RSS and BJP activists in Kerala have found themselves in an awkward position.
Malappuram: On April 2, during a parliamentary by-election here, BJP candidate N. Sreepraksh announced to the press that if he won he would guarantee good, clean beef from air-conditioned slaughterhouses.
The statement triggered a brief controversy within the BJP, for deviating from its national agenda, but it soon blew over, because everyone knew that people in Kerala like their beef. Beef and porota are on the everyday menu at Kerala hotels; that too served from early in the morning.
In March of 2015, while politicians and intellectuals debated the beef ban in Maharashtra, I was at a RSS-BJP dominated village or ‘Sanga Gramam’ in north Kerala, conducting an anthropological study of village politics. Vinayapuram (the name is changed to protect my ongoing research) had often witnessed violent clashes between the Sangh and its Marxist Left rivals from nearby villages.
There is an interesting history to how Vinayapuram acquired a rightwing-Hindu character. Earlier, the village and others nearby were known for grassroots socialist politics. In the 1970s, when the Janata Party was formed by socialist leader J.P. Narayan (uniting with the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, the-then political wing of RSS, plus the Congress (O) and Bharatiya Lok Dal) it became dominant in Vinayapuram. When the Janata Party broke up, the majority of socialists in the village turned to the newly-formed BJP, and to active local involvement in the RSS.
The dominant caste in the village are the Thiyya, who grew more saffronised in rituals and expressive culture, but not in their food. Thiyyas were traditionally toddy-tappers and labourers, once treated as untouchables. They and their deities still eat meat and dried fish, and drink toddy and liquor, unlike the Gods of the upper castes.
L.K. Anantha Krishna Iyer, a Raj-era anthropologist in Kerala, observed that Thiyyas were Buddhists in the time before the arrival of Brahmins. Later they were incorporated into the caste system as untouchables. In north Kerala, Thiyyas had generally leaned towards Marxism, right from the formation of the Communist Party in Kerala. Right-wing Hindu politics reached Kerala around the same time, in the early 1940s, but villages like Vinayapuram, where right-wing Hindu ideology achieved dominance, were an exception.
When I began my fieldwork, I often saw people eating porata and beef, and I often had opportunities to eat beef with RSS activists – upper-caste Nairs, as well as Thiyyas – in and around the village. It was apparent to me that most residents preferred beef when eating outside the house. Beef was even listed on the menu of a few hotels in town run by RSS members. As the news spread of the beef ban in Maharashtra, the area CPI(M) and its youth organisation seized it as an issue, organising state-wide beef festivals to campaign against the BJP and RSS. In Vinayauram, it was awkward: everybody wanted to avoid reading or hearing any news about beef. They all had eaten a lot in their past.
I remember going with Bijesh (name changed), an active worker of RSS and my key informant, to a hotel to have brunch. We had eaten beef a few times together. This time when we sat, I sensed a little discomfort. He looked around the hotel and gave an order for of fish and porota for both of us; he didn’t even ask what I would prefer. The hotel was run by an active BJP worker, too: I had met him at a Gurupooja function in the village, one of the prominent ritualistic events of RSS holds every year, in which workers and loyalists pay their annual donation to the organisation alongside the puja.
Bijesh looked disappointed as we ate our porata and fish curry in the hotel. But he kept his cool. While paying the bill, he spoke to the man who runs the hotel. ‘Why you still preparing beef here?’ he asked. ‘We all are talking against it, and you are supplying it, that too in our village. What other people will think if they saw it.’
The man smiled and replied, ‘Why should I stop serving because it is banned in Maharashtra? People come here only for beef. Rather than stop serving it, it would be better to close the hotel.’
We had just left when we both heard a person sitting inside ordering in a loud voice: Chetta, randu poratta oru beef fry – Chetta, two porata and one plate beef fry!
Nisar K is a doctoral researcher in anthropology at Pondicherry University. His research is titled The Everyday life of Democracy and Marxism: An ethnographic study on CPI(M) in Kerala.