Ujjwal Nikam and the Biryani Controversy

Published: March 23, 2015 12:38 IST

(Aunindyo Chakravarty is senior managing editor, NDTV India and NDTV Profit)

When my daughter was about two years old, she started to get a sense of the locality where we stay. She could name it and distinguish it from other places in the city. Yet, it was almost impossible to explain to her that all of these residential enclaves were part of a city called Delhi, or that Delhi and Kolkata were both part of a country called India.

It was only when she went to school and learnt to look at maps that she could grasp the concept of the nation. That is, more or less, how most of us learnt our nationalism - from maps printed in NCERT textbooks. Gradually, we learnt to recognise other symbols of the nation - the flag, coins, and other things taught in our civics classes.

Our nationalism was informed and constituted by these material symbols, and later, by the history we were taught in our schools. We all bought badly-printed charts from our local stationery shop which catalogued our monuments, the cultures of our states, our religions and our national leaders. Each of these were represented by -  and in -  a typical figure;  so much so, if we close our eyes today, we can still see those hand-drawn prints of the Bengali and Tamil man, of Gokhale and Tilak, of Akbar and Shivaji, of Jantar Mantar and the Sanchi Stupa.

As we grew older, there were other less obvious practices and rituals through which we lived our national culture. These ranged from cricket matches to classical music. Each of these material symbols, rituals and practices combined in complex ways to make up our sense of being Indian - our nationalism.

Our nationalism - like all nationalisms -- is also constructed through a negative list of symbols and practices that defines what it is not. The boundaries on a map are the most visible examples. We have all learnt to reproduce it in our mind's eye and can instinctively recognise errors, especially when it comes to those protrusions in the North West which depict the 'correct' boundaries of Kashmir.

Our sense of India is also constructed through its difference from other alien cultures. These cultures are present in our mind only as their representations - as symbols and signs. Names of languages, scripts, flags, attire, coins, cricket teams, food, are all different kinds of symbols and signs that define the self and the other.

When Ujwal Nikam used the symbol of Biryani in the context of Kasab, he was - knowingly or unknowingly - doing exactly that. He was creating a symbol or shorthand for a Pakistani man who was demanding his 'national' dish. It is the same symbol of the biryani that was used to again denote Pakistanis when a DIG of the Coast Guard, BK Loshali, said he wanted a Pakistani boat to be blown up because "we don't want to serve them Biryani." This is why the VHP said about Ved Pratap Vaidik's meeting with Hafiz Saeed that "having Biryani with Saeed is not Patriotism."

It is a deliberate identification of Biryani with Pakistan and terrorism. But the target is neither Pakistan, nor terrorism. The real target is at home, the so-called eaters of Biryani - the Indian Muslim. It is, in effect, an identification of food habits with terror and an attempt to say that those who eat Biryani are traitors.  

All those arguing that Nikam did the right thing by fabricating the Biryani story are, willingly or unwillingly, reproducing this image.

We need to guard against these images, because if we let them define our public discourse they might soon start defining our nationalism.  

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