Call it “ban mania.”
Politicians seem to be vying to outdo one another in instituting new limits on liquor and beef in majority-Hindu India, where cows are considered sacred and which some worry is growing more conservative by the day.
In recent days, two state leaders have said that their jurisdictions would begin limiting sales of alcohol, joining five states that already have the prohibition. This comes as the Supreme Court banned liquor sales along highways and left the country’s restaurant and bar industry in turmoil. The court’s move — ostensibly to reduce the number of drunken-driving deaths — has been criticized as judicial overreach, with India’s restaurant and bar association predicting 1,500 establishment closures and thousands of job losses.
Meanwhile, the Hindu hard-liner recently appointed to lead India’s most populous state, Yogi Adityanath, has begun cracking down on illegal slaughterhouses, bringing the meat industry to a near-standstill and emboldening violent “cow vigilante” squads that patrol highways looking for cow smugglers. One dairy farmer was recently beaten to death by these vigilantes, authorities said.
Mohan Bhagwat, the leader of the Hindu nationalist organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), called for a nationwide ban on cow slaughter. Another leader said those killing cows should be hanged. A third leader said he would make vegetarianism compulsory in his town. Cow slaughter is illegal in 21 of 29 states.
The Times of India, in an editorial on Tuesday, called on the country to resist the “ban mania” and “ban fever.”
“A climate conducive to popular bans … has gripped the country,” the newspaper said. “One might believe that people should drink less or adopt a vegetarian lifestyle. But those ideas should be promoted through persuasive social campaigns rather than through draconian legislation or lynch mobs.”
The newspaper faulted RSS influence and the lack of “good governance” for the ban mania. Other critics have suggested that the recent appointment of Adityanath — a saffron-robed priest known for his incendiary rhetoric — has given rise to a fresh wave of conservatism.
Kapil Chopra, the former chairman of the World Travel and Tourism Council's Indian Initiative and the president of the Oberoi hotel group, told the Times of India that such bans could negatively affect the country’s image overseas and its tourism numbers. About 8 million foreigners visit India each year.
“Such messages impact the country's image abroad. If our message to the world is to 'Make in India,' then people have to first 'Make it to India.' The word ban sends a wrong message globally and puts off people from traveling to countries with bans,” he said.
Meanwhile, canny restaurateurs and hoteliers have begun thinking up creative ways around the highway liquor ban, which prohibits liquor sales 500 meters — less than one-third of a mile — from highways.
States quickly moved to change designations of long stretches of road to municipal or local control. Bars and hotels in the chic Cyber Hub area of Gurgaon — home to many multinational corporations — moved their entrances farther from roadways. One bar owner in the southern state of Kerala even built a lengthy maze to the entrance of his establishment, a plan to — sort of! — comply with the court order.