Hindutva Biryani

Just as all Muslim architecture is discredited with the bogey of temple demolition,
biryani is being made uncool by attaching its image to terrorists.

By Shahrukh Mehboob | December 2020


Biryani has always been synonymous with the Muslim community in India just as vadapao is to the Marathi cuisine, or idlisambar to the Tamil community, or sarson da saag and makki di roti to the Jat and butter chicken to the Punjabi. So if there is a recent rise in biryani baiting, is it a sign of rising intolerance among communities? The question comes at a time when the eating of cow, an animal considered sacred to the Hindus and eaten as food by other minorities in India, is hitting the headlines as the new BJP-ruled governments in Haryana and Maharashtra have moved towards new cow protection laws.

Food as an insult is not new for racist or communal stereotyping. “Chinese eat snakes” or “Nagas eat dog food” and “Indians smell of curry” are some of the common terms of stereotyping as an insult and to convey disgust towards a community - though it’s true people in some communities do eat, um, food items as a delicacy that many others do not consider food and call it a man’s best friend. And even if they did, who’s to decide one man’s best friend can’t be another man’s food if non-vegetarianism is a given in both cultures. Indian vegetarians and non-vegetarians have always tolerated, if not respected, each other’s food choices, despite the divide between veg and non-veg, both ideological and cultural. It is often difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins. We have also suffered racism when we are elsewhere in the world for our food culture of curries and should know better than to do it to one another.

As for Indians smelling of curry, sure, because many Indians cook curry regularly in their homes, and it’s possible that the smell gets into clothing. Would it be okay to say to them, or even behind their backs, that Indians smell of curry and not expect them to take it as an insult? Certainly, who is to say that someone smelled of curry or other people just assumed it because of the colour of their skin and used it as a racist insult? It would be an odd person who would not appreciate such culinary artistry. Yet, these are odd times. “Biryani” has become a slur, dog whistle, and political weapon in the bruising electoral battle for the Delhi assembly. As part of its campaign to attack the protests against the National Register of Citizens, the Bharatiya Janata Party has sunk to a horrifying low: it has demonized biryani.

The BJP has repeatedly made the allegation that the Aam Aadmi Party government was serving biryani to the protestors at Shaheen Bagh, the site of the agitation in Delhi against the Citizenship Amendment Act.

The BJP has repeatedly made the allegation that the Aam Aadmi Party government was serving biryani to the protestors at Shaheen Bagh, the site of the agitation in Delhi against the Citizenship Amendment Act. Amit Malviya, head of the BJP’s IT cell excitedly tweeted, “Proof of Biryani being distributed at Shaheen Bagh!” To understand how the BJP can find offence in biryani, one must take a look at the party’s ruling ideology: Hindu nationalism or Hindutva. As political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot has argued, “The Hindu nationalist culture of outrage cannot be understood irrespective of its psychological context. It is part of a discourse of victimization which is the very matrix of Hindu nationalism. Hindu nationalists in India similarly base their politics on the fear of Muslims – although only one out of every seventh Indian is Muslim. Most famously, this has birthed the BJP’s main plank of “minority appeasement” – where the party ignores socioeconomic data to argue that India’s Muslim minority enjoys outsized benefits from the Indian state. This goes back right to Hindutva’s origins, 150 years back. “This ideology was shaped in the late 19th century as a reaction to a strong feeling of vulnerability,” Jaffrelot argues. “Hindus, though in a majority, were seen as weak, compared to the Muslims, because of their inner divisions along caste and sectarian lines.”

Many other ideologies would have felt pride in the popular status biryani enjoys. In some other cases, powerful communities often appropriate culture from the less powerful: a famous example being Israel, consisting mostly of European-origin Jews, staking a claim to Arab-origin cuisine such as hummus. Hindu nationalism, though, has a different reaction, feeling a sense of outrage and victimization that a dish seen in popular culture as “Muslim” enjoys the superstar status it does amongst all Indians.