Food Habits, Religion and Politics in India

A few days back, the Registrar General of India came out with Survey that indicated the food preferences of the various states of India for adults with age of more than 15 years. The survey conducted in 2014, indicated that in India, the percentage of males who ate meat, fish or egg was at 71.6% whereas the percentage of females who did the same was slightly lower at 70.7%.

Among the large states, Telengana had the highest percentage of population eating non-vegetarian food, followed by West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. On the other hand, Rajasthan had the highest percentage of vegetarians, followed by Haryana, Punjab, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh.

Statewise Chart

It is generally considered conventional wisdom that the percentage of vegetarian eating population is higher among Hindus and other religions originating in the sub-continent (like Sikhism, Buddhism, Jainism) whereas population belonging to the Abrahamic religions, especially Muslims and Christians, are less restrictive about their dietary preferences. The data, however, shows that there is hardly any correlation between the percentage of vegetarians in a state and the percentage of Hindu population in the state.

Vegetarian vs HindusIn states like Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Odisha which have high percentage of Hindus, almost everyone eats non-vegetarian food.

This is, of course, because the dietary preferences are much more a function of regions than religions in India. North Indian Hindus, for example, are much more likely to be vegetarians than their East Indian or South Indian counterparts. This is apparent from the table below:

Region Large States Considered Percentage of Vegetarians
North India J&K, Delhi, Punjab, Haryana, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh 49%
West India Rajasthan,  Gujarat, Maharashtra 55%
East India Assam, West Bengal, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Bihar, Jharkhand 7%
South India Telengana, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka 7%

In the recent past, there has been a lot of controversy over the ban on certain meat items in some states. The beef ban in Maharashtra was particularly contentious, with reports coming in that the Government may consider ban on more non-vegetarian items in the future. Bharatiya Janata Party, the ruling party at both Maharashtra and the Centre, was accused of curtailing the freedom of citizens to eat whatever they like. The controversy also took a communal hue as the ban on non-vegetarian items was thought to more disproportionately affect minorities in India.

But as the chart and table above show, any such ban shall have repercussions on the political fortune of any party which shall hope to be competitive outside the Hindi heartland. Interestingly, the Bharatiya Janata Party typically fares poorly in states which have a high percentage of population eating non-vegetarian food. The plot showing the relationship between the percentage of population eating vegetarian food and the percentage of population voting for the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in the 2014 Lok Sabha election has been mentioned below:

Vegetarian vs NDA Vote Share

There is a weak relationship between the two. Interestingly, except in Chhattisgarh, the BJP has never come to power in any of the states which have population of less than 20% as vegetarians.

It is of course dangerous to overlearn from such limited data. But it remains true that a large party of the country outside the Hindi heartland does not follow the same strains of cultural idioms that are followed there. Dietary preferences in India are diverse and varied and it makes no sense to club them according to religion. And if BJP wants to succeed outside its traditional strongholds of north and west India, it may have to tone down any rhetoric on banning meat items.



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