Food Politics: Food and Hindutva

Chicken Biryani with Coconut Milk Recipe by Divya Burman - NDTV Food

by Yuvraj Trivedi    1 July 2020

In his essay “Gastro-Politics in Hindu South Asia”, Appadurai points to how a “fundamental fact” about food is that it has the power to evoke strong emotional responses (Appadurai, p.494). This is not only true for an individual’s private space, in which food can evoke a range of feelings, such as belonging and nostalgia. Rather, it is also true of the public space, where food acts an interesting instrument of segregating, in the hands of those in power. This versatility of food in the range of emotions that it can evoke; indicates that food and identity are deeply interlinked. In the recent past, Biryani has been vilified extensively in the speeches of important Hindutva politicians, and invoked as if to suggest that it has the power to sway elections. Like all food therefore, Biryani has to be studied as a “semiotic force” in its own right, carrying with its distinct political messages (Appadurai, p.509). It can be argued that because Biryani is associated with an Islamic history and has non-bramhinical connotations, repeated allusions to Biryani in speeches by Hindutva politicians reinforces a particular imagination of the nation – one that is exclusionary, with distinct casteist and communal overtones.

The first instance of Biryani being intertwined in an Islamic history can be found in the story of its origin. Biryani arrived in India with the first Mughal emperor Babur in the 16th century. Collingham argues that the existing positive attitudes toward vegetarianism due to Buddhist and Jain movements in the 5th century resulted in a significant opposition to the non-vegetarian nature of Babur’s cuisine. For the Hindutva right, the Biryani is hence associated with Babur’s military conquest, and as an act of Islamic imposition. Collingham also underlines how vegetarianism was associated with social status in that period, depicting the distinctly casteist nature of Hindustani society during the times (Collingham, p.20). All these factors contributed to the cultural distance between the monarch and his subjects. In the case of Babur’s arrival to Hindustan therefore, the Biryani is a ‘foreign food’ that is many cultural universes away. Therefore, when politicians do Biryani politics, it is this image of Muslim conquest that they seek to evoke. Rather than pointing to the fusion that allows the creation of Mughalai cuisine at this historical juncture, the Hindutva right obsessively conflates the advent of Biryani with the birth of the ‘Muslim bigot’.

Moreover, the Islamic meanings that Biryani possesses is related to the history of Mughalai integration into South Asian society. In the reigns that followed Babur, Mughal emperors grew accustomed to South Asian cuisine. Collingham illustrates that monarchs of this period had “synthesised” systems of cooking (Collingham, p.27). Mughalai cuisine became an amalgamation of Persian, Central Asian and Hindustani cooking techniques and ingredients. The Ain-i-Akbari contained a range of Persian recipes including Pilaf, and extensively relied on the usage of Hing and Qima, which were integral elements to the cuisine of this region. Collingham indicates how Hing instantly became popular with the vegetarian locals because of its “garlicky flavour” as it was found it to be a good replacement for onions and garlic (Collingham, p.28). Therefore, when the Persian Pilaf evolved into the Biryani in Akbar’s court, it ceased to be a foreign food. Biryani at this moment symbolises the integration of the Muslim ‘other’. This can also be observed in the Firamans that Aurangzeb issued, seeking the attendant “Sulaiman, who cooks biryani”(Collingham, p.39). The dish Biryani thus invokes responses of profound revulsion the Hindutva-vaadis because it does not represent the idea of a Hindu Hindustan with a sanitised vegetarian history, full of benevolent Ram-like monarchs , rather, it represents a synthesis of two cultural universes that is unacceptable to  Hindutvavaad..

Biryani politics also has an openly casteist agenda surrounding it. It is argued that commensality and rules about inter-dinning are the “root of all caste distinction”(Gorringe and Karthikeyan, p.20). Therefore, as what can be or cannot be eaten is fundamentally caste based, people can be located within the caste order based on their food. Therefore, it is important to note how resistances – predominantly, by Dalit activists – to Brahminism often takes place within the canteens of hostels and workplaces, where consumption of Chicken Biryani for instance, acts as a means of resisting the dominant caste “hierarchy of taste”(Gorringe and Karthikeyan, p.20).  The idea of hierarchy of taste is pivotal to Hindutva politics because, as Gorringe and Karthikeyan contend, the tastes and “palettes” of marginalised and lower castes are deemed to be repugnant , just as the politics of assertion(Gorringe and Karthikeyan, p.20). Additionally, Hindutva politics has held the view that challenging power structures by means of food politics is “futile” and “divisive”(Gorringe and Karthikeyan, p.20) . This belittling of Dalit politics around food indicates why the Biryani is such an important ‘enemy’- the dish and its politics are repulsive to the Brahminical order.

Moreover, ideological conceptions of purity and disgust are central to caste based food politics in India. As Ray argues, the politics of “enforced vegetarianism-based-purity” creates a hierarchy of taste, but more importantly, it also constructs “culinary belonging”(Ray, p.19). It is important to note that “culinary belonging” implies a construction of nationhood and citizenship. Biryani therefore by betraying Hindutva ideas of purity and disgust, acts as an instrument that creates the ‘wrong’ kind of culinary belonging (Ray, p.19). Thus, it poses as a threat to Hindutvavaadi nationhooh. Therefore, by determining what the Dalit eats, the Brahminical order marks who is “pure” and who is “disgusting”(Ray, p.19).  Invoking Biryani involves the creation of a Hindutva nation through culinary disciplining and production of “purity”, through which a particular kind of ideal citizen is constructed.

As a political and semiotic force, Biryani carries complex messages of conflict, culture and history. Biryani, just as all other food acts as an important “media of contact” between individuals by mediating social relations, (Appadurai, p.495), it is influenced by “hegemonic” constructions of disgust and purity(Ray, p31). Its consumption is an act of assertion by those who have been historically marginalised, as it challenges Brahminical hierarchies of taste. Doing food politics in this case is not banal, but is essential to challenging the everydayness of casteist Hindutva and its “hidden politics”(Gorringe and Karthikeyan, p20). Assertion of the marginalised palette hence prevents the “transcoding of caste and caste relations” to a simplistic question of vegetarian discomfort. Therefore, when Biryani features in the speech of a Hindutvavaadi, it appears as an opposition to the assertion of a Dalit or Muslim palette. Considering that the Hindutva conception of nationhood is exclusionary, as it opposes any challenges to the Brahminical order, doing Biryani politics strengthens this imagination of nationhood and citizenship.

Works cited

Appadurai, Arjun. “Gastro-Politics in Hindu South Asia” American Ethnologist, Vol. 8, No. 3, Symbolism and Cognition, 1981.

Collingham, Lizzie. “Curry A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors” Oxford UP, 2006.

Gorringe, Hugo and Karthikeyan, D. “The Hidden Politics of Vegetarianism: Caste and “The Hindu” Canteen” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 49, No. 20, 2014.

Ray, Shakuntala. “forbidden tastes: queering the palate in anglophone Indian fiction” Feminist Review, No. 114, food, 2016.


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