Modi’s Love-Hate Relationship with Biryani

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Copy Edited By Adam Rizvi, The India Observer, TIO: ON New Year’s Eve, 2014, a few short months into the first BJP government with Narendra Modi as prime minister, Indian coastguards blew up a suspected Pakistani dhow. They later claimed the dhow had strayed into their waters. Indian TV anchors, keeping the fig leaf of integrity intact around Modi’s early days, asked the logical question: why would anyone blow up an unidentified boat rather than investigate its occupants or intent? A high-ranking coastguard official was later quoted boasting that he had ordered the boat’s destruction to deny its four occupants, who died instantly, the pleasure of enjoying biryani in an Indian jail. Just as Mr. Modi dog-whistles to his followers the method to identify Muslims by their attire, biryani for better or worse is identified as a Muslim delicacy.

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Be that as it may, the love-hate with biryani is widespread among right-wing nationalists. Last week, the BJP changed its candidate midstream for the Lok Sabha seat in the Mumbai North constituency. It was said to be a response to the troubling first phase of polling, which didn’t see any wave for Mr Modi and which worried the party. The daughter of the assassinated former minister Pramod Mahajan was replaced by Ujjwal Nikam, a Hindu revivalist prosecutor.

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Nikam had successfully persuaded the special court trying Ajmal Kasab, the lone gunman caught alive in the Mumbai terror attack case of November 2008, to award him the capital punishment. During the trial, Nikam circulated the fiction that the Pakistani suspect had been demanding mutton biryani in jail. He would later come under fire for the ‘mutton biryani’ claim. It seems that during a global conference on counterterrorism in Jaipur in 2015, Nikam disclosed he had made up the lie to “break an emotional wave” that was being created in favour of the terror suspect.

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The biryani is almost always a non-vegetarian rice dish akin to what one knows in Lucknow as pulao but is different in its geographical origins and flavours. It may have become more popular than pulao in India today, but the 18th-century Urdu poet Nazir Akbarabadi saw pulao as a great cuisine to woo the beloved with.

The biryani story has proved useful to tarnish the quarry before the assault.

“Nazir yaar ki ham ne jo kal ziyafat ki/ Pakaya qarz manga kar pulao aur qaliya/ So yaar aap na aaya raqib ko bheja/ Hazar haif ham aise nasib ke baliya/ Idhar to qarz hua aur udhar na aaya yaar/ Pakai khiir thi qismat se hogaya daliya!” The beloved didn’t show up and the pulao failed to rise to the occasion for once.

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Biryani featured twice with Mr. Modi in the frame. Even when he was the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Mr. Modi had lashed out at then PM Manmohan Singh and the UPA government, accusing them of sharing “chicken biryani” with the Pakistan prime minister while Indian jawans were being killed on the borders.

“What is the reason that Pak soldiers kill our jawans on the border and the government in Delhi cites protocol to feed the Pak PM biryani?” India Today had reported Mr. Modi as saying. Having said this, he urged the voters to throw out the “divisive” Congress and free the country. The Congress, on its part, accused Mr. Modi of stopping over unannounced to enjoy biryani with Mr. Nawaz Sharif at his Lahore home. Apart from the political crossfire entrapping a popular cuisine, the BJP under Mr. Modi’s watch has been veering towards vegetarianism, a preference the prime minister shares with his Gujarati colleague Amit Shah. He recently attacked a Bihar opposition leader for flashing fish bones in his plate, accusing the opposition of playing with Hindu sentiments during a sacred month.

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With time, as the elections move into critical zones, the sectarian references are expected to increase. The prime minister accused the opposition of favouring Muslims and claimed his rivals planned to take away the gold and even the mangalsutras sacred mostly to south Indian married women, to give them to Muslims. The Delhi high court on Monday dismissed a petition seeking to order the election commission of India to act against Mr. Modi for apparently violating the model code of conduct by allegedly seeking votes for the upcoming Lok Sabha election in the name of religion.

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It is commonplace for states to plant false stories about those it seeks to discredit before unleashing furious retribution. The Nazis falsely accused the communists of setting fire to the Reichstag before going mercilessly after them. Israel has used a terrifying attack by Hamas on its soil to doctor claims of mass rape and beheading of babies to galvanise public opinion at home and abroad.

A TV channel in New Delhi thought nothing of playing the so-called confession of Afzal Guru, which the supreme court had discarded as evidence in the 2001 parliament attack case since it was given dubiously to the police who illegally leaked it to the press. The playing of the interview prepared, as it were, the audience to expect the capital punishment, which came. The biryani story has proved useful to tarnish the quarry before the assault. Biryani figures as a similarly emotional issue.

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The Modi era has been notorious for violent assault on Muslims for alleged cow slaughter or storing and consuming beef, even if that included buffalo meat. However, among major players in beef exports in 2023 was India, which exports water buffalo. Before the advent of the Modi era, it was not unusual for the BJP to include a meat dish not excluding the maligned biryani on occasions where the press was invited. Then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee presided over and hosted iftars for Muslims during Ramzan. Inevitably, the occasion required a non-vegetarian repast. Most telling was the picture of a BJP worker in Kerala showing off the beef dish in his plate or a BJP minister from a north-eastern state claiming there was trouble with beef or biryani. Mr. Modi is unlikely to be impressed by the politically subversive multicultural food habits.

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Curated and Compiled by Humra Kidwai

Disclaimer: The content has not been changed except for the headline. It was first published in Dawn.  Please be guided.



Jawed Naqvi

Jawed Naqvi

Javed Naqvi is a senior Indian journalist, correspondent and contributor for The India Observer. Also seen in: Dawn, Firstpost, The Star (Malaysia), Scroll.in, Inter Press Service, The Wire (India), ThePrint, National Herald India, New Age (Bangladesh), asianews.network, Mainstream Weekly and more.

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