Beef is back in business.
It has returned as a fast moving consumer good (FMCG) on display counters of the great Indian political bazaar. The latest "entrepreneur" is a lady with a mythical name - Shakuntala. Her surname will also become our nationality if ever Bharat becomes India's new name - Bharati! She is mayor of Aligarh, and just spent Saturday creating ferment in Aligarh by claiming that a canteen in the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) was selling biryani, but one with an unacceptable prefix!
If you recall the most famous barb made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the Kargil War when he was the general secretary of his party, you will know that biryani is a metaphor for something pleasurable which adversaries and enemies must be denied.
Bharati is another BJP leader who belies social media is the new gospel. So a message circulating with a picture of the canteen menu showing beef biryani as a listed item went viral and the mayor collected a large band of followers to go hysterical.
It is clearly not part of her brief to rationally recall that barely some months ago Delhi witnessed another hyperventilating mob owing allegiance to the larger Sangh Parivar. The only dissimilarity was that the false furore was over beef curry or beef fry. Even though the “crime” had taken place in the premises owned by Kerala government, Delhi Police, in a blatant display of “uncooperative federalism”, raided the canteen.
Much explanation and fulminations later, the curry is back on the table and clients patronise the canteen with greater enthusiasm than before. Similarly, the vice-chancellor, a much decorated army general (he too fought for Bharat Mata and led his forces patrolling streets of riot-hit Gujarat in 2002) has recalled that Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, the founding father of Mohammedan Anglo Oriental College - (which became AMU in 1920), issued an order in 1884 that not only would no beef be served in any dining room but even sacrifice of the cow during Eid-ul-Adha was forbidden for all AMU employees. And the litigious dish stays because it is not “that” biryani. So then, what's the heart of this beefy problem?
Cow slaughter, that is politically contentious, can be done unconditionally - barring fulfilling some basic civic conditions - only in the outlying north-eastern states. With certain conditions, it is allowed in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Telengana, Odisha, West Bengal, Bihar and Assam.
Cows below 14 years cannot be slaughtered (10 years in Kerala, 12 in Karnataka and 15 in Bihar) in these states and even then they have to be unfit for work, breeding or permanently incapacitated. What is available in other states as “beef” is not cow meat but buffalo meat. In spite of everyone knowing about the fact, this four-letter word has become a convenient political cuss word!
In 2012, when Modi virtually began his campaign to be the prime minister, he often gave vent to his ire at the “Dilli ki Sultanate” for subsidising Pink Revolution (animal slaughter) whereas in Gujarat, White Revolution (enhanced dairy production) had transformed economy.
The colour “pink” was an allusion for freshly cut meat and Modi cited statistics to demonstrate that India had emerged as the top beef exporter in the world. The anguish on his face and quiver in his voice conveyed the “pain” the animals would feel when led into the abattoir.
With vegetarianism being the dominant public practice among Hindus in Gujarat and given the influence of Jainism in the state, Modi scored points over his adversary. I was part of the audience in May 2012 in Surat where Modi made this statement in the backdrop of "data from the US department of agriculture's foreign agricultural service that showed India was poised to emerge as the world's largest beef exporter in 2012" and wrote this in my book Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times.
Modi, however, ignored the fact that in his regime, meat production more than doubled in Gujarat in ten years. Data compiled by the animal husbandry department demonstrated that meat production in Gujarat increased from 6,840 tonnes per annum to 22,000 tonnes between 1998-’99 and 2011-’12. Furthermore, the state government, still under Modi's charge in 2013, disclosed that out of the estimated meat production of 34,490 tonnes that year, “beef” was expected to account for 1,480 tonnes.
Beef is being used as a skull and bones symbol to generate animosity against minorities and those Hindus who do not share culinary practices of the majority. The din that is created over a piece of meat is actually not even a “religious problem” (several scholars like DN Jha argue that cow slaughter was not always proscribed in “Hindu” India).
Moreover, not all beef is cow meat. Globally, even buffalo meat is called beef. So when the US department of agriculture reiterated in August 2015 that India remained the world's largest beef exporter, it was referring to buffalo meat.
Anyone who has lived in most parts of India and is given to gastronomical diversity knows that “barha” is “beef” and “chota” is mutton or goat meat. In spite of knowing this, why do the likes of Shakuntala Bharati organise such a shindig? Why do their leaders not give them classes on these matters instead of always focussing on “su-sanskriti”? They do not, because such disruptive actions enable its cadre to generate hatred and this slowly converts into support drawing more people into their fold.
The incident in Dadri last year angered the society in different ways but made the international community wary of the intentions of Modi's India. In recent weeks, trucks have been attacked because they were rumoured to carry animals for slaughter though they carried legitimate certificates.
One such vehicle was detained a short distance away from the capital because it was transporting animal bones. No one responsible in the government ever clarified that Indian Railways floats tenders to clear tracks of animal carcasses when they get run over by trains. The contractors sell skin from dead animals to make leather and bones are given for a price to potteries.
The fine “bone” china in which ministers have their morning cuppa and their meals everyday is made from clay mix which includes these bones after grinding. No one knows whether they are bones of cows, buffalos, pigs or even dogs. Incredible?
The controversy over the canteen menu at the AMU and what it was serving will surely pass. But not without surcharging the atmosphere. It has to be seen as part of the much wider schism that is being manufactured constantly: anti-nationals are Muslims, communists or all varieties, beef eaters...