Air India goes veggie; The New York Times and India's The Hindu play it way, way differently

Sometimes a story grabs my interest simply because of its timing. That’s the case this week with a New York Times piece out of India that I came across just a day prior to flying back to the United States following several weeks in Israel and Greece. It's about an Air India decision to serve vegetarian meals only to coach passengers on all its domestic flights.

So what's this beef all about? (Bad pun, I know. I promise I'll make up for it below.)

Try humanity’s Achilles’ heel, the often toxic mix of religious identity mixed with politics -- either real or imagined -- that accounts for so much of what we think of as religion news. This story ties together some powerful symbols.

About to endure two more coach flights from Tel Aviv to Frankfurt and Frankfurt to Washington, D.C. -- the last of six international flights booked for this trip abroad -- this story felt as if it was written just for me.

Perhaps that's also because I always order the Hindu vegetarian meal on international flights no matter the airline. I’ll say more about why, further down.

Here’s the top of the Times piece.

NEW DELHI -- Coming from some other debt-ridden airline, it might have been shrugged off as just another service cutback. But not this time: When Air India announced on Monday that coach passengers on its domestic flights would now be offered only vegetarian meals, the move provoked an uproar on social media.
G. P. Rao, a spokesman for the government-owned airline, said the change was made a week ago strictly to reduce waste and cut costs. But what people eat can be a sectarian flash point in India, especially since Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party took power.
Many members of the Hindu majority are vegetarians, while the country’s Muslims and some other minorities eat meat. So the airline’s action was seen by many as discriminatory and part of a wave of religious nationalism sweeping the country.
“Only veg food on Air India,” Madhu Menon, a Bangalore-based chef and food writer, wrote on Twitter. “Next, flight attendants to speak only Hindi. After that, stand for national anthem before flight take-off.”

The story next offered a defense of Air India’s scheme (in Indian English, “scheme” loses its negative connotation; it's used as Americans might use “plan” or “proposal”).

“Simple business sense suggests that any loss making entity should attempt to optimise and cut costs & more food options = more cost,” Krish Ashok, who describes himself as a techie in Chennai, wrote on Twitter. He compared the move to other airlines’ serving sandwiches in place of a hot meal.

Then came the nut graph. (This is my vegetarian option; I could have said "meat and potatoes" graph. There, I’ve made good on my promise above.)

In India, diet is an important signifier of group identity. At the heart of the outrage over the airline’s policy is a widespread sense that India’s Hindu nationalist ruling party is trying to limit the freedom of the country’s minorities.

By way of comparison, take a look at how The Hindu, a major Indian daily newspaper considered left of center, played the story.

It's all about the move’s cost-saving aspect, with nary a hint of the religion politics stressed in the Times piece. I'd say the difference in the tone of the stories is worth a lively journalistic debate. Perhaps that should include the advisability of relying on social media for quotes.

Why not provide your opinion in the comments section following this post? I promise i won't turn your comments into a quickie news story, as the Times did.

That this vegetarian matter is no trivial matter in India was underscored by a video report the Times published Tuesday, the very same day as the Air India story, about the violence, including killings, sparked by the issue. Warning: the video is informative but graphic in parts.

With the world’s second largest Muslim population -- though still distant in size behind its majority Hindu population -- India is a tinder box when it comes to keeping the peace between the two communities.

Exacerbating this is India’s proximity to Muslim Pakistan. They're both nuclear powers, and clashes between the two, primarily along their shared border in Kashmir, are not infrequent.

Even a cricket match between the two nations played in the region is cause for alarm.

Then, of course, there are terrorist attacks by Islamists. The worst of them -- the 2008 assault in Mumbai (Bombay) -- is recounted in this piece from The Indian Express.

Interestingly, the Express piece does not identify the attackers as Muslims or their ties to Pakistan.

Does this have any policy connection, tacit or otherwise, with the approach taken by The Hindu in the Air India story as noted above? I briefly worked in India as a media consultant in 1981, but I'm no expert on Indian media. If anyone reading this post is, please help me out, also in comments.

OK, let’s wrap this up with an exclamation for why I order the “Hindu” option on international flights.

It's because since I only eat kosher meats, I can't have the regular meals. Yet unless you're flying El Al airlines, Israel’s premier carrier, the kosher meals on all other international airlines I'm aware of are uniformly terrible, and I avoid El Al because it's fares are too expensive for me.

Why not just eat the regular vegetarian meals, you might ask? Simple answer. They're also uniformly terrible (we’re talking airline food here, after all.)

So I order the Hindu meal, which is at least spiced more interestingly and I know its always meat free. If you’re a vegetarian or keep (liberal) kosher, as I do, this might be an option for you, too.

That's my travel tip for the day. No need to thank me.

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