution allows for “reasonable restrictions” on trade, and the courts have ruled that the prohibition of non-vegetarian food items at these holy sites is justifiable in light of the constitutional duty to “promote harmony and the spirit of common brotherhood.”

The absence of beef products at the existing McDonald’s outlets in India can also be understood in light of various legal restrictions.

The Indian constitution includes a directive to the states to enact legislation prohibiting cow slaughter.

While some states (Kerala and most of the northeastern tribal states) have no legal restrictions on cow slaughter, others states have very strict laws, even banning possession and consumption of beef.

This legislation has been quite controversial because, contrary to popular opinion in the West, the majority of Indians are not vegetarians.

Depending on which statistics you consult and whether you include fish and eggs, somewhere between 12 percent and 40 percent of Indians are strict vegetarians.

It is primarily upper-caste Hindus who keep strict vegetarian diets; lower-caste Hindus and dalits (untouchables), religious minorities (Muslims and Christians), and poor people are much more flexible in their diets.

Hence, being vegetarian or not (and especially whether or not one eats beef) is a marker of communal identity, reflecting divisions of religion, caste and class – and it has become a heavily politicized issue.

While politicians use religious rhetoric to promote anti-cow slaughter legislation, the courts have always appealed to secular arguments about the agricultural necessity of cows to justify the laws.

Recent legislation, however, has been even more stringent, stretching the limits of secular justification and further infringing on individual freedoms.

Gujarat has expanded the definition of “cow” to include bulls and bullocks and also prohibits the possession and consumption of imported beef.

Karnataka has raised the fine for cow slaughter to up to 1 lakh rupees (about $2,000, twice the per capita income in India).

Madhya Pradesh has put the burden of proof on the accused and has granted “any person authorised by the competent authority” the power to enter and inspect any premises “where he has reason to believe that an offence under this act has been, is being, or is likely to be committed.”

Non-vegetarians are understandably upset. They argue that these laws violate their individual rights and will result in further harassment and discrimination based on religion and caste.

Secular activist Javed Anand wrote in the Indian Express, “You do not need a particularly fertile imagination to recognise the numerous possibilities in this draconian and insidious provision to harass, intimidate, implicate, detain, arrest or prosecute a targeted section of citizens. … [W]ho is to determine, and on what basis, whether a chunk of meat stored in the fridge or simmering on the burner comes from a buffalo (not prohibited) or from a cow or its progeny?”

In light of all these laws, McDonald’s decision to cater to “local preferences” makes a lot of sense.

It’s a lot easier to change your menu than to try to navigate the restrictions of the complex inter-state beef industry.

Plus, they get the added benefit of free press about their cultural sensitivity and tolerance.

Elsa J. Marty is a graduate of the University of Chicago master of divinity program and is currently a pastoral intern at a Lutheran church in Ranchi, India. She is a vegetarian herself and recommends the McSpicy Paneer. This column first appeared at Sightings.

The full text (in Hindi and English) of Madhya Pradesh’s recent anti-cow slaughter legislation is available online.

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