'Biriyani causes infertility': The casteist, communal strategy of the right wing in TN

At this juncture, it is essential to see the problem of widespread hate-mongering by Hindutva groups in terms of two factors: caste and religion.

In the attempts to further Hindutva agendas with cow-slaughter bans, myths of “Muslims spitting in restaurant food”, and “birth control pills in biriyani” comes another strategic assault: “biriyani causes infertility.” Tamil Twitter users would recall that not too many days ago, right-wing social media handles launched a new offensive. One handle, with 20.8K followers, claimed that late-night biriyani shops in Chennai “are targeted at unmarried Hindus”. In a long tweet thread, the handle accused Muslim-run biriyani shops that operate between 12 am and 3 am of first, enticing Hindus with the food that Muslims themselves don’t eat at these shops and second, that the same crowd of Hindus are “lining up at fertility centres” -- apparently due to the effect of the biriyani. The person outlandishly claimed that the biriyani is somehow causing infertility and that this is the sole purpose of these shops. Further, according to many Twitter users, Hindus who don’t “respect their own culture” and are “enslaved to the food need to open their eyes and stand up for themselves.”

Another, similarly hateful tweet that had hit 2,438 likes at the time of writing this article, claimed, “40,000 biriyani shops in Chennai are nothing but cultural terrorism on the native cuisine of the land.” The Twitter user also put out an ominous sounding threat, “Beware else we will be featured in The Chennai Files after 50 years.” The reference here is to the Bollywood film, The Kashmir Files, by Vivek Agnihotri.

It is essential to pick apart the tweets’ place in the larger politics of hate and Islamophobic fear-mongering in the rest of the country. And also, to see the issue in terms of the two fundamental factors fuelling the hate: religion and caste.

In August last year, Alt News fact-checked a viral story claiming that Muslim-run restaurants along highways in Rajasthan, Gujarat and Maharashtra were adding “impotence-causing pills” into the food. The misinformation-spreading social media posts further claimed that meat was being secretly mixed into some of  the vegetarian dishes. The report highlights how the images used in this hoax were being recycled and attributed to multiple places. For example, the same images had been used earlier in 2020 by one Facebook user who claimed that two Muslim-owned restaurants in Coimbatore were cooking biriyani in separate vessels for Hindus and Muslims. The biriyani served to Hindus, the post claimed, was laced with birth control pills to “reduce the Hindu population.” Not only is the claim false, but it is unscientintific. Birth control pills work when they are taken at a set dosage every day over a period of 21 to 28 days at the same time each day. In the case of Coimbatore, the city police responded to the tweet clarifying that it was fake news. These same falsified images resurfaced on March 28 this year. The Twitter account that posted them claimed, “Biryani Jehad in Coimbatore. Police found Biryani mixed with drugs served (sic) to Hindu customers and plain biryani for the Muslims. The drugs have hormonal effects on the sexual potency of persons. This is jehad for demographic change.” The post, despite the account having a small number of followers, had reached 563 reshares at the time of filing the article. A visit to the account shows “I support Israel '' in their profile photo, and a header photo of Hindutva ideologue VD Savarkar.

In November 2021, Kerala saw a concerted attack by Hindu and Christian outfits alleging that Muslims working in restaurants across the state “were spitting into the food”. Karthik Manikuttan, a food blogger who spoke to TNM reporters covering the hate campaign at the time, had said that he was forced to block the tag ‘thuppal’ (spit) on his video posts. He had noticed targeted messages against Muslim-owned hotels that he had been documenting in his vlog. “I suddenly found comments like ‘Thuppal Shawarma’, ‘Thuppal Biriyani,’ especially under videos on hotels with Muslim names,” he had said. TNM also reported at the time on multiple Muslim-run establishments being at the receiving end of this hoax and of WhatsApp messages circulating lists of “spit-free” restaurants.

In north India, a similar campaign took the form of “thook (spit) jihad”. A video of a Muslim-run eatery in Loni, Ghaziabad, widely shared by members of the BJP and right-wing handles, claimed to be “proof” of the spitting, The Wire points out

Alishan Jafri, the reporter of The Wire article, told TNM that dismissing false claims as just social media rants would be a mistake. Speaking on the human cost of the hate-mongering, he elaborated, “The attacks on food, on the hijab, on offering namaaz in public spaces, on every signifier of Muslim identities, is an effort to culturally erase Muslims.” He also noted that the patterns of abuse aren’t restricted to online activity. “To achieve that erasure, you have to criminalise everything that people associate with Muslims. so that it can be removed from public spaces. Even something as innocuous as biriyani is now equated with ‘cultural terrorism’. When people say don’t give oxygen to such claims, I don’t think it matters to the BJP or other far-right organisations. An event like the mahapanchayat in Haryana in 2021 where 20,000 to 50,000 strong Hindu crowds gathered to call for the killing of Muslims doesn’t get organised through Twitter. They were going to do that anyway.” Alishan argues that the sustained attacks, whether over the internet or offline are a “part of a larger design that intends to culturally delete the Muslim identity, thereby erase Muslims themselves. It’s difficult to kill off every Muslim. To kill off a community, you can just kill off their culture,” he said.

More recently, even as Muslim women and girls fought for their right to wear the hijab in educational isntitutions across Karnataka, a Kannada news channel ran a video segment alleging that some of the female students, who were simply eating a meal in the midst of protests, were “taking part in a biriyani party organised by the Campus Front of India (CFI).” The CFI is the student wing of the Popular Front of India – an Islamist organisation. This narrative serves to only diminish the urgency of the protests and somehow insinuate a false, sinister aspect to the students’ fight for their education, by linking it, once again, to a food that has become an identifier of Muslim culture.

Challenges to fact-checking food hoaxes

With regard to online attacks, organisations such as Alt News, that take on the unenviable task of monitoring the internet for hoaxes, say that it often proves extremely difficult even though the claims made are outlandish. “For example, when we were countering thook jihad, there were several hurdles,” says Mohammed Zubair, co-founder of Alt News. “The pattern in north India was that Hindu right-wing groups would go to small dhabas, make videos and put out a misleading version. In dhabas, after the parathas are rolled out, there is some leftover flour on the slab, which cooks blow on to remove. Just this blowing will be caught on camera. It looks as if they are spitting. And these right-wing groups take similar videos in about 10 to 12 dhabas. In the final video, there will be a voiceover claiming that the guy is spitting – which is what people who are watching believe.” Zubair adds that once the video has gone viral, the Hindu groups will use it to get a FIR filed by the police. “UP or Delhi police are usually forced to then arrest the restaurant owner. It’s a different matter that they may get bail, but a case gets filed and a narrative is set. Then, local journalists are tipped off, and they publish articles simply saying that such-and-such person has been charged for this alleged issue.”

It becomes extremely difficult to counter the claims at this point, Zubair explains. “Sometimes the dhaba-owner will not want to go on record, fearing backlash. Secondly, even when it’s so obvious that the person in the video is only blowing on the flour, how can we prove there was no spittle flying?”

Zubair also adds that given the constant pressure from the BJP and right-wing organisations, Alt News has to maintain extremely exacting standards. “Even if we are unable to verify one small detail, we don’t publish the story even though we have the other details, because they are just waiting for us to make one mistake,” Zubair said.

Tamil Nadu in the “Hindu Rashtra” playbook

What the hoaxes around food outlets have in common is a call for economic boycott. The probability of such a boycott happening in Tamil Nadu may be considered unlikely by many. The state is predominantly meat-eating and the fever-pitch communalism in other parts of the country hasn’t taken shape in the state. Yet. But, Tamil Nadu BJP’s mobilisation against Christians following the sucide of  17-year-old Lavanya in Thanjavur district could be a warning.

Kalyan Arun, professor at the Asian School of Journalism, points out an aspect that often gets overlooked in Tamil Nadu: “The RSS doesn’t think in terms of one or two elections. They plan in terms of generations. They have been working at the ground-level for decades in Tamil Nadu. The RSS waited 70 years after Independence to gain the power they currently have in the north. It’s easy to dismiss the Sangh as a Hindi-speaking outsider force. Gaining ground here, though, is not a pipe dream as many assume, it is workable. We must remember several factors. First, that they have been changing their tactics to suit the place. The formation of the Hindu Munnani Katchi (a far-right organisation) happened in the wake of the 1981 Meenakshipuram Conversion.

The 1981 event was a mass conversion by around 150 Dalit families in Meenakshipuram, Tirunelveli district, to Islam. The Hindu Munnani Katchi was founded by RSS member Ramagopalan and is a part of the Sangh Parivar. Amongst other issues, this is the organisation that had a hand in the Coimbatore anti-Muslim violence of 1997 and it also played a key role in spreading the popularity of Vinnayagar (Ganesh) Chaturthi in Tamil Nadu, a festival which until then did not figure prominently in the form of Hinduism practised in the state. The increasing popularity of these procession which begain in the 1980s culminated in anti-Muslim violence in the ‘90s.

A second point that the professor highlighted was that “for the layperson, particularly in the small towns and villages, there is little difference between Hindutva and Hinduism. This is an elite distinction many of us make and it’s high-time we stopped. Thirdly, it’s important to keep in mind the current condition of the AIADMK.  If the party unravels, whose gain will it be? The BJP moves in wherever there is no credible opposition. This was the case in West Bengal. After Mamata Bannerjee decimated the Congress and the Left, the BJP stepped in. Similarly in Telangana, KCR finished off the Congress and now is struggling against the BJP.  After YSR defeated the TDP in Andhra, they’re afraid the BJP will take TDP’s place. In this regard, in Tamil Nadu’s case, it would be in the DMK’s interest to help ensure the survival of the AIADMK.”

Lastly, Kalyan Arun adds that the DMK is cautious not to be seen as anti-Hindu in the fear of losing votes, despite Dravidian roots.

Caste too, not just communalism

Last year, an order from the Greater Chennai Corporation (GCC) to shut down meat shops in the city on the occasion of the Jain festival, Mahaveer Nirvan Day, drew widespread criticism because the date – November 4 – was also Deepavali. In Tamil Nadu, Deepavali breakfasts traditionally include meat. Dishes such as mutton kuzhambu and idli or dosai are staple festive dishes. The GCC order was withdrawn partially later with meat shops being closed only in Jain populated areas. This might be the most recent reminder of how meat plays an integral part in Hinduism in Tamil Nadu, as opposed to a Brahminical imagination of the state. The creation of a Hindu-Muslim binary that seeks to criminalise meat is one that is not only communal in nature, but also casteist.

Author Perumal Murugan explains how meat is a primary part of Hindu celebrations in Tamil Nadu. “Whether it is festivals or temple thiruvizhas, it ends in the keda-vettu (meat sacrifice and communal meal of the meat). For example, there is evidence that right from the Sangam era, meat sacrifices were made to the god, Murugan. Now what happens instead is that the sacrifice is not made directly in front of the Murugan idol. There will be a secondary, protective deity outside the main sanctum such as Karuppusaamy or Muniasaamy. The meat sacrifice is offered to that deity. Nearly every festival, be it Pongal or Deepavali or Aadi, also ends with a meat offering. This is true even for the first ear-piercing ceremony for children. Similarly there are many castes that serve meat at weddings and at funerals. Meat is served on the last day of the funeral rites.”

Tamil folk historian, AK Perumal, adds that meat sacrifices and serving of kari soru (meat and rice) is a common practice in the worship of folk deities. “Which is why the practice doesn't exist among Brahmin castes or for example, amongst most Vellalars (Forward Caste). Apart from them, Backward Class, Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe communities do have the practice. It’s also worth noting that the popularity and traditions associated with folk deities in Tamil Nadu have greatly dwindled in the last 50 years. There is a deity called Muthaaraman in the southern districts. When I was in my twenties, I’ve witnessed meat sacrifices at Muthaaraman temples. Today, it doesn’t take place in even a single Muthaaraman temple in Kanyakumari district.”

Advocate Rajenderan, member of the Deiva Thamizhar Peravai, an organisation that works towards spreading the use of Tamil in Hindu rituals, says that meals at Self-Respect Marriages also have a tradition of meat dishes. Very often, he adds, beef is served.

The cirminalising of meat is a dual problem of religion and caste. Beef, for example, is consumed by both Christians and Muslims. There isn’t much religious dogma of vegetarianism in either religion. It is the Brahmincal mandate against meat-eating and the delineation of those who consume meat as “lowered” or “impure” that informs an exclusionary image of vegetarian Hindus. We have to remember that Hindutva operates according both to religion and caste. Religion is used to turn Hindus against Christians and Muslims; caste is used to enforce Brahminical superiority. By communalising food to further its Islamophobic propaganda, the right-wing seems to be challenging the multi-cultural fabric of the country, painting instead a false image of a homogenous people we have never been.

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