Soutik Biswas – BBC India correspondent
When police in northern India recently began checking dishes of mutton biryani to ensure that they did not contain beef, critics said it was another example of what they are calling “food fascism”.
The recent drive happened in a Muslim-dominated cluster of villagers in Haryana state, which is governed by India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The state has some of the most punishing laws against cow slaughter, a special police force to protect cows, and the curiously named “cow service commission“, among other things.
Volunteers and vigilantes keep watch in villages to check if anyone is slaughtering or transporting cows. Village councils have been telling local Muslims to stop selling biryani.
Last week samples of biryani were taken away by the local police after “some people” complained that beef was being used. Poor biryani sellers complained they had lost their livelihood and pictures showed empty stalls on the local highway.
India’s Hindu majority see cows as a sacred animal but many other Indians eat the meat. According to government data, some 80 million Indians – one in every 13 – eat beef or buffalo meat. Most of them are Muslims. But more than 12 million Hindus also eat the meat.
The cow is India’s most political animal. But, as historian DN Jha says, it has “become more political under the BJP governments in Delhi and in some states, which are obsessed with beef bans and cow slaughter”.
The ban on beef has also been criticised because the meat is cheaper than chicken and fish and is a staple for the poorer Muslim, tribal and Dalit (formerly untouchable) communities.
India also has a long history of religious conflict over beef – Muslims and Dalits have been targeted and reviled for eating the meat.
Eating the food of your choice has often become an act of transgression and defiance.
But the crackdown on biryani sellers in BJP-ruled Haryana on the suspicion that they were using beef in their dishes smacks of extreme behaviour. “Now public places selling food are being targeted. It is a new form of bullying,” says Amita Baviskar, a professor of sociology.
It also points to a poor understanding of India’s wildly heterogeneous dietary habits. There are, for example, 20 tribal groups in north-eastern Assam state which all have distinct cuisines.
“We need to remember that no community… has a monolithic culinary culture just as not all [upper caste] Hindu Brahmins are vegetarians or Muslims and Christians meat eaters,” says Nabanipa Bhatttacharjee, who teaches sociology at Delhi University. To define India’s food culture as vegetarian is, therefore, lazy and disingenuous.
Diets are changing and culinary borders are being crossed by all communities in a rapidly changing country. But this is making a lot of people queasy.
In 2012, the leader of a Haryana village caste council (khap panchayat) blamed noodles for rapes, saying that they led to hormonal imbalance. “The widespread derision with which this comment was greeted shows how thoroughly noodles have been incorporated into local diets. Old men may express a fear of foreign foods and frustration at rebellious youth who no longer listen to their elders, but for the younger generation, noodles are here to stay,” says Prof Baviskar.
The attempt to put some food out of the reach of people is a not-so-subtle warning that perceived and rigid dietary borders should not be crossed.
By targeting sellers, the food police may end up driving such food underground, just as prohibition has led to a thriving black market in alcohol in the western state of Gujarat.
People who don’t like to be told what to eat, will always find ways to eat the food they want.