Halal is an Arabic word that indicates what is allowed or permitted. A practising Muslim’s life is regulated by what is Halal and what is Haram (forbidden or prohibited). Naturally, these permissions and prohibitions extend to food. That is why the slogan of a famous Indian food delivery start-up and restaurant aggregator that “food has no religion” does not make any sense. In fact, much of what we eat is theologically, ritually and culturally coded.
No wonder, last year a furious controversy broke out on social media over the popular American fast food chain McDonald’s serving only Halal meat products in India. In response to a customer query, the restaurant chain confirmed, “All our restaurants have HALAL certificates. You can ask the respective restaurant Managers to show you the certificate for your satisfaction and confirmation.”
This triggered a debate over whether all customers, regardless of their religious beliefs or persuasions, ought to be forced to eat Halal products. Left-Liberals were quick to react. Shabnam Hashmi of Sahmat told Al Jazeera, “It is an absolutely Islamophobic atmosphere which is existing in India now and each and every occasion is used by right-wing Hindus to attack Muslims.” Many Hindus agreed. They couldn’t care less what kind of meat they ate. Whether the animal they were consuming was slaughtered by Jhatka or Halal didn’t matter.
But this attitude of indifference, stemming from a combination of ignorance and political correctness, can go against the very civil liberties and freedoms that we cherish and are committed to uphold. Let us, for a moment, consider what happens when a devout Sikh enters a Halal-certified McDonald’s restaurant and proceeds to order a McChicken Burger. If she follows the Rahit Maryada, she is forbidden to eat Halal meat. She must leave the restaurant or risk violating the tenets of her faith.
A Hindu meat-eater, even if not expressly prohibited from partaking of Halal meat, does not have a choice in a restaurant serving only Halal meat. She cannot avail of “Jhatka” meat from an animal slaughtered by a single swift stroke, as per the normal Hindu practice. What is more, she may not know that only meat from animals slaughtered by Muslim butchers is considered Halal. The butcher, in addition, must recite verses from the Koran before the slaughter. The animal is allowed to bleed to death, which according to some animal rights activists is cruel and painful.
Halal meat is consecrated by a prayer to Allah. According to a truly liberal, Sanatani outlook, meat sanctified in the name of Allah would not, per se, be offensive or problematic. However, that would only work if both Hindus and Muslims actually believed, after Mahatma Gandhi, that “Ishwar Allah tero naam”. But if that were indeed the case, what would be the need for Halal certification in the first place? Muslims would also not object to receiving sanctified food from Hindu temples. Alas, the world we live in is not yet informed by such lofty ideals. The truth is that Halal meat puts non-Muslim butchers out of work. It also results in a gradual monopoly of Muslims over the meat business.
Currently in India, only the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) certification is required on edible products. The FSSAI was set up in 2011 as an autonomous body under the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Government of India. As such, Halal certification is not compulsory. But in order not to offend a minority of paying customers in India, many restaurant chains, government establishments and even airlines serve only Halal meat. If they gave non-Muslim customers a choice, there would be no problem. But quite often, meat eaters are forced to eat only Halal products. That way, non-Muslims end up, without quite having an option, supporting the Islamisation of food and also contributing to a reduction of their own food choices.
When I lived in Singapore, I found Halal ubiquitous even in a professedly secular, Muslim minority country. In college and university canteens, food courts and roadside eateries, even unwashed dishes were separated on the basis of Halal. As a vegetarian, I once put my used plates on a Halal dishwashing counter. A Singaporean Malay lady worker quickly admonished me, “Over there, la, you’re not Muslim, no?” I didn’t want to argue with her that all vegetarian food was automatically Halal. In the end, all restaurants are forced into the Halal or non-Halal category. The majority Chinese, evidently, belonged to the latter; they have the fewest food restrictions. The rest, Indian or Western, vegetarian or non-vegetarian, as a matter of course, opt for Halal certification.
In India, there are several bodies that can certify a product or establishment Halal compliant, for a price, of course. Many have created attractive websites promising a window of business opportunities to prospective clients including access to the estimated 2.5 billion Muslims worldwide. The Indian Halal Certification Board proudly announces that it is affiliated to Sharia councils and Islamic organisations across 120 countries. One website brags that the profits via Halal will easily offset the certification fees. The cherry on the Halal icing is that such products can continue to cater to non-Muslims.
This is where the Halal controversy takes a more serious turn. The success of Halal certification needs the support not only of Muslims for whom this is a religious obligation, but also of non-objecting non-Muslims. Gradually, even a small Halal-requiring percentage of consumers can compel more and more companies to pay up for Halal certification. This has been likened by the critics of Halalonomic coercion to jazia, the “infidel” tax that non-Muslims had to pay in an Islamic state just for not being Muslim.
If Hindus don’t mind Halal while Muslims insist on it, what happens? Everyone ends up conforming to Halal coercion. This, to conscientious objectors of Halal, is the tyranny of the minority in which “the most intolerant wins” as explained in Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Skin in the Game. If we don’t take countermeasures, it is only a matter of time before Halal cosmetics, couture, films, literature, even hospitals and housing complexes, as one near Kochi so proudly and openly advertises itself, will be thrust upon us.
Makarand R Paranjape
Director, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla.
Views are personal (Tweets @MakrandParanspe)