Article 29 of the Indian Constitution which deals with the ‘protection of interests of minorities’, says ‘any section of the citizens residing in the territory of India or any part thereof having a distinct language, script or culture of its own shall have the right to conserve the same’. The constitutional clause conveys a nuanced understanding of minorities as groups that may be recognised by their distinct language and culture, which could include food habits and social customs.
War over food has been fairly common in Indian cities where people of different communities are crammed together in very close quarters. Anthropologist Dolly Kikon has written eloquently about the perils of cooking akhuni, fermented soya bean used in Naga chutneys and curries, in Delhi’s sunless apartments.
Naga customs and social structures are threaded into the process of making akhuni, the ways in which it is consumed. The fermented food, which is entwined with both personal and collective histories in Nagaland, has a strong, distinctive aroma. Kikon describes how the smell of akhuni is addictive for some and repugnant to others, how personal taste can often become a marker of cultural difference. When Nagas travelled to Delhi, they were either forbidden from cooking their native food or reviled as the people who cooked food that smelt like ‘shit’. And akhuni became associated with daily discriminations faced by Northeastern people in Delhi.
In Mumbai, restrictions on non-vegetarian food in housing societies often became a means to either impose a culinary regime or keep certain kinds of people out. So, in the post Dadri scenario, it is further more damning to note that Maharashtra government in its recent affidavit supporting beef ban has argued that ‘The concept of culture is far above issues like what one eats.’
In the debate over intolerance that ensued, beef stood in for the practices and beliefs of a minority, which made it the target of attacks from the majority. What you were became very much about what you ate. That the government of a diverse and populous state should choose to gloss over this grim reality is deeply troubling.