The communal politics of biryani

The royal delicacy has become enmeshed in India’s political drama and strife in different communities, with radical Hindu nationalists using the dish to taunt beef-eating Muslims.

Food plays a key role in the politics of defining national identity, managing cultural heritage and reimagining historical narratives. Yet nowhere else in the world has culinary politics played such a deadly xenophobic role in populist rhetoric as it has in India. A case in study is the iconic South Asian dish biryani, which is used as a dog whistle for the communal stereotyping of Muslims.

Revered as a moreish delicacy in Indian cuisine, biryani is a mixed rice dish made with meat cooked in a subtle combination of spices that requires hours of preparation and patience. The current varieties of biryani are said to have developed between the 16th and 19th centuries, during the reign of the Mughal Empire on the Indian subcontinent. Perhaps it is because of the dish’s Mughal roots that it has become a cuss phrase, aimed to associate biryani with “anti-national” in the radical Hindutva nationalist discourse in India.

Despite its popularity transcending ethnic, religious, caste and geographical boundaries, Hindu extremist groups and politicians linked to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are propagating biryani as a synonym for Muslims, as a political slur to demonise the minority group. The weaponisation of the dish to target political dissenters has been particularly evident during the farmer protests and was apparent during the 2019 demonstrations against India’s new Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which offers citizenship on the basis of religion.

In Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh locality, which became the centre of protest against the CAA, politicians associated with Modi’s party claimed that demonstrators were being bribed with a plate of biryani to protest. The right wing flooded social media platforms, calling demonstrators the “biryani brigade” and posting pictures of biryani being served at protest sites.

1 February 2020: Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath, with his hands folded, at a rally in New Delhi, India. Adityanath frequently refers to biryani in his political speeches. (Photograph by Raj K Raj/ Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

Amit Malviya, who is in charge of the BJP’s information technology unit, posted a photo of an old man eating biryani at the anti-CAA protest site with the caption: “Proof of Biryani being given at Shaheen Bagh!” By invoking that protesters were being served biryani, the politician was implying that Muslims had colluded to ignite the agitation against the Modi regime.

Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath, who frequently uses the word “biryani” in his political speeches, accused Delhi’s ruling Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) of supplying biryani to anti-CAA protesters and asked people at an election rally to decide if they wanted a government that “feeds biryani” to protesters and attempts to create anarchy. “Pakistan terrorists are being sent to hell by our soldiers. Congress and [Delhi chief minister Arvind] Kejriwal used to feed them biryani, but we feed them bullets,” he said, accusing the AAP government and opposition Congress party of encouraging “anti-India” elements and equating protesters with “terrorists”.

One of the first instances in which biryani was used to demonise someone was when Ujjwal Nikam, the public prosecutor for the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, claimed that Ajmal Kasab, the convicted attacker who was executed for his participation in the 2008 attacks, reportedly requested mutton biryani. Nikam later admitted that Kasab never requested biryani and that the story was “fabricated” to break the “emotional tide” that was taking shape in favour of Kasab during the trial. The incident highlighted how the word “biryani” was used to signify a “Muslim terrorist”.

Police officers in the northern state of Haryana were assigned in 2016 to collect biryani samples from street vendors in the Muslim-dominated district of Mewat, to check if the dish contained beef. The state government’s Gau Sewa Ayog (cow service commission) issued the diktat ahead of Eid celebrations. Haryana has one of the most stringent cow-slaughtering acts in the country, with a maximum jail term of 10 years.

A meaty connection

India’s communal politics around biryani are linked specifically to the slaughtering of cows and consumption of beef. Cows are revered in Hindu scripture and their veneration has become intertwined with Indian nationalism and Hindu identity.

Far rightwing Hindu groups, including the ruling BJP, have used cow protection for political mobilisation and it features significantly in the ruling party’s manifestos, which vow to maintain India’s culture through legislation for cow protection. As many as 22 of the 29 Indian states have imposed legal restrictions on the slaughter of cows. Storing and consuming beef is a punishable offence in at least two states – Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh – while there are restrictions on the slaughter of cows in other states. The Modi government imposed a nationwide ban in 2017 on the sale and purchase of cattle at animal markets for slaughter, through a stringent rule under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act.

The BJP’s position and that of its ideological parent, the far-right Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh that wants to build a Hindu nation, seeks to reaffirm the upper-caste Hindu attitude of cow sacredness. Modi’s party has used cow protection to mobilise Hindu religious conservatives, who have a nationalistic reading of Hindu identity, history and culture.

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Since Modi’s right-wing regime came into office in 2014, Hindu nationalists have been emboldened to carry out vigilante anti-beef activities. These target particularly Muslims who work as butchers, food sellers or meat dealers, and so-called lower-caste Dalits (formerly known as untouchables) who work in the leather and tanning industry. Right-wing Hindu vigilantism by gau rakshaks (cow protectionists) has led to an increase in lynchings and other atrocities against Muslims and Dalits.

A Hindu right-wing mob brutally attacked Mohammad Akhlaq in Uttar Pradesh’s Dadri district in September 2015, accusing him and his family of slaughtering a cow and consuming the beef. Two Muslim women were raped in Haryana’s Mewat district in 2016 after their attackers accused them of eating beef. Two Muslim cattle farmers were found hanging in Eastern Jharkhand state that same year, allegedly killed for transporting cows. And a group of 200 cow vigilantes killed dairy farmer Pehlu Khan in Rajasthan’s Alwar district In 2017 when they suspected him of being involved in illegal cattle trading.

Cow vigilantes have also targeted Dalits over allegations of skinning dead cows. Hindutva cow vigilantes publicly flogged four Dalit boys in Una, western Gujarat, in 2016 for skinning a dead cow. And two Dalit brothers were stripped and beaten in 2015 for skinning a dead cow in the Amalapuram area in southern Andhra Pradesh state.

8 October 2015: Danish Akhlaq is moved out of intensive care at the Kailash hospital in Noida, India. His father, Mohammad Akhlaq, died in the mob attack that put him in hospital. (Photograph by Burhaan Kinu/ Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

The attacks on Dalits sparked national outrage, forcing the prime minister to denounce such vigilantism and urge that state governments take “severe measures” against the vigilantes. But he exonerated gau rakshaks by saying most of them were “anti-socials” disguised as cow protectors.

Scholars say the present cow protection arguments have clear origins in the late 19th century, when Arya Samaj, a Hindu religious reform organisation, attempted to mobilise Hindus around cow preservation. The Samaj’s discourse of agriculture and economic rationalism concealed upper-caste Hindu beliefs about cow protection, and its activities against cow slaughter led to the creation of three distinct phenomena linked with the cow.

First, the cow was used as a metaphor for Hindu that helped nationalists standardise and homogenise Hindu society. The second element was antagonism in the form of assaults on non-Hindus, particularly Muslims, who were reviled for their beef-eating habits and cattle sacrifice. The advent and reign of Muslims on the Indian subcontinent coincided with the collapse of Hindu society in the Hindutva imagination.

The third motif connects the sacred cow to the feminine body through the idea of the cow as Mother (Gau Mata). While feminine iconography grew centred on nationalist concepts of Mother India (Bharat Mata), cow slaughter became synonymous with matricide. Poet Maithilisharan Gupt – a fervent Hindu nationalist – in his poem Gau Geet (Song of the Cow), equated cows with mothers as selfless caregivers who support life and agriculture, and portrayed cows’ dung and urine as a source of atonement.

Disputed origins

Though the exact origins are unclear, most historians contend that South Asian biryani originated in Persia, most likely as an unfused blend of rice and meat, and spread to the subcontinent through commerce, pilgrimage and conquest.

The term “biryani” derives from the Persian word “birian”, which means “fried before cooking”. However, Iranian biryani street food no longer includes rice. It now consists of pieces of meat baked in a paper-thin bread envelope. Famed Persian explorer and historian Al-Biruni​, who​ travelled across the Indian subcontinent ​during the 11th century, chronicled feasts similar to the Mughal biryani that was served at the court of the Muslim sultans who governed areas of India prior to the Mughals.

19 November 2013: A street vendor serves biryani, a delicacy whose name has become a political slur in India. (Photograph by Madhurima Sil/ IndiaPictures via Getty Images)

Dozens of regional biryani variations have emerged over time. They can be found wherever Muslim culinary traditions have influenced local food culture, such as the Lucknowi biryani produced in northern India or the biryani of Hyderabad city in southern India, which is thought to have originated in the Nizam’s Kitchens restaurant. Other popular variants can be found along the coasts of Kerala, Gujarat and West Bengal.

Another theory is that biryani evolved from the plov, or rice pilaf, that Macedonian Alexander the Great brought to the region around 327 BCE. Another idea is that biryani has its origins in the basic rice and beef meal described in the Hindu text Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, which was written in about 700 BCE, and it is this theory that has some segments of the Hindu right-wing accusing Muslims of appropriating a Hindu dish. This theory says the Persian word “biryani”’ comes from the word “birinj” for rice and that “birinj” comes from Sanskrit word “vrīhí”.

The notion to reimagine the roots of biryani is probably another bid by Modi’s Hindu nationalist party to rewrite the country’s past by appropriating the finest of Indian culture, including food such as biryani, to show Hindu superiority over other faiths and marginalised people.

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