| The street food festival organised by DYFI with several varieties of meat Photo Twitterdyfikerala | MR Online The street food festival organised by DYFI, with several varieties of meat. (Photo: Twitter/@dyfikerala_)

In Kerala, a street food festival takes on communal forces

Originally published: The Wire on November 2021 by Rajeev Ramachandran (more by The Wire)  | (Posted Dec 01, 2021)

Kozhikode: On November 25, a street food festival was organised by the Democratic Youth Federation of India, the youth wing of Kerala’s ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist).

The DYFI conducted a free buffet on the streets of all district headquarters across Kerala serving all sorts of food that Malayalis enjoy, including beef, mutton, chicken and pork. At some centres, ‘halal’ boards were promptly displayed.

What triggered this festival was a vitriolic hate campaign which started on Malayalam social media and spread across cyberspace thanks to the efforts of the Bharatiya Janata Party, focusing uniquely on ‘halal’ and the food habits of Muslims in the country and particularly in Kerala.

The matter started with a video of Fazla Koyamma Thangal, the Khazi of Ullal, blowing air over the ghee rice and meat curry to be served to people who had come to attend the death anniversary of his father. The blowing of air was part of rituals done after reciting Koran verses.

It was first atheist social media groups that began to ‘debunk ’ the belief and practice of the ‘irrational and unscientific’ ritual.

Then, Hindu and Christian right-wing participants took up the case of the video in no time, claiming without any basis, that the Muslim cleric was spitting on the food to make it halal.

BJP state president K. Surendran even went on to say that this is part of a “larger conspiracy.” He told the media that that the emergence of halal boards was not guileless and that there was a definite agenda behind the creation of “halal culture” in the state.

This rhetoric had already been gaining momentum on the rightwing controlled Malayalam cyberspace, with some entrepreneurs even starting non-halal eateries.

It was against this that DYFI protested.

“Our protest was against the Sangh Parivar’s agenda of mixing communalism with food and denying the constitutional right of autonomy to choose food of one’s choice,” said A A. Rahim the state secretary of the DYFI.

“We have a unique tradition of secular and plural society here in Kerala. The RSS and its family organisations are deliberately and calculatedly trying to damage the very fabric of communal harmony in the state. The halal controversy if a part of it and DYFI would not allow them to succeed,” he added.

For the last three weeks, BJP-led right wing organisations along with some lesser known purportedly Christian organisations have been trying to push an aggressive anti-halal message on and off social media.

Many Christian youth groups, who appear to be newfound friends of the saffron rightwing in Kerala have been posting lists of non-halal restaurants on social media, claiming they serve food “without spit and mucus,” implying that edibles are made halal by spitting into them.

BJP leaders then went a step further, demanding a complete ban of halal-certified food, even though they had nothing but a misinterpreted video to support their claim.

“The halal practice is as evil as the triple talaq and it should be banned,” said P. Sudheer, the state general secretary of the party.

This triggered a counter campaign by a section of Islamist organisations who urged the people to keep away from the restaurants that did not display a halal board.

When the DYFI announced the food programme to protest against the Sangh Parivar, its leaders were quick to challenge the young Marxists, daring them to serve pork too in their street buffet party. This was accepted.

The DYFI’s decision to serve pork courted further controversy as it did not go well with many Islamic organisations and a section of the civil society, which felt that the leftist youth organisation was falling into a trap set by the Sangh Parivar.

When the images of the street food protest first came online, rightwing trolls, including leaders of BJP and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad were among those who came out to congratulate the DYFI for boldly challenging the ‘radical Islamist’ even though the DYFI had made it clear in their campaign material that the protest was against the Sangh Parivar.

“In the context of the halal controversy, the serving of pork was unnecessary, as nobody was against consumption of pork in the state. On the other hand, it turned out to be helpful for the Sangh Parivar to further their hate campaign against the minority community,” observed Bashir Vallikkunnu, a social commentator.

But DYFI is unflapped.

The street food festival at Kozhikode had a visible halal board and at those in Ernakulam and Thiruvananthapuram, pork was served. ‘We stand for the freedom to eat food of once choice and we know the Sangha Parivar against it. This controversy over the pork dish served in the DYFI programme was created by the Sangh Parivar and aims at nothing but to push the agenda of disrupting communal harmony. The media should not fall for it,” the DYFI secretary said.

“We served pork in Ernakulam because it was one of the main dishes among people of that area and we served beef across the state. We believe in this diversity and nobody can challenge our commitment to the secular society,” said Shanil S., a DYFI worker who was an active participant of the campaign.

DYFI’s “beef festival” in protest against the ban of sale of cattle for slaughter, a couple of years ago, had also met with the same criticism from Sangh Parivar sympathisers across the country.

‘The DYFI did something quite right in response to the hate campaign by organising a ‘food street’ against the vicious polarising heralded by the state BJP president,” said N.P. Ashley, a social commentator and a teacher at Delhi University.

“I am glad it didn’t get reduced to just answering one kind of majoritarianism but ended up pointing to the need to question all kinds of majoritarianism by showcasing the salad bowl of cultural differences,” Ashley wrote on social media.

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