Iranian islamists and hindutvawadis

The news that French President Francois Hollande cancelled an official lunch for visiting Iranian President Hassan Rouhani—rather than accede to his guest’s demand that there be no wine at the table—failed to make many waves in India. After all, our Constitution urges prohibition as desirable social policy, and President Hollande has already twice suffered the mortification of having to drink toasts to his Indian counterpart at Rashtrapati Bhavan in watermelon juice. The French took Indian abstemiousness in their stride like good sports, and some might even be mildly surprised that they were so churlish to their Iranian guests.

But were they, really? Some would argue that Hollande should have been more gracious in deferring to his guest’s respect for the Koranic injunctions against alcohol. After all, it will be said, he would not serve pork at a banquet for the Israeli president; why can he not similarly cut out the wine for his Iranian guest?

And then there’s the larger question of the purposes of such meals in the first place—they are part of the diplomatic exercise of bringing nations closer to each other. Meals are used to please visitors and to epitomise the hosts’ desire to make the foreigners comfortable. Surely if wine offends Rouhani, it is elementary diplomatic common sense to leave it off the menu, and the table?

On the face of it, therefore, the French seem unreasonable on this issue. By cancelling the luncheon, in such a reading, the French gratuitously insulted their Iranian guests. Why invite a foreign president only to make him feel bad?

Ah, but is that really what the French did? Surely their stand was not merely about their fondness for—indeed, insistence upon—wine with their meals, or even a genuflection to the powerful political influence of the French wine industry, as important a contributor to the country’s GDP as its aircraft manufacturers are. Nor was it just French arrogance at work here—“we like our wine and won’t give it up for you, whatever your religion says”. No, there was a different principle at work, and I find myself, somewhat to my own surprise, agreeing with the French.

Iranian islamists and hindutvawadis Illustration: Bhaskaran

I am, you see, vegetarian. When I accept invitations to lunch or dinner, I let my hosts know in advance that I won’t be able to eat meat, fish or fowl. This might be disagreeable to some, especially those who were planning a succulent biryani as the centrepiece of their culinary offerings, but they usually accept my stipulation in good grace. They eat their biryani, I have my jeera aloo or whatever else their cook is able to provide.

However, I don’t presume to tell my hosts that they can’t eat meat either. I am often repelled by the sight of some animal flesh and downright revolted by the smell of some fish, but that’s my problem, not theirs. Just as I don’t want them telling me what I can and cannot eat, I don’t take upon myself the privilege of telling them what they can or cannot serve themselves. My objections are valid for me, but I have no right to impose them on others.

This is the principle the Iranians failed to respect when they asked the French not to have any wine at the president’s table. They were perfectly entitled to refuse to imbibe, but it was they who were being churlish in presuming to deny the French the same choice they wanted to exercise for themselves. A host can serve what he likes, and a guest is only obliged to consume what he wants. Choosing to say no was President Rouhani’s prerogative, but choosing to say yes was President Hollande’s.

It is precisely this principle that the intolerant advocates of hindutva in our country are breaching in their holy crusade against beef. They expect others to adopt their reverence for the cow, a reverence many do not feel. They have every right to refuse to eat it themselves, but none, in a democracy, to tell others not to. Both Iranian islamists and hindutvawadis are equally wrong. Paris was right to uphold its principles. Vive la France—and Jai Hind!