Kshirin Rao Eshwara
10 min readJul 16, 2021


Culture, Religion and the Politics of Food

Food in India has frequently been embroiled in political conflict.

The Revolt of 1857 was in part a response to a rumour that the rifle cartridges Indian sepoys would tear with their mouths were laced with pig and cow fat. Alternatively, food has also functioned as a language of protest. Several leaders — Anna Hazare, Irom Sharmila, and Potti Sriramulu come to mind — have famously abstained from eating to pressure governments and achieve political gains.

There is no greater champion of the political fast than Gandhi, who infamously embarked on a hunger strike to coerce an end to the communal riots that wrought Calcutta in the weeks following the Partition. He began this endeavour at quarter-past eight on the night of September 1, 1947. He broke it almost exactly three days later to the hour, with a glass of sweet lime juice served to him by Mr. Suhrawardy, the then-leader of the Bengal Provincial Muslim League. He recognised the innate political power not only in the act of eating or not eating, but in food itself — and the making salt in the Dandi March is emblematic of this idea.

Food, religion, and the “divine” act of eating
A consequential reason why food has aggressively been politicised is its proximity to a number of religious customs that have over time come to form the very fabric of local Indian cultures.

The very act of eating, in fact, has been described as an intensely sacred and intimate experience — a divine act in itself. An important component of visiting temples is prasada, consecrated vegetarian food substance which is first offered to the deities of the temple, and then, once it is ‘blessed’, distributed among devotees. The word itself can be loosely translated to mean ‘the grace of God’. Upon returning home, devotees distribute these temple offerings among loved ones. The experience of eating prasada has been described as such:

“The consuming of Prasad is the most exalted divine intimacy, an intensely personal experience, the saliva of the deity and devotee being mixed through the sharing of food. At this spiritual level, the food, the deity, and the devotee become coextensive… You are what you eat, and you eat what you are.”

And this sentiment of food containing some form of the divine finds echoes in the Christian rite of receiving Communion.

A typical thaal in the Bohra community. Source: outlookindia.com

One observes sectarian influence on food not only in explicitly religious scenarios, but also in everyday, cultural ones. One such corpus of rituals comes from the Bohra community. At any meal, the family gathers around a large, circular plate called the thaal, which the members share and eat from together. Repasts begin and end with a tasting of salt, a practice which the community believes cleanses the palette and can prevent over 72 illnesses. Men cover their heads with topis, and women with the veils that are attached to their ridas. The meal surprisingly begins with mithaas (dessert), which can vary from the traditional sodannu (a small serving of rice prepared with ghee and sugar) and local sweetmeats to the more modern ice-cream. And a guiding principle driving the custom is to not waste or leave behind a single grain of rice.

Practices, such as this, that have now gained cultural status have deeply religious foundations. It is common to find markets advertising halal meat and brands of Iyengar-Brahmin sambar powder. Restaurant fronts are sometimes seen sporting “no onion, no garlic” signs. And it is norm on birthdays, festivals, and other auspicious occasions to share sweets with neighbours, break bread with family, and give alms to those who need it.

This truth — that one’s diet and palette, as well as their perceptions of others’ diets and palettes, have historically been shaped by caste and religion — is an unacknowledged one. It is an especially precarious idea, when one considers that food is starting to be seen as a means through which distinct ethnic and national identities are formed.

Food as a proxy for political conflict

Yogi Adityanath accusing Kejriwal of having a “partnership” with Pakistan in the wake of the Shaheen Bagh protests. Source: deccanherald.com

On 1 February 2020, amid fervent CAA protests, a Hindu fundamentalist opened fire near Shaheen Bagh and cried, ‘Sirf Hinduo ki chalegi’. On the same day, Yogi Adityanath accused Kejriwal of “supplying biryani” to people whom he variously called either protestors or terrorists. He promised instead to feed them bullets. This is not a one-off incident. By listing ‘vegetarians only’ in their advertisements, landlords hope to ward off prospective Muslim, Christian, and non-Brahmin Hindu tenants. Words like ‘biryani’, ‘beef’, and ‘meat-eater’ have become common dog whistles in the hands of Hindutva politicians, signalling ‘anti-Brahmin’, ‘impure’, or ‘other’.

The consequences of ‘biryani politics’ are twofold. First, by emphasising its foreign roots, and by invoking a vague, misconstrued idea of Mughal conquest, it distances the Hindu Indian from their Muslim counterpart. It locates the Muslim in a territory away from the subcontinent.

Misplaced nostalgia
At an individual level, food can invoke any number of visceral, personal ‘madeleine moments’ for the eater. At a societal level, it can tether the eater to social, cultural, and religious practices surrounding eating that they share with their community.

And, as a result, food becomes inherently nostalgic.

This nostalgia, however, is sometimes misplaced. This is especially true in the Indian context, wherein cultural diffusion is rampant, rendering it unfeasible to trace the origins or gauge the “authenticity” of many of our foods. Moreover, cultural diffusion also promises that (what was at the time considered) Indian and foreign cuisines would interact with each other, and eventually become inextricably fused.

For instance, an import with a familiar-sounding name, the sambusak, was a triangular pastry stuffed with either heavily seasoned meat, halwa, or sugar and almonds. The classic potatoes and peas samosa, many historians have argued, is a modern interpretation of an originally Turkic preparation. Or, consider the Persian pilaf, a subtly-spiced rice preparation introduced to the subcontinent by the royal kitchens of the Mughal Empire. Indian cooks were quick to infuse it with local spices, and countless regional variations sprouted — the saffron-infused Hyderabadi, the mutton-based Awadhi, and the potato and egg preparation from Kolkata, to cite a few.

What is peddled as a symbol of cultural dissimilarity or foreignness is, in truth, an example of cultural integration.

The myth of vegetarianism
The second consequence of biryani politics is the disdain for meat-eating that is implicit in it. It vilifies the omnivorous diet, which is prominent not only among Muslims but also a plethora of caste-based communities.

Ancient India was not as strictly vegetarian as modern Indians believe it to be. The Vedas describe over two hundred animals, of which fifty they deem appropriate to sacrifice (and, by extension, for eating). A startling section of the Sutrasthana — the foundational text of the Ayurveda — lists the advantages of eating the meat of a variety of creatures including, peacock (for vision, hearing, and intellect), and swan (for the voice, complexion and strength). Buddhist bhikkhus were also permitted to consume meat as alms, as long as the animal was not slaughtered in front of them.

With the advent of the principles of ahimsa propagated by Buddhist and Jain sects, as well as stricter enforcement of Brahmanical thought, vegetarianism appeared to gain traction. Such diets were deemed sattvic — pure, clean, honest, and wise. Contrastingly, omnivorous diets came to be characterised as tamasic — ignorant, unnatural, unclean, and leading to a less refined state of consciousness.

The diverse cuisine of the Dalit community
According to historian Romila Thapar, meat-eating in India was and continues to be “a matter of status.” The higher the caste, the greater the food restrictions. The inverse also holds.

The cuisine of the Dalit community is the intersection between necessity, survival, resourcefulness, and an ingenuity required to extract the maximum from minimal foodstuffs. It is less concerned with dietary restrictions, as it cannot afford to do so. “Food practices were never made out of choice, but of a lack of options,” says Deepa Balkisan Tak, professor at the University of Pune, and co-author of Isn’t This Plate Indian? Dalit Histories And Memories Of Food. In an interview with LiveMint, Kanta Prasad, a Dalit man from Azamgarh, recalls vividly how as a child he would run to sites of animal slaughter. Equipped with large, wide-mouthed containers, he and his neighbours would hope to collect the parts of the animal that upper-castes would not touch — blood, intestine, and offal.

A preparation of chaprah. Source: cntraveller.in

From this community were born a number of delicacies. Rakti, made of coagulated animal blood, is prepared simply with onions and oil, and seasoned with salt and chili powder. Wajadi, a dish centred on the skin of animal intestine, is seasoned similarly. Spice and oil are sparingly used, as Dalits often are unable to afford or access them. Gradually, innovative methods of food preservation allowed for the creation of chanya (sun-dried beef) and chunchuni (sun-dried pig-skin). Red ants and their eggs are crushed to a paste and variously combined with tomato, garlic, onion, coriander, salt and heaps of chili powder, to create the pungent and slightly acidic chaprah. It came to be known was ‘red-ant chutney’ when it entered the mainstream — it was featured in the 2017 movie Newton, as well as in an episode of celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay’s show Gordon’s Great Escape.

The social hierarchy of food
The rich tapestry of Dalit fare grew at the cost of their position in social hierarchy.

Ambedkar famously split this hierarchy into three broad categories — those who don’t eat meat (at the top), those who eat meat (in the middle), and those who eat beef (at the very bottom).

In fact, as sociologist M. N. Srinivas points out, people of lower caste would historically renounce beef if they wished to move up the social ladder — a process known as ‘sanskritization’. Social mobility is an implausible notion for Dalits. Moreover, as is evident, the meat of the pig and, especially, the cow are important sources of protein for them.

While the majority of beef eating occurs in Muslim and Christian communities, the next highest consumption comes from the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes population. Among Hindus, according to the National Sample Survey Office, over 70 percent of people who eat beef belong to the SC/ST community, and 21 percent to other backward castes.

“When it sated my hunger, beef became your goddess”
The very idea of a “beef ban”, while certainly injurious to Muslims and Christians, is absolutely detrimental to the very survival of lower-caste and Dalit communities, for whom there often is no affordable alternative source of food.

The plight of this community is best expressed in a Telugu poem, Goddu Mamsam (litr. ‘Cow Meat’), composed by poet Digumarthi Suresh Kumar.

When its udders were squeezed and milked

You didn’t feel any pain at all

When it was stitched into a chappal you stamped underfoot and walked

You didn’t feel hurt at all

When it rang as a drum at your marriage and your funeral

You didn’t suffer any blows

When it sated my hunger, beef became your goddess?

By othering entire communities based on their diets — which themselves are a matter of compulsion, and not choice — those in power transform food into a shorthand signifying ideas of purity and disgust. “It is not the food that is different,” says Rajyashri Goody, a visual artist of Dalit origin. “It is the emotions that are associated with food that upper-castes will never be able to understand.”

The myth of India’s sattvic vegetarianism is a function of the fact that the powerful — in terms of religion, caste, as well as political affiliation — get to propagate it. Their food becomes the food of the people.

Consequently, some observe that meat-eating in itself, by its subversive and subaltern nature, is an act of social and political protest.

Lal Bhaaji, and protesting through food
Among a number of other piercing art-installations she has created, Rajyashri Goody’s ceramic piece Lal Bhaaji stands out. Though the title conventionally means ‘red vegetable’, it is used as code for ‘beef’ among some Dalit communities. Goody reminds the reader that this shame of enjoying beef was prevalent long before the institution of the beef-ban. Her family has abandoned all ties with their Dalit past (she was born into a half-Dalit, half-white family), and converted to vegetarianism, distancing themselves from the very utterance of the word ‘beef’.

The red paper is made of pulped pages from the Manusmriti. Source: rajyashrigoody.com
Fragments of ceramic simulating pieces of beef. Source: rajyashrigoody.com
The complete Lal Bhaaji installation. Source: rajyashrigoody.com

Lal Bhaaji uniquely captures the cloak-and-dagger nature of beef consumption in India, as well as the perception of Dalit foods from the vantage point of vegetarianism. However, she goes one step further. For the backdrop of the piece, she uses pulped and “bloodied” pages of the Manusmriti, an ancient Hindu legal text that, among other things, provides a seminal account of the varna system. She weaponises not only the art-piece, but also the very act of beef-eating. She says that by using the Manusmriti as an “active ingredient” of the laal bhaaji, she hopes to create new memories associated with eating beef.

“Those not of shame,” she writes, “But of bravery, not of helplessness, but of resistance in the face of Manu’s laws and the wretched caste system.”



Kshirin Rao Eshwara

A student pursuing Political Science and English at Ashoka University. Inspired by multicultural, politically-charged, and uniquely human stories.