WE only learnt after his execution that Ajmal Kasab’s widely reported request for mutton biryani in jail was a myth. The Congress was in power, not the BJP, with its own brand of nationalist zealotry more common to Hindutva.“Kasab never demanded biryani and was never served by the government,” the prosecutor confessed days after the man was dead. He said that he had concocted the story to interrupt any emotional sympathy taking shape in favour of the young prisoner during the trial.
“One day, in the courtroom, he bowed his head and wiped his eyes. Moments later, the electronic media broke the news — ‘tears in Kasab’s eyes’. It was raksha bandhan that day, and panel discussions were started in the media on it. Some guessed Kasab got emotional in memory of his sister and some even went on to question whether he was a terrorist or not.”
The prosecutor swiftly corrected the image. “This kind of emotional wave and atmosphere needed to be stopped. So, after that, I gave a statement to the media saying Kasab has demanded mutton biryani in the jail … The truth is that Kasab neither asked for biryani nor was ever served.” In a similar vein, the apex court had earlier ordered Afzal Guru’s execution to assuage the conscience of the people.
Cut to a scene on the Arabian Sea. An unidentified dhow was blown up and its crew perished. According to sourced reports, the Indian officer who ordered the destruction subsequently justified the act. He claimed the alterative was to feed biryani to the captives he alleged were from Pakistan. There are differing versions of what happened with the ship. One version claimed the crew blew the dhow up themselves.
Shift the gaze to Bhopal and discover another slanderous reference to the meat and rice dish. It doesn’t matter that, created by mediaeval Muslims in India, biryani is beloved by all. The BJP chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, however, flaunted a grudge about feeding it to his Muslim prisoners. His police had just killed eight prisoners in cold blood, euphemistically known as encounter. Police claimed the men had escaped from a high-security jail moments ago, and were armed.
Indian rulers today, like the colonial establishment in 1857, found ways to pit Hindus and Muslims against each other.
The eeriness surrounding the episode had echoes of BJP-ruled Gujarat, considered to be the Hindutva’s laboratory for honing the craft of spreading mass hatred and violence. Video and audio clips showed that two of the men in Bhopal had survived the fire burst. They pleaded to talk. A police officer on the walkie-talkie said: “Finish them all.”
Chouhan alleged the men were terrorists belonging to the Students Islamic Movement of India. They had a violent agenda. Human rights lawyers said the men were due to be released for want of a case against them. As such, they had no incentive to escape. In any case, the question is why only Muslim prisoners escaped when there were others who could have used the opportunity to flee. All such puzzles can, of course, be fended off with clever arguments to deftly sideline the issue.
It is difficult to forget Chouhan’s cold comment about the dead men: the government had to feed them biryani. He echoed a rising trend of slander. Most Indians would see the false plaint as bordering on the malicious. Severe criticism from opposition parties, and a very few but resolute journalists, flayed the government over the suspicious deaths. The biryani comment was apparently meant to deflect from the line of questioning. Albeit of a milder variant, Chouhan belongs to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh school of communal nationalism.
He was the preferred protégé of Hindutva stalwart Lal Kishan Advani, who pushed him as a contender for the prime ministerial job in 2014. But it went to Narendra Modi. Unlike Modi, Chouhan was not averse to sporting a Muslim cap to showcase his wider appeal. Something had changed now, and it was reflected in the grudge he bore against feeding rice and meat to Muslim prisoners. It is fascinating that such prisoners somehow never asked for a vegetarian meal, even for a change of flavour. And the media, barring exceptions, appears primed to fall for this trap. Requesting a coveted meal somehow justifies a punishment, which is usually a brutal death.
There is a tradition, a humane one, that a condemned prisoner is offered a meal of his choice before the execution. We can quibble about a lurking absurdity in the proposition, but the alternative is certainly more disturbing. For example, it is possible that someone’s trial was so faulty that offering a menu of choice to him would be like mocking his fate. And, yet, it would be that much crueller to kill a hungry man.
(You can bet your last penny that a meal is not what the militant Islamic State group offers before decapitating its prisoners. Mean-mindedness goes nicely with bigotry, and Hindutva is catching on in this respect. What else can explain the spiteful taunt about prison food?)
Stories of gore already abound — of beating, stripping and lynching people who consume beef or trade in cowhide in India today. The copycat bigotry suits the purposes of ascendant Hindutva.
There was a time when Hindus and Muslims, despite their different eating habits, came together to overthrow colonialism. Rumours spread that the new Enfield rifle cartridges were laced with pig’s fat (offensive to Muslims) and beef (shunned by some Hindus). Their unity became a legendary moment of glory in 1857. The colonial establishment, as Indian rulers would today, contrived to turn the metaphor of resistance on its head. They found easy ways to pit the two against each other. Their mutual rage shaped a tragic history.
Slandering a cornered community is an ingenious ploy to target it. It worked in Germany in 1930s and, as Kasab’s prosecutor and others at different times showed, it can work anywhere if the state so wishes.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
Published in Dawn November 22nd, 2016