When Burger King India’s new menu went viral last week for pricing each of its offerings at Rs 50-Rs 70 (around 70-95 cents), Shruti found herself desiring a chicken burger that suited her budget and her palate.
“A year ago, when I was in grad school, I wouldn’t even think twice before ordering a hamburger or chicken nuggets,” Shruti told VICE. She asked to withhold her last name because she didn’t want her peers to find out about her moral dilemmas on food.
The 22-year-old recently moved from the suburbs of Mathura in north India to the metropolis of Mumbai to pursue a career in fashion design. “But now, when I socialise with my adult peers who appear to lead eco-conscious lives, I am afraid I’ll get cancelled,” she said.
When Shruti made the move to a big city amid a raging pandemic, an active social life seemed unfathomable at first. “But pretending to be a progressive, vegan designer from a small town helped me make friends and contacts in the industry,” she added.
“Not only did I find my social footing inside the company [I work with] by posting about my vegan diet on Instagram, but I also felt validated and appreciated for my lifestyle, something that I have never experienced before,” she said. “But after spending almost half a year with my new social group, I realised that many simply fake a vegan lifestyle. I knew interns and artists who faked it (being vegan) every day. I once met a freelance health columnist who wrote for a prestigious magazine about her vegan lifestyle but in reality, often consumed meat.”
Now, Shruti avoids ordering meat when she’s having dinner with her friends or colleagues. “But when I am alone in my apartment over weekends, an extra large order of roast chicken and garlic fried prawns are my go-to,” she said.
The global acceptance of a plant-based diet and a growing number of studies that highlight how it can positively affect human health and animal welfare have significantly contributed to the vegan revolution in India’s big cities. India is often touted as the vegetarian capital of the world, but contrary to popular belief, social and psychological complexities indicate otherwise.
“Only about 20 percent of Indians are vegetarian – much lower than common claims and stereotypes suggest,” anthropologist Balmurli Natrajan and economist Suraj Jacob wrote in a much-circulated 2018 research paper on Indian food habits.
“Even though the rationale of purity is now less hegemonic in urban India, eating chicken (or any other kind of meat) illustrates this long-running struggle between a temporal and a spiritual power: it can be a conspicuous act to resist religious conservatism and to undermine caste domination,” the research authors said.
The study also indicates that the practice of faking veganism can be traced to previous generations. It documented that “people under-report eating meat – particularly beef – and over-report eating vegetarian food,” and “more men eat outside their home with greater moral impunity than women.”
I called on people on my social media to participate in a dipstick survey on whether they were dishonest about their food choices and the reasons behind their duplicity.
Thirty-one anonymous respondents wrote in, saying they did this to either avoid a clash in value systems, preserve their standing in society, or to avoid possible excommunication from religious groups.
This pattern of hypocrisy can also be observed in countries like the UK, where a poll showed that more than six million Brits confessed they pretend to be vegan. “Vegan” lifestyle influencers have also been called out for lying about their diets, making a string of them come forward with apology videos justifying their unfortunate departure from veganism.
India, meanwhile, descended into an era of performative environmentalism, where social and cultural trends made people hyper-aware about issues like climate change and pushed them to consider the implications of their actions. This has led more people to resort to plain white lies to navigate the green guilt, instead of participating in the greater movement aimed at bringing real change.
“We live in a world where we are confronted with words like ‘global warming,’ ‘carbon footprint,’ ‘pollution’ and ‘extinction’ blasted onto our screens, trending on social media and headlining news stories,” said Bhawan, who requested us to use only his last name to avoid facing repercussions from his online followers.
Bhawan has branded himself as a “vegan traveller” to gain popularity on social media, and has 36,000 subscribers on his YouTube page. “I lied about being vegan because people definitely wanted to see more of my vegan-centric content, and it was performing well on Instagram and Facebook,” he said. “Nobody can tell I am not actually vegan.”
In India though, beyond social validation and green guilt, there are social and psychological forces that seem to be driving people to be dishonest. And these forces are on the rise.
India’s conceptual element of seeing dietary routines in terms of the principles they represent has led to a new generation of “fake vegans” – individuals who indulge in a vegan or vegetarian diet as dictated by their religion when around family, even friends, but who indulge in meat when they are alone.
Abhinav, 23, grew up in a conservative Hindu family near Colaba, a plush neighbourhood in the southern peninsula of Mumbai. Growing up, Abhinav and his sister were taught that the mistreatment of animals is a cruel and unholy act driven by consumerism. This way of life was inculcated in them; it wasn’t their choice.
Abhinav was raised on this thinking. But after feeling insecure about his body for months during his first year in college, he decided to join a gym and soon realised that he didn’t want his vegan lifestyle anymore.
“It started with chicken wraps at my gym cafe when I was 20 and convinced that I needed animal protein to continue my strenuous health training,” he told VICE. “I then expanded to milk, eggs and the occasional salami on the pizza.”
Abhinav said he’d been lying to his parents for years now. “I don’t feel like there’s anything wrong with that. I want to experience all that I ever wanted, and then settle into a culture that feels true to my values – not feel restricted, obligated or violated to obey the one I was born into.”
What was once an illicit obligation is now no longer a constraint for several pseudo-vegans like Abhinav, who believe that even though their upbringing dictated a controlled diet, as an adult, they are free to experiment and adopt a way of life that is not an imposition.
Simmy Kumari, a consulting behavioural and cognitive psychologist at the Institute of Human Behaviour & Allied Sciences (IHBAS), believes that the rise of fake vegans came about as a rebellion against conservatism in India. “Young adults are connected to a vast world of ideas and experiences through social media, and opening minds to explore different cultures is key to developing a worldly personality,” she said.
“But at the same time, to speak up and stand up for one’s self in matters that contradict religious beliefs can be received as disrespectful and a mockery of a social system. It is the primary reason why many decide to hide or lie about their choices from their families.”
This, Kumari points out, is largely due to the fear of condemnation, disgrace and dishonour on a social level. In India, interdependence is a strong identifying social characteristic that can simply be defined as a strong need to maintain firm ties with religious and non-religious groups of people.
While plenty of religious and non-religious people continue to adhere to the country’s social norms, “faking veganism” reflects both a counterculture movement and a backlash against India’s unbending ideologies.
“When I moved out for college, my flatmate meat-shamed me for a year,” said Ruchi Johar, a 27-year-old sales representative. She faced criticism about her diet from colleagues and even her landlords, until she started telling people she had turned vegan.
“I now work at a pharmaceutical company in Gujarat, in an area that I recently found out is sensitive and often unwelcoming towards meat eaters,” Johar told VICE.
Dhavan Kumar, 25, has been lying to his parents for half a decade but thinks of it as “silent resilience.” He was born into Jainism – an ancient Indian religion whose ardent followers are not just vegetarian but also refrain from consuming root vegetables – and its primary principle of ahimsa, or non-violence. But his faith wavered when he learned that most of the Jain families he knew claimed to be vegan and followed the ahimsak culture, but consumed milk and dairy products, ignored incidents of domestic violence, and didn't question the ethics of tolerating men who were unfaithful to their spouses.
“My girlfriend and her friends are all vegetarian or vegan, and I was virtually shamed into giving up meat,” said Kumar, who is a chef at a multi-cuisine restaurant in Kolkata, where his chicken burger is the most popular dish on the menu.
"My family follows the religious code and doesn't allow cooking or eating meat indoors. But growing up, my brothers and I would coyly order chicken when out at a restaurant. There was an unwritten exception to the no-meat rule: don't talk about it when at home. It was a very normal trend that I also observed around me. And after my partner enforced the same code, I decided to lie again. I guess that makes me a fake vegan,” he said.