Ever wonder why Bhakts eat biryani?
The Hindutva movement has reacted to globalization with xenophobia, rejection, and a search for historical purity and authenticity. BJP’s idea of Hindu Nationalism is imagined in the figure of an idealized Hindu as the archetypal citizen of India, unaffected by the perceived threat of Muslim cultural influence. Hindutva movement is explained through ethnic absolutism, perceived Hindu cultural superiority, and the concept of homogenized majority. To that end, the BJP/RSS has reimagined historic Muslim architecture as Hindu art, renamed cities, towns, airports and railways stations, which are seen as reminders of India’s Muslim heritage, rewritten textbooks that contradicted Hindutva ideology, and reclaimed a Muslim religious shrine as Hindu site.
In BJP’s advocacy for social conservatism and attempt to erase the Mughal legacy, food has also played a pivotal role. In the Indian subcontinent, what people eat or are allowed to eat has always been implicated in their class, caste, gender, and religious positions. Thus, Hindu widows cannot eat animal proteins, people belonging to “lower” castes cannot eat in certain public spaces or in public view, and Hindus cannot eat beef. Laws of food purity also bar menstruating women, Dalits, and Muslims from preparing food for Hindus. It is not surprising therefore that Narendra Modi’s party would manipulate its self-constructed notion that beef is an imposition of Islamic-Christian culture on the Indian people, which desecrates Hinduism and pollutes the Hindu body. It is also not surprising that Haryana’s Cow Service commission would set up a 24-hour helpline so people can report cow slaughter. Haryana has also taken the extreme measure of surveilling mutton biryanis to ensure they don’t contain beef.
What is shocking, however, is a BJP leader deciding to throw a birthday gala with the most Muslim thing in India, biryani, while flouting national social distancing and lockdown guidelines, even as Muslims were being demonized by his own party as being responsible for the spread of COVID-19 in India. Perhaps many of his ideologue followers questioned his choice of biryani; perhaps many didn’t even notice the irony. But the choice shows that Muslim food, like every other thing Muslim in India, is not just a part of Indian food; it is Indian food. It is food that decenters the normative assumptions derived from the entelechy of Hindutva ideology and exposes its fault lines by laying bare the disconnect between the ideologue’s gustatory desires and the Muslim laborers/artists who satisfy those desires.
Biryani has an endearing and enduring legacy in India. If India had a national dish, it would be biryani. 95 chicken biryanis are ordered only through the Swiggy app every minute. Biryani, the gem of most weddings and festivities in India has become an integral part of the Indian culinary culture, and for good reason. Biryani is egalitarian, a dish that evades social barriers and is eaten by all sections of the society. People who in the name of nationalism desecrate everything that reminds them of Muslims would suddenly elate with joy when the word biryani is mentioned. And this should make one question what is in fact the homogeneous Hindu national identity? What is, in fact, meant by “Indian culture”? Because cultures are not spatially or nationally circumscribed, discrete, and static, but dynamic, boundary-blurring, and transnationally constituted.
The food scene in India proves the futility of an ideology that tries to distill a homogenous identity that has been seeped in cross-cultural productions for years. The same can be said about Indian art, architecture, clothing, jewelry, music, dance, and other performances. Truth is, Hindus have been very accepting of everything that Muslims have to offer. The only cultural difference that they can draw is based on a self-constructed notion of beef-eating. The BJP may think that the Muslims are waging culture wars on Hindu through love jihad and cow slaughter, but the truth is that they have already won the war through food, and Indians may be better off by not resisting this loss.