New Delhi — Biryani is a popular Indian rice dish featuring meat or vegetables cooked in a subtle combination of spices. Recently, some lawmakers have added some extra ingredients --religion, caste and politics.
So-called biryani police have been inspecting pots full of the traditional dish to check if street sellers have been adding beef, which is banned across much of the country.
Many street vendors in Haryana state near New Delhi, the center of the crackdown, have had to shut their shops, even though demand for biryani is highest during September's Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha.
Illegal biryani has become the latest wedge issue by India's Hindu nationalist government to impose its religious standards on the officially secular country. India's majority Hindus consider the cow sacred and do not eat its meat, but its two largest minorities --Muslims and Dalits, the former "untouchables" --observe no such strictures.
This "Hinduization" drive, which has accelerated after Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party won an outright majority in the 2014 general election, has alienated Muslims and Dalits to the point that political analysts say the two minorities might join forces to mount a challenge in important state polls coming up next year.
About 80 percent of India's 1.3 billion people are Hindu and 14 percent are Muslim. Dalits, who make up about 16 percent of the population, are mostly Hindu but many have converted to Islam, Christianity, Buddhism or other faiths in the (mostly vain) hope of escaping their low status in the caste system.
India adopted a secular constitution after independence from Britain in 1947, but 20 of its 29 states have passed Hindu-inspired laws since then, banning the slaughter, consumption or transport of cows.
In a counterintuitive twist, the country is also the world's largest exporter of beef. Most of that meat comes from buffaloes and bulls, rather than the cow that Hinduism reveres.
In several states, cow slaughter is a crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Maharashtra state outlawed the possession of beef last year, and Haryana banned all sales of beef.
"The ambiguity is clear," said one senior Christian leader, who asked not to be identified. "One member of the government says one thing, another says something different and they see from the reaction how far they can go."