There was feasting at an election rally held by the Naga People’s Front in Manipur earlier this year. After the speeches, the crowds trooped to a field where food was being ladled out from steaming cauldrons. On the menu was a pork stew, some greens and chunks of beef in a peppery gravy.

The Bharatiya Janata Party won the elections that followed, and the Naga party is now an ally in the Manipur government, with legislators in the state cabinet. Beef – the eating of it, the cooking of it, the killing of cows to cook and eat it – was not a bone of contention.

And now BJP leaders from Meghalaya, Nagaland and Mizoram have said that Uttar Pradesh-style beef politics would not come to the North East. All three Christian-majority states are bound for elections in 2018. There would be no bans on beef, slaughterhouses or cow slaughter if the BJP came to power, they assured voters. They also said that the central leadership was aware of cultural differences in the region.

Minority as majority

In the Hindi heartland, the BJP has given free rein to the fantasies of Hindutva, with its beef banditry and its anti-Romeo squads, aimed at preserving a fetishised cultural purity. But as the saffron party advances farther East, it becomes a different beast, faced with cultural realities that are new to it.

The states of the North East have large tribal and Christian populations, people whose food habits are vastly different from those in the Indian mainland. Cow slaughter is not banned in Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, Meghalaya, Nagaland and Tripura. In Manipur, the maharaja proscribed it in 1939 but beef is still consumed in large quantities. In Assam, only cattle with “fit for slaughter” certificates may be felled.

According to a study published in 2015, the “proportion of meat out of total food expenditure is almost two to three times more than the national average”. Beef and pork, being cheaper meats, are in higher demand than chicken or mutton. Meat and fish can be dried, cured or fermented. In places like Nagaland, it is often cooked with akhuni, a kind of fermented soya bean.

Social anthropologist Dolly Kikon has written of how this difference in food habits turned into a source of discrimination against Nagas, who became cultural minorities when they moved to other parts of the country. Their food was too smelly, they ate strange meats, they did not stick to the standards of hygiene expected of Indian kitchens – these were the insults that emanated from the dominant upper-caste Hindu culture of the mainland.

But in the North East, the minority is the majority, and the region’s politics is driven by competing ethnic nationalisms rather than caste or communal fissures. The major identity conflict here is the fight to settle who is indigenous and who the immigrant settler. What happens to the saffron party here?

In some places, the dominant notes of Hindutva have been muted. In others, they have mutated into local cultural chauvinisms.

Limited use doctrine

Apart from Arunachal Pradesh, where the BJP came to power after mass defections from other parties, the saffron party has formed the government in two North Eastern states over the last year: Assam and Manipur.

In Assam, the BJP followed what is best described as a limited use doctrine on Hindutva and beef politics. This was the state that saw massive ethnic mobilisations in the 1980s, which soon turned violent. Assamese nationalism was directed at so-called foreigners, mainly Bangladeshis, who were believed to have settled in the state illegally, who were deemed to have “infiltrated” voter rolls, and enjoyed the rights of citizenship.

The main fault line here was between Ahomiyas – Assamese-speaking Hindus – and Bengalis, both Hindu and Muslim. But with the rise of Hindutva groups, this conflict has been communalised, and the spectre of the illegal Bangladeshi immigrant became Muslim. These rifts are sharper in places with high Muslim populations and recent memories of migration – the border districts of Lower Assam and the Barak Valley, for instance, where Hindu and Muslim communities jostle for space in densely-populated lands.

Reports in the run up to the Assembly elections of 2016 found low key communal incidents in places along the two highways running through the heart of Assam. The trend seems to have started in 2013 and the incidents followed a pattern. Beef was left in temples along the highway and the outrage that followed was usually steered by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and other Hindutva groups. Many of these areas were constituencies where the BJP fought the 2016 Assembly elections on its own and won.

But there are parts of the state that heartland Hindutva cannot penetrate – the Bodo and other tribal areas, which had birthed their own ethnic nationalisms in the 20th century, as well as the the lands inhabited by tea tribes, a population of workers mainly from the Chhota Nagpur Plateau shipped in by the British at the beginning of the 19th century to pick tea on plantations in Assam.

As it forged alliances with local parties and groups here, the BJP called itself a coalition of the indigenous peoples of Assam. Yet in Guwahati, Prime Minister Narendra Modi began his campaign speeches with invocations to the goddess Kamakhya. Indigenous and non-Muslim, ran the subtext, but meat was not discussed.

Neither did it come up in Manipur, though the beef agitations of 2015, which gathered force after Mohammad Akhlaq was lynched in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh, had touched the state briefly. In November that year, a madrassa school teacher in Keirao village was lynched to death for allegedly stealing a cow.

Mohammad Akhlaq was lynched in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh, after rumours that he had stored beef in his fridge. (Photo credit: AFP).
Mohammad Akhlaq was lynched in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh, after rumours that he had stored beef in his fridge. (Photo credit: AFP).

According to reports, the Sangh’s presence has grown in the Hindu-majority Imphal Valley, and the BJP’s state chief started his political career as a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. But the saffron party refrained from Hindutva mobilisations of the kind seen in the heartland. According to local observers, a cultural revival of sorts has brought the valley closer to its indigenous, pre-Hindu roots, and such mobilisations would not cut any ice.

Besides, the BJP was striking a delicate balance between the Meitei-majority valley and the Naga-dominated hills. Here, the saffron party absorbed several tribal, Christian candidates into its fold and navigated an alliance with the Naga People’s Front. In these Christian majority areas, the BJP had to allay fears that it was a communal party that could threaten indigenous cultural practices.

For the majority

This graceful balancing act may have little to do with political maturity. As commentators have pointed out, the BJP remains the party of majoritarian consensus, even that of local majorities.

In 2015, Kiren Rijiju, a prominent BJP face from Arunachal Pradesh and Union minister of state for home affairs, had said, “I eat beef, I’m from Arunachal Pradesh. Can somebody stop me? So let us not be touchy about somebody’s practices.” He later amended this statement to say he never ate beef. He only supported the consumption of beef in states where it was the dominant practice – in Hindu-majority states, proscriptions on beef should be respected.

Yet as the BJP spread across the map, beyond its traditional bastions, the party has had to improvise. In Kerala, in the run up to the 2016 elections, state leaders of the saffron party had said it did not support a ban on beef. In Goa, the saffron party said it respected the community’s choice to consume the meat, though beef supplies from neighbouring Maharashtra and Karnataka have been squeezed in the past.

These regional majoritarianisms, constantly buffeted against Hindutva, could potentially reshape the saffron party. But it remains to be seen which kind of majoritarianism wears the other down.