BJP, biryani and a dark secret

Churlishness against biryani shows how Hindutva is a majority nationalism with a minority complex.
Updated 10 Feb, 2020 10:48am

The final step of a biryani involves dum. Meat and rice are layered inside a thick degh, its cover sealed with dough and cooked on a low flame. It’s a magical process that steeps the rice – and remember, at its heart, the biryani is a rice dish – in the flavours of meat, masala and aromatics.

It would be an odd person who would not appreciate such culinary artistry. Yet, these are odd times. “Biryani” has become a slur, dog whistle and political weapon in the bruising electoral battle for the Delhi assembly. As part of its campaign to attack the protests against the National Register of Citizens, the Bharatiya Janata Party has sunk to a horrifying low: it has demonised biryani.

The BJP has repeatedly made the allegation that the Aam Aadmi Party government was serving up biryani to the protestors at Shaheen Bagh, the site of the agitation in Delhi against the Citizenship Amendment Act that has lasted more than 50 days. On Wednesday, Amit Malviya, head of the BJP’s IT cell excitedly tweeted out, “Proof of Biryani being distributed at Shaheen Bagh!”.

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It was as if people having a biryani lunch were a dark secret to be exposed to the world.

This has happened before. In 2015, Ujjwal Nikam, the public prosecutor in the 26/11 Mumbai terror-attack case, admitted he had cooked up the story of terrorist Ajmal Kasab demanding and being served biryani by the jail authorities during his trial. Nikam told this lie, he said, in order to “break an emotional atmosphere which was taking shape in favour of Kasab during the trial of the case”.

Muslimness and Indianess

This sort of dog whistling is easy to explain. Biryani is a dish most often associated with South Asia’s Muslims. In fact, quite remarkably, almost every Muslim community across India has its own biryani. The Thalassery of Malabar’s Moplahs, the Hyderabadi of Daknis, the Memoni biryani of the Memons of Gujarat, the Awadhi of Lucknow or the tubered Kolkata biryani of Urdu-speaking Calcatians – you throw a stone in a Muslim neighbourhood and chances are, it’ll clang off a degh.

However, what makes things more complicated – and interesting – is that biryani has transcended its origins within Muslim communities to become something of a national dish. The biryani was, for example, the most ordered meal on India’s largest food delivery app, Swiggy, three years in a row. Every minute, India orders 95 biryanis from just this one food delivery app. Biryani is also the first dish that comes to mind when outsiders think of Indian food: one study found that biryani was the most searched Indian food globally on the Internet.

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So appealing is biryani that now there are even vegetarian dishes are being christened with that name, although traditionally biryanis have been made with meat and poultry. Fittingly enough, in 2014, former Indian cricket captain MS Dhoni shifted hotels in Hyderabad since it wouldn’t allow him to bring in a biryani from outside – a suitably drastic decision given the insult to a great food item.

Given the mass popularity of biryani in India, the BJP’s attempts to tar the protests with the dish are decidedly odd. How can such a dish so loved be used to discredit anyone?

Biryani and yoghurt ghol at Kolkata's Zam Zam.
Biryani and yoghurt ghol at Kolkata's Zam Zam.

Minority complex

To understand how the BJP can find offense in biryani, one must take a look at the party’s ruling ideology: Hindu nationalism or Hindutva. As political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot has argued, “The Hindu nationalist culture of outrage cannot be understood irrespective of its psychological context. It is part of a discourse of victimizationwhich is the very matrix of Hindu nationalism”.

This goes back right to Hindutva’s origins, 150 years back. “This ideology was shaped in the late 19th century as a reaction to a strong feeling of vulnerability,” Jaffrelot argues. “Hindus, though in a majority, were seen by its proponents as weak, compared to the Muslims, because of their inner divisions along caste and sectarian lines.”

Hindutava, then, fits the famous description of Stanley Tambiah, a Harvard anthropologist, who had described the Sinhalese as a “majority with a minority complex” – fearing domination by Sri Lanka’s minority Tamils.

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Hindu nationalists in India similarly base their politics on the fear of Muslims – although only one out of every seventh Indian is Muslim. Most famously, this has birthed the BJP’s main plank of “minority appeasement” – where the party ignores socioeconomic data to argue that India’s Muslim minority enjoys outsized benefits from the Indian state.

Many other ideologies would have felt pride with the popular status biryani enjoys. In some other cases, powerful communities often appropriate culture from the less powerful: a famous example being Israel, consisting mostly of European-origin Jews, staking a claim to Arab-origin cuisine such as hummus. Hindu nationalism, though, has a different reaction, feeling a sense of outrage and victimisation that a dish seen in popular culture as “Muslim” enjoys the superstar status it does amongst all Indians.

This article was originally published in Scroll.In and has been reproduced with permission.


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Shoaib Daniyal is a staff writer with

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (31) Closed

Feb 08, 2020 10:49am
Biriyani is not the most popular dish. Each state has its own cuisine and favourate distinct popular dish. India is too diverse to club in one. The north east doesnt eat biriyani.
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Feb 08, 2020 10:55am
Watching as they implode.
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chowkidar kamal
Feb 08, 2020 10:56am
Lies, lies and lies. There are also vegetarian biryanis. Please taste them. You will forget non veg biryanis.
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Feb 08, 2020 10:57am
Incorrect. Biriyani is festive, party dish. While protests is not a party, festive occasion to hog free food. Thats the reason BJP is mocking shaheen bagh protests, saying people are coming to eat/ enjoy free biriyani served there, not protest CAA rights.
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Keen Reader
Feb 08, 2020 11:33am
Interesting read!
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Feb 08, 2020 01:03pm
@Junaid, you have a point
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Feb 08, 2020 01:44pm
If you cannot understand the nuances of messaging , better write about issues you are apt at.
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Feb 08, 2020 05:13pm
@Junaid, rightly pointed out. Hope the writer reads it.
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Feb 08, 2020 06:16pm
Biryani was even before 7th century.
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Feb 08, 2020 06:40pm
@chowkidar kamal, If its got veg in it its not an authentic biryani. I prefer chicken biryani.
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Feb 08, 2020 06:41pm
@Ishan, have a heart. They based the popularity of biryani on delivery app in India
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Feb 08, 2020 07:06pm
@Ishan, Don't eat it then. No one is forcing you.
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Feb 08, 2020 07:22pm
Indians have nothing better to do than criticize Biryani.
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Feb 08, 2020 07:33pm
Biryani at it's heart is Indian.
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M. Saeed
Feb 08, 2020 07:48pm
@Ishan, Mughalai Paratha is the best loved food of the North Eastern India.
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M. Saeed
Feb 08, 2020 07:49pm
@chowkidar kamal, biryani is biryani, veg or non-veg.
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Mukhtar Khan
Feb 08, 2020 08:00pm
Where is the beef
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Feb 08, 2020 09:27pm
@chowkidar kamal, There in no Biryaani call veg Biryani. It's Pulao. :)
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Chris M
Feb 08, 2020 09:43pm
Very good read like tasty Biryani . Want to see more article like this . Thanks
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Chris M
Feb 08, 2020 10:23pm
what do you expect from fascist fake nationalist BJP.
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Reasonable voice
Feb 08, 2020 10:25pm
Can country be saved by criticizing its culture most identifiable iconic dish ?
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S.Ahmad Washington D.C.
Feb 09, 2020 02:58am
Exit polls predict a resounding victory for the incumbent to the utter disappointment of the Hinduvta thugs
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Feb 09, 2020 03:05am
People are coming to enjoy biryani in the guise of coming to protest
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Feb 09, 2020 07:27am
We in India do not put meat in the biriyani.
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Feb 09, 2020 08:23am
@Junaid, exactly. Very bad analysis!
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H S Roy
Feb 09, 2020 10:26am are bang on target. Shoaib Daniyal wrote an entire article without realizing that.
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Ravi Sankar Katragadda
Feb 09, 2020 01:18pm
Petty minded politicians abounds in India
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H S Roy
Feb 09, 2020 01:22pm
Emphasis is on 'distributed' not 'Biryani'....get that right
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Feb 09, 2020 08:34pm
@Ishan, Some parts of North East requires permit to visit for other Indians. So it is not just biriyani. The North Eastern people do eat a lot of biriyani though.
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Ibrahim S
Feb 09, 2020 08:35pm
@Junaid, you may be right , but it’s equivalent to our quick complete lunch meal, we call it Pizza.
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Feb 10, 2020 07:30pm
@Junaid, Come to Karachi, people eat Biryani everyday, will take you to Students Biryani I bet you will love it
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