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”).