Biryani becomes latest issue in India’s struggle over religion, caste, politics

New Delhi - Biryani is a popular Indian rice dish featuring meat or vegetables cooked in a subtle combination of spices. Recently, some lawmakers have added some extra ingredients — religion, caste and politics.

So-called biryani police have been inspecting pots full of the traditional dish to check if street sellers have been adding beef, which is banned across much of the country.

Many street vendors in Haryana state near New Delhi, the center of the crackdown, have had to shut their shops even though demand for biryani is highest during this week’s Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha.

Illegal biryani has become the latest wedge issue by India’s Hindu nationalist government to impose its religious standards on the officially secular country. India’s majority Hindus consider the cow sacred and do not eat its meat, but its two largest minorities — Muslims and Dalits, the former “untouchables” – observe no such strictures.

The spot checks on biryani sellers, many of them Muslims, have been denounced as a veiled provocation.

“The state is bent on taking the joy out of the festival,” The Indian Express wrote in an editorial. “Its timing suggested premeditated harassment.”

A related crackdown on dealing in cow hides singles out Dalits for even more hostility than the community already gets from the Hindu majority. Dalits have been skinning dead cows for centuries and some have been attacked — and killed — by “gau rakshaks” (cow protectors) who accuse them of killing and eating cows.

This “Hinduization” drive, which accelerated after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party won an outright majority in the 2014 general election, has alienated Muslims and Dalits to the point that political analysts say the two minorities might join forces to mount a challenge in important state polls coming up next year.

About 80 percent of India’s 1.3 billion people are Hindus and 14 percent are Muslims. Dalits, who make up about 16 percent of the population, are mostly Hindus but many have converted to Islam, Christianity, Buddhism or other faiths in the (mostly vain) hope of escaping their low status in the caste system.

India adopted a secular constitution after independence from Britain in 1947, but 20 of its 29 states have passed Hindu-inspired laws since then banning the slaughter, consumption or transport of cows. Stray cows wandering around unhindered are a common sight on the streets of Indian cities.

In a counterintuitive twist, the country is also the world’s largest exporter of beef. Most of that meat comes from buffaloes and bulls, rather than the cow that Hinduism reveres.

“Killing a cow can be considered like killing one’s mother,” said Zarin Ahmad, an anthropologist who has studied India’s beef ban.

Under pressure from Hindu activists, the taboo against killing cows has been gradually widened in some states to include bulls and buffaloes, she told journalists visiting on a study tour organized by the Hawaii-based East-West Center.

In several states, cow slaughter is a crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Maharashtra state outlawed the possession of beef last year, and Haryana banned all sales of beef.

The increasing pressure to protect cows has spawned a multiplication of “cow protector” groups, some of which operate as vigilantes harassing Muslims and Dalits for actual or presumed trade in beef.

A year ago, a mob killed a Muslim man for allegedly keeping beef in his refrigerator. Lab tests later showed it was from a buffalo.

Video clips posted on social media this year have shown Dalits being whipped by Hindu activists for skinning a dead cow and two men, reportedly Muslims, being forced to eat cow dung.

In late August, cow protectors were accused of killing a couple and raping their two daughters in Mewat, a mostly Muslim district in Haryana. Media reports say many residents there suspect the state’s biryani crackdown was meant to divert attention from those crimes.

“Ever since the BJP government came to power, the terror of gau rakshaks and the police have hit the meat business in the region,” a resident named Hazi Akbar told the newspaper The Hindu. “Even those carrying goats and buffaloes and with valid documents are not spared.”

Prime Minister Modi, a longtime member of the right-wing Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh movement that advocates a fully Hindu India, kept silent for months as anger over these vigilante attacks mounted.

When he finally spoke out against them in early August, he said 70 percent to 80 percent of these attackers “try to hide their sins by pretending to be gau rakshaks.”

Minority leaders discounted Modi’s apparent turnaround, noting that police were still quite lenient on vigilantes acting in the name of Hindu nationalism.

“The ambiguity is clear,” said one senior Christian leader, who asked not to be identified. “One member of the government says one thing, another says something different and they see from the reaction how far they can go.”

Niraja Gopal Jayal, a political scientist at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, said Modi’s government gave “tacit state encouragement for a Hindu majoritarian project.”

“There has been an alarming normalization of discrimination,” she said.

“In recent months, the revival of these religious and caste provocations has led to the thinking that there might be a political alliance of Dalits and Muslims,” she said. “The future is open. The present is not pleasant.”