There are many vegetarians in India, but there are many more meat-eaters. Indians have always consumed meat – as India becomes wealthier, they are merely eating more.
A story has been making the round on various NPR stations over the past week that describes vegetarians as India’s new pariahs. While it’s true that India’s appetite for meat is increasing, I get the feeling that most people, including Indians, exaggerate or over-estimate the extent of vegetarianism in India – as if India is inherently vegetarian, and that only now, through exposure to the outside world and new-found wealth, are Indians eating meat.
India’s reputation as being a predominantly vegetarian country is fueled largely by the projection of Brahmanical norms and comparisons to a largely non-veg “rest-of-the-world”. It probably also has something to do with the fact that so many Westerners experience/consume India through that which is spiritual and exotic. If your connection to India consists of visiting ashrams and practicing yoga, then it’s likely that you have been presented a strictly vegetarian perspective.
In many ways, India is the center of the vegetarian world, but there is a common misconception that India is a predominantly vegetarian country. Just how many people actually refrain from eating meat? Even the NPR story is modest in its estimate of 300 million( 25%). A survey conducted by the Hindu, CNN and IBN in 2006 concluded that 40% of the country was vegetarian (including consumption of eggs). The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations sited the National Sample Survey which found that 42% of the country was vegetarian. But still, in India, 40-42% is almost half a billion people, which is greater than the number of vegetarians in the rest of the world combined.
As is the case throughout the world, wealth drives demand for meat in India, the consumption of which is often a status symbol. This is to say that until now, the number of vegetarians in India has been so high, not because people were adamantly opposed to eating meat, but because they could not afford it.
The mistake would be to associate increased meat consumption with “Westernization”. The current increase in meat consumption is merely the intensification of something that already represented a majority of the Indian population. All over the world, as people get wealthier they consume more meat. In the economically developed world, the script is beginning to flip – vegetarianism is often a status symbol associated with wealthier and more educated classes.
Furthermore, there are parts of India such as Kerala, Punjab and Bengal where meat is a staple of the diet. It is safe to say that Indian culture is informed by, accommodates and celebrates vegetarianism, but by no means is India a vegetarian country.