Connoisseurs of non-vegetarian food would swear by the lingering taste of Tamil Nadu’s Ambur biryani filled with succulent pieces of meat that supposedly melts in the mouth. It is distinct and popular, just as Hyderabadi biryani is in the culinary world.
Naturally, when the Tirupattur district administration recently announced a three-day Ambur Biryani Thiruvizha (festival), the foodies were excited. So were the restaurateurs, keen on getting the Geographical Indication tag for the spicy dish.
Amidst the excitement a controversy erupted when Tirupattur Collector Amar Kushwaha mandated only chicken, mutton, fish and prawn biryani be served at the stalls and “banned” beef and pork. Stating he is personally not against any meat, Mr. Kushwaha contended he did not want to hurt Hindu or Muslim sentiments, as one group had represented in favour of pork biryani and another wanted beef.
Beef is on the menu in many restaurants in Ambur. While over 97% of Tamil Nadu’s population consumes non-vegetarian food, beef remains a delicacy for a section of the population. As per the Household Consumption Expenditure Survey of the NSSO [three rounds spanning a decade until 2011-12], beef-consumers stood at 31.4 lakh, i.e over 5% of the State’s population. Oxtail soup and beef pakoda are patronised in street-side stalls.
Alongside the emergence of cow vigilantism in India, the Dravidian State has witnessed incidents of “othering” beef. In 2015, the AIADMK government banned a beef banquet and a voluntary ‘thali (mangalsutra) removal’ event in Chennai organised by the Dravidar Kazhagam. It even moved the Madras High Court on a holiday to get a single judge’s stay order on the ban reversed hours before the event.
The Tirupattur Collector’s ban on the poor man’s meat at a government festival irked even the allies of the ruling DMK. Vanni Arasu of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi, which predominantly represents the cause of the Scheduled Castes, argued that excluding the food of a particular community goes against Chief Minister M.K. Stalin’s ‘Dravidian Model’ of governance.
Incidentally, five years ago against the backdrop of an attack on a Ph.D. scholar at IIT-Madras for partaking beef and the Centre’s restrictions on cattle trade, Mr. Stalin had said the government could not deny the fundamental rights of people over choice of food. He rhetorically posed: “Are we supposed to eat only what [Prime Minister] Modi likes?”
The then State BJP president Tamilisai Soundararajan — now Telangana Governor — had challenged Mr. Stalin to consume beef, adding, “We will see what happens in Tamil Nadu.” Since the majority population does not consume beef, she was suggesting there could be electoral consequences for the DMK. The BJP, in its 2021 election manifesto, promised a ban on cow slaughter unaware that slaughtering cows is illegal in Tamil Nadu since 1976.
While the Chief Minister did not react to the latest controversy, the Collector at the eleventh hour put off the biryani festival citing forecast of rains. It is anybody’s guess if rains indeed diluted the flavour of what would have been a spicy affair.
The controversy remains alive. The Tamil Nadu State Commission for the SC/STs has asked Mr. Kushwaha to explain why his decision to “specifically” exclude beef biryani, “shall not be taken as a discrimination on a communal basis, and initiate action for such an official discrimination”. The Commission took up the matter for enquiry [deeming it] “as a practice of untouchability in the form of discrimination against SC/ST and the Muslim population”.
Mr. Kushwaha had told The Hindu since the event has been put off, the notice “is null and void”. It is doubtful if the Commission would endorse his interpretation. Meanwhile, it remains to be seen whether the Ambur Biryani Festival would be held on a later date as assured by officials. If so, would Mr. Stalin ensure there is no restriction on the choice of food?