In less than a week, the ruling party in Tamil Nadu has raked up one controversy after another, using food as a weapon of attack.
The latest issue is state higher education minister K Ponmudy’s statement that people who speak Hindi are those who sell “pani puri”.
At a convocation ceremony held at the Coimbatore-based Bharathiar University, the minister was speaking about the benefits of the National Education Policy and the DMK’s stand on a two-language approach.
Using the opportunity to target Hindi as a language, the minister quipped, “It was said that if you learn Hindi you would be able to find jobs. If that was so, who are the people selling pani puri in Coimbatore?”
The DMK was quick to defend its minister’s remark, claiming there was nothing wrong with it and adding that many Tamilians have learnt a smattering of Hindi words like “khatta, meetha, bhaiya” from these very pani puri sellers.
The statement clearly had derisive undertones, but the party countered it with statements claiming it should not be perceived as an “insult”.
“The minister was plainly stating a fact that in Tamil Nadu the Hindi-speaking people sell pani puri, which is not a native food of the state. Look at the migration data; people from north India are the ones who come towards the south for jobs,” said DMK spokesperson Advocate Saravanan Annadurai to News18.
“Selling pani puri is an honourable job just like selling tea and pakoras. We don’t hate pani puri walas. We love them and their pani puris. Rather we affectionately call them ‘bhaiya’ (brother). Let’s walk down Chennai and talk to the sellers and find out what language they speak,” challenged Annadurai.
Chennai-based political analyst Sumanth C Raman finds the statements by these politicians “theatrical”.
“It shows how low they would stoop to shift people’s attention away from pressing issues. It is exactly what the BJP does in Delhi where it is trying to rake up communal issues. The DMK here is taking up language, food, or the north-south divide. Essentially they have to create a diversion or else people will also ask about LPG subsidies, why the increase in property tax, etc. Isn’t it better to ask whether we should eat beef or not? Or is shawarma our native food? This is a carbon copy of the BJP, minus the lynching,” said Raman.
Minister Ponmudy’s statement came just days after another DMK minister, Ma. Subramanian asked people to avoid another “non-native” food item— the Lebanese dish shawarma— calling it “Western food”. Shawarma is made out of meat and flatbread and is hugely popular in India.
Subramanian was roasted on social media for claiming that shawarma was a dish that suited Western countries with cold climates.
“Shawarma was not food native to India and was best suited to be eaten in countries where the climatic temperatures go to minus degrees. If kept or sold outdoors it remains fresh without refrigeration,” the minister claimed.
This statement came after a young girl from Kerala’s Kasaragod died after consuming shawarma and 58 others became ill. Investigations by Kerala’s health department revealed that the food samples collected from the restaurant had traces of pathogenic salmonella and shigella, causing medical complications.
Amidst this, the sudden cancellation of the much-publicised Ambur Biryani Thiruvizha had added to the already simmering food politics in the state. On Thursday evening, in a sudden change of schedule, the Tirupattur district administration announced that it was postponing the three-day biryani festival, citing “a heavy rain forecast”.
For the uninitiated, the Ambur region of Tamil Nadu is famous for its flavourful biryani made with a special type of rice called Seeraga Samba— a dish that the state government was hoping to put up for a geographical indication (GI) tag.
The biryani festival, which was to be held starting Friday, was pegged as an event that would bind people together with biryani and taste. Tirupattur district collector Amar Kushwaha in a media interaction said that the event was to be documented just like the famous Spanish Tomato Festival or Rajasthan’s Pushkar festival.
The problem arose when the district administration asked the 50 odd stall owners to exclude beef and pork, a decision that raised hackles. Kushwaha defended the move, saying serving both types of meat would offend the sentiments of the Hindu and Muslim communities. Riding on the already brewing protests, ruling DMK’s ally Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK), and right-wing outfit Hindu Munnani opposed the event.
Interestingly, the biryani festival was widely publicised using images of present chief minister MK Stalin and his late father Dr M Karunanidhi.
So the question is how different would these veiled attacks be from the ones that many a south Indian detests — for instance, being called a Madrasi or an Idli-Dosa Bhai?
When food becomes a political weapon, it creates a putrid atmosphere and leaves behind a bitter taste in one’s mouth.