Brains made of Beef

In Kayamkulam and Haripad, tension is brewing between the RSS and CPI(M) over the preposterous theory that someone is planning to steal bulls from the Oachira temple. The bulls are supposed to be the direct descendants of Nandi

Nikhil Thiyyar Kayamkulam

When the rains come to Kayamkulam it is a sight to behold. The light blue sky turns monochromatic. The air is no longer humid and a slight breeze carrying the earthy smell of rice fields that dot the landscape of this ancient trade centre begins to waft through the air. During the rains, the abundant vegetation here takes on a shade of electric green that you have never seen before. It was on such a rainy day in April that a buffalo was kidnapped from a rice field in Puthupally. Four men came in a tempo and tied the animal to the vehicle. Then they started driving away. For the first time in their lives, the residents of Puthupally were witness to the strange but wondrous sight of a buffalo running full speed while tied to a tempo. No one knows what happened to the buffalo but everyone knows the bizarre rumours that started floating once the animal went missing. Like all rumours that mutate into something else when they spread from one person to the other, the buffalo soon became a cow and finally, on Whatsapp groups across the town, it was alleged that the cow’s meat was being sold in Muslim restaurants in Oachira.

Oachira is a bustling town a few kilometres from Kayamkulam and is most famous for the Oachira temple. The temple is one of the few temples across the length and breadth of India that is dedicated to Lord Brahma. The temple’s main attraction is a large number of bulls whose foreheads devotees touch and seek blessings from. Right in front of the temple is located the Oachira masjid. For decades this proximity has not mattered as Kerala has a long history of religious syncretism and harmony. On April 29, however, a bunch of RSS sympathisers and CPI(M) activists clashed furiously over the alleged kidnapping of the ‘cow’ in Kayamkulam. According to the RSS sympathisers, the CPI(M) activists were planning to kidnap more cows and also the bulls in the Oachira temple. Legend has it that the bulls in the temple are super fertile and the direct descendants of Nandi. If the conspiracy theory of the RSS sympathisers is true then the CPI(M) activists intended to start a beef farm in some unknown location and inseminate the kidnapped cows with the semen of the potent bulls from the temple. It is another matter altogether that no cow was kidnapped in the first place, it was actually a buffalo. In the end, a snowballing conspiracy theory led to two RSS sympathisers and one CPI(M) activist being hospitalised with broken bones and a lacerated spleen.

Vasanthakumar Menon is one of the many police officials who look after the law and order situation in Oachira. Sulking and resigned because he was posted away from home when we first met him, Menon was biding his time by buying lottery tickets until he was posted back to his hometown of Idukki. Posted in the police station near the KSRTC bus stand, Menon is reluctant to talk about the incident of April 29. When asked directly about it, he replied, “It is a very hot day, saar, and I have a lot of work to do, a woman reported a chain snatching incident this morning. Please don’t ask such questions, you won’t be here for long, anyway.” After half an hour of conversing with him in a damp, dungeon-like room splotched maroon with spittle, he relented and said, “I don’t understand what is happening between the Marxists and the saffron sympathisers, all I know is that I took the posting of Oachira because it was supposed to be a peaceful place. For a time it was. Oachira is not Kannur. We never had any of that craziness.”

What Menon is referring to is the political violence that has continually rocked Kannur over the past decade. According to the District Crime Records Bureau (DCRB) in Kannur, 70 political murders were reported in the district between 1999 and 2015. Among the victims, 35 were from the CPI(M), 29 from the BJP, four from the IUML, and two from the NDF. The violence in Kannur, Palakkad and Kozhikode was something that most residents of southern Kerala dismissed as an aberration. A spiral of violence that would remain confined to the bloodthirsty northern districts. That, however, is beginning to change because of a number of factors.

The foremost amongst these is the dedicated push of the RSS to capture political turf belonging to the CPI(M) and the Congress. In its zeal, the RSS has set up close to 4,500 shakhas in Kerala, the highest number in any state. This has led to significant conflict between the CPI(M) and the RSS. Novelist Paul Zacharia captured this conflict best when he wrote,”The left rules this area like the Gulag [cruel labour camps in 1930-50 run by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin] and the RSS is no less dogmatic, bloody and narrow-minded, so violence is inevitable.” This incursion has led to an eye-for-an-eye turf war that has spread like gangrene across the state’s relatively more peaceful districts. The crime statistics show that there is no difference between Kannur and Kollam in terms of political murders. It has evenly spread to all of Kerala, and the murder rates in Kottayam and Pathanamthitta are higher than in Kannur.

What Menon is referring to is probably the wishful fantasy of another southerner. Political violence is now everywhere in Kerala. Nidhin Kuttan, the local swayamsevak at the Govind Muttom shakha, agrees. We are sipping tea at a stall enveloped in suspended bananas when he says, “All the commies want to do is eat beef, drink country liquor and then pass out on the roadside. I mean, why can’t they just eat chicken? There is so much chicken here. Chicken is cheap and it is not even holy or anything but, no, they must have beef to prove their atheistic credentials. They are a bunch of godless louts.” When asked about the fact that his family owns the region’s biggest chicken hatchery, Kuttan remains non-committal. Probed further, he says, “It’s a good thing we are doing. By selling chicken we ensure that the buffaloes and cows of the region remain safe. What’s wrong with that?” Kuttan believes that the kidnapping of the cow (the buffalo) happened because the CPI(M) cadre are building a secret beef farm somewhere in Karunagapally. According to him, it is essential the CPI(M) cadre are stopped otherwise they might just end up kidnapping the bulls from the Oachira temple and their dream to build a beef farm might come to fruition. If one views the world through Kuttan’s eyes then a secret cow genocide is imminent.

In order to verify whether such a plan was afoot it was essential to visit the local CPI(M) office in Haripad. A non-descript building plastered with red flags, sickles and hammers insignia, the office is nothing more than a rundown godown. Inside sit four men. All of them wearing starched white lungis and shirts. One of them is strangely reading a book that seems out of place in this bucolic and rundown setting. Hari Panicker, a local CPI(M) leader, is reading Nixon Under the Bodhi Tree. He looks up from the book and gently beckons his underlings to bring tea and bananas fried in batter. After a few minutes of small talk we broach the subject of the bovine kidnapping. He laughs and says, “Why would we kidnap a buffalo? It was a petty theft. Some cattle thieves saw a loitering buffalo and decided it was a good opportunity to make some quick money. The RSS guys are spreading canard about the CPI(M) activists. It is true that we eat beef but who in Kerala doesn’t? Even the Namboodiris eat beef in secret. The priests at the Oachira temple sacrifice a hundred bulls during the festival season. Where are the RSS guys then? This sort of food fascism will not be entertained. This notion that the cow is holy has been imported by the RSS guys from north India.” When quizzed about the CPI(M) ‘plan’ to build some sort of beef farm with the help of the stud bulls of Oachira, Panicker bursts into peals of laughter: “Are these people mad? Beef is available freely here. Why would anyone go through all this trouble to kidnap animals and that too from a temple? This is what happens when you get a bunch of uneducated morons and hand them saffron underwear to wear outside their lungis.”

The fervour of the RSS to get beef off the plates of the local populace has not found much traction either. Hotel Alankar, situated right opposite the RSS office in Puthupally, continues to sell its extremely popular beef fry and Malabar parota signature dish. According to the owner, some goons carrying RSS flags did try to get the restaurant to shut down during Janamashthami celebrations last year. The move backfired when CPI(M) activists organised a beef-eating festival in front of the hotel. Around a thousand beef and parota dishes were served to hungry passers-by. Ever since, the footfalls at Alankar have only increased.

Beef is a secular dish in Kerala. Everyone, from Syrian Christians to upper-caste Nairs, eats it. Government figures put the annual consumption of beef at 2,50,000 metric tonnes. This explains the rare unanimity among Kerala’s politicians when they protested against the police raid at the Kerala House canteen in 2015. The food culture and habits of the people of Kerala, including Hindus, is at sharp variance with that of the people of north India. Attempts to engineer cow politics have largely been ignored until now. However, what the RSS is attempting in Alappuzha district will not only lead to a new brand of food politics and encroachment upon people’s right to choice of food, it will also lead to another round of largely preventable political violence and deaths. Perhaps nothing summarises this lamentable situation better than this quote from Manu Joseph’s Serious Men: “The end of an ox is beef, the end of a lie is grief.”

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: MAY 2017