Great Meat Scandal In Bengal

Mamata Banerjee government in West Bengal has acted with far more alacrity in nabbing the kingpins allegedly behind the meat racket than they have in many cases of rape and murder


Something is rotten in the state of West Bengal. Chief minister Mamata Banerjee has smelled a “conspiracy” behind the rotten meat scandal that’s roiling the state.

Didi has set up a committee headed by the chief secretary to cope with the fallout of the great meat scandal where 20,000 kg of rotten meat, likely sourced from dumping grounds, was seized from a cold-storage facility in Kolkata. Next day, rotten chicken meat was confiscated from a warehouse. Now we hear about a racket where meat meant for zoo animals might have been resold to hotels and restaurants. What’s next? Month-old fish jazzed up with artificial hilsa flavouring? Didi wants a “foolproof mechanism” to deal with this crisis.

But will that be enough to save the mutton biryani, with or without the infamous potato? Or will Bengal, God forbid, succumb to the Dark Lord aka the veg biryani?

Mamata Banerjee understands what’s at steak here.

“They are not eating meat these days. I wonder what will happen if somebody says something unhealthy is being mixed with paneer,” she said at a press conference.

No parties were named. But as the state gears up for panchayat polls, only a fool would fail to understand who’s the ‘Paneer Party’ here and who is fighting on the side of mutton biryani and the chicken roll.

At a time when the food fights in the rest of India are about not eating meat, about shutting down abattoirs during Jain festivals, banning the display of non-veg items in public places, going shuddh vegetarian on national carriers, in Bengal the government is perturbed about those who are not eating their daily dose of non-veg.

They are setting up a high-powered committee because people have stopped eating meat. The government has acted with far more alacrity in nabbing the kingpins allegedly behind the racket than they have in many cases of rape and murder, some of which the CM also once described as conspiracies.

In other states, the fake news armies of WhatsApp forwards try to whip up public anger against those who might have beef in their refrigerators. People get lynched because of the meat they eat and that meat goes to forensic laboratories to be tested so we know if it’s beef or mutton as if the answer to that justifies a lynch mob.

Here the WhatsApp forwards are all about which restaurants have good meat and which ones have tainted meat. Every know-it-all Bengali has the authoritative and definitive list of which restaurants to avoid (received on WhatsApp naturally). A famous biryani joint has put out a statement declaring it slaughters its own animals and does not source them from any shady supplier. An international chain says its pork comes from abroad. A ubiquitous and hugely successful bakery chain went on Facebook to warn that “miscreants with vested interests” were trying to “instill fear and distrust” about their “superior quality ingredients”. It said it was working with the cyber cell of the Kolkata police to track the origins of those rumours.

As the state readies for panchayat polls, Mamata Banerjee understands Napoleon’s army might have marched on its stomach but Bengal votes on its stomach. Mamata is constantly accused of pandering to vote banks. Why, asks the BJP, does she give stipends to imams and not poor Brahmin priests? But this is finally an issue that cuts across vote banks. No wonder Mamata is leading from the front. The babus in Calcutta Club like their mutton roast just as much as the auto driver likes his chicken curry. Whether Chatterjee or Hakim, all Bengali households know that Sunday morning means the sound of a pressure cooker whistle as a pot of mutton curry gets ready. Young couples, across class, caste and religion, rock their love through a chicken roll. Eating out is a quasi religion here. And even many Marwaris and Gujaratis who eat pure veg at home get their chicken fix at the late-night dhaba.

We still remember standing outside a roll/kebab/biryani outlet on a very hot summery day long before the meat crisis had exploded. A man was pondering what biryani to get. His wife timidly suggested that perhaps it was not the wisest choice in such sweltering muggy weather. “Oho, that’s why we are thinking chicken biryani, not mutton,” replied the man. When this state finds something fishy about both its chicken and mutton, its politicians understand they too could be on the chopping block next.

Already, we are hearing about catered parties skipping mutton and chicken altogether and going all fish. But if they come for meat and chicken, can fish be far behind? Not long ago, another WhatsApp forward was doing the rounds about the All India Fish Protection Committee threatening Bengalis who ate fish with a sound thrashing in the name of Lord Vishnu’s matsya avatar. It was most likely a spoof of the over-zealous gau raksha brigades around the country but in Bengal, any threat to fish/flesh/fowl is never a laughing matter. This, after all, is a state where even as Bengal and Bangladesh joust over sharing Teesta waters, Sheikh Hasina gifts Mamata Banerjee 20 kilos of hilsa from the Padma and Didi complains that Bengal is not getting enough hilsa from Bangladesh.

Of course, there are more worrisome issues than eating out at your own risk. This is not just about one criminal racket supplying rotten meat whether to upscale restaurants or small mom-and-pop roadside hotels. It’s about a larger and criminally neglected issue of food safety and the civic authorities who supposedly monitor it. But those gloating about the diehard non-vegetarian getting his comeuppance in Bengal, should remember that even vegetables are not safe. A Geological Survey of India study released in 2017 found lead concentrations in raw vegetables and grains far higher than permitted levels, an average of 23.56 mg/kg way beyond the 2.5 mg/kg specified by Food Safety and Standards Regulation, India. There’s something far more rotten here than just those carcasses in that cold storage.

But still, it’s worth noting that while many other governments seem to work overtime to make it harder to eat all kinds of meat, in Bengal the government is trying to instill meat confidence building measures. In rotten times, that’s something worth chewing on.