By Shivam Vij
(This article first appeared in HuffPost India on 8 September 2016.)
On orders of the Gau Sewa Ayog, or the Cow Service Commission of the Haryana government, the state’s special task force to check cow smuggling and slaughter will go around collecting biryani samples in Mewat. The Mewat district is 79% Muslim, and is always an area of suspicion in Hindutva eyes.
The Cow Service Commission says it has received many complaints of beef in Mewati biryani. Whether or not anyone needs to support their complaint with evidence to get the Gau Raksha Ayog and the Haryana police into action, is not clear. But now they want to look for evidence.
The troubling question is, why only biryani? While they are at it, why not collect samples of curries too?
Bhani Ram Mangla, chief of the Cow Service Commission, told The Times of India, “selling beef openly is difficult. According to the complaints we received, the vendors are mixing a little rice with the meat to camouflage it.”
Plausible argument, but then what about kebabs? Can Mr Mangla look at a seekh kebab and tell if the minced meat in it is mutton, chicken, beef or horses**t? If one were to camouflage beef, it would be easier to do so in kebabs than biryani.
For that matter, can he look at a meat curry and tell the animal the meat came from? It’s possible to tell chicken from mutton, but may not be so easy to tell mutton from beef.
Clearly, the camouflaging argument doesn’t hold.
Which brings us back to the question. Why biryani?
A history of Biryaniphobia
The Hindutva obsession with biryani goes back a long way. When militants laid siege to the Hazrtabal shrine in Kashmir in 1993, the Narasimha Rao government wanted to defuse the crisis to prevent any harm to a holy relic, the Prophet’s hair, inside the shrine. So while negotiations were on with the militants, it sent inside food for them, and eventually gave them safe passage. LK Advani claimed that the government was feeding biryani to the terrorists. The BJP contrasted this with the government’s crackdown on the Ram Janambhoomi movement. “Bullets for kar sewa, biryani for terrorists,” went the BJP slogan.
No biryani was ever served. Food had gone from the BSF langar. Biryani is not a popular dish in Kashmir, just one of a many cultural nuggets Kashmiris like to highlight to show how they are different from the subcontinent. “If I gave them biryani, they would throw it away,” said Wajahat Habibullah, the chief negotiator, in 2011.
Nevertheless, in public imagination, it is considered a fact that the Congress government served biryani to terrorists in Srinagar in 1993, just like it did so to Ajmal Kasab in jail in August 2009.
A Press Trust of India story in 2009 informed us that Kasab threw utensils in his jail cell demanding mutton biryani instead of the dal-roti vegetarian food served to prisoners.
One day in court, Kasab got weepy, and TV channels broke the news of tears in Kasab’s eyes. Perturbed that there could be public sympathy for Ajmal Kasab, public prosecutor Ujjwal Nikam planted the fake story that Kasab had demanded biryani. After Kasab was hanged, Nikam proudly boasted about how he added meat to the story.
Biryani is the new Babri: bring it down
Despite Nikam’s confession of this bit of jail fiction, Hindutva champions online continue to use the words Kasab and biryani together. For many years my Twitter bio used to say, ‘Will do anything for a good biryani’. Since I am opposed to death penalty with no exceptions, I even signed a petition opposing Kasab’s hanging, and even wrote an article explaining why I was opposed to Kasab’s hanging.
Refusing to see my reasons, Hindutva blood-baiters concluded that my love for biryani gave me common cause with Kasab (seriously). As a result, for years I have been trolled and abused for both Kasab and biryani. Even hitman Tejinder Pal Bagga went after me.
In the way that Hindutva has transformed the meaning of words like secularism, it has been actively seeking to make ‘biryani’ a signifying cuss word in reference to Muslims, “sickulars” and “libtards”.
Just as all “Muslim” architecture is discredited with the bogey of temple demolition, biryani is being made uncool by attaching its image to terrorists. And sickulars and libtards, of course.
Behind hatred lies envy
Biryani accentuates the great meat divide in Indian politics.
It is not difficult to see where their obsession with biryani comes from. Biryani is great food. Those who eat it rave about it much more than they rave about qorma or kebabs. Biryani lovers speak of biryani with the same orgasmic praise that everyone does for mangoes.
The charms of the biryani, an invention of south Asian Muslims, evokes in Hindutva champions a great envy. When non-vegetarians go on and on with their debates about which biryani is the best, the vegetarian eats veg biryani, and the Hindutvawaadi seethes with anger.
Biryani lovers don’t make it easy for them by publicly frowning upon veg biryani, as if it were worse than jail food. But there’s a reason for it. Biryani is so delicious because its preparation makes the flavour of cooked meat seep into rice. (At this point we should not get into the biryani versus pulao debate, whichwe are reliably told is a complicated one.)
There’s only so much terror-biryani that we can cook up. So Haryana’s Hindutvawaadis have come up with a better plan: imagining beef in biryani. Make people suspect all biryani as camouflaging cow meat, and voila, biryani becomes uncool!
But biryani lovers are incorrigible. When I tweeted the news of Haryana government’s efforts to find beef in biryani, a number of people said in response that this must be chief minister ML Khattar’s way of procuring biryani.
PS: Lucknow biryani is the best.