Air India announced on Monday that coach passengers on its domestic flights would now be offered only vegetarian meals, sparking 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 the explanation was not accepted by many who suspect sectarian undertone.
Many members of the Hindu majority are vegetarians, while the country’s Muslims and some other minorities eat meat.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his party, Bharatiya Janata Party, are Hindu. 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.”
Others, though, came to Air India’s defense, saying they could not understand all the public indignation.
“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.
Los Angeles Times however writes: 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.
The government of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, which is led by a new firebrand chief minister, has been cracking down on buffalo slaughterhouses this year, even though buffaloes are not considered sacred by Hindus the way cows are. And the lynching of a Muslim teenager on a train from Delhi last month, in which his assailants called him a “beefeater,” has further inflamed tensions.
The newspaper added: The announcement on Monday was not the airline’s first step away from serving meat. In January 2016, the airline replaced sandwiches with hot vegetarian meals for economy passengers on flights between an hour and 90 minutes long, The Press Trust of India reported, a change that the airline presented as an upgrade.
The Indian government approved plans last month to privatize the airline, which has more than $8 billion in debt.
In his statement, Mr. Rao did not say how much the change in meals would save the company.
But in an interview with The Hindu, a major newspaper, an official for the airline put the figure at 80 million rupees, or about $1.2 million, a year.
Critics however brushed the figure aside, describing it as a drop in the bucket. Omar Abdullah, a former chief minister of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, wrote on Twitter that the move would “restore Air India to full health in … oh heck 5000 years.”