Why menu at Kerala schools youth festival will remain vegetarian — despite a promise to go non-veg

Kerala's General Education Minister V Sivankutty makes a U-turn on the issue, says there will be no more discussion on the menu of the festival.

ByK A Shaji

Published Nov 21, 2023 | 11:00 AM Updated Nov 21, 2023 | 11:00 AM

Kalolsavam

The gastro-politics and counter-hegemonic assertions surrounding the Kerala School Kalotsavam have reached a critical juncture with the state’s ruling LDF having backtracked on its earlier promise to end the so-called “Brahmanical dominance” in the festival’s all-vegetarian menu by adding non-vegetarian dishes.

With 11,000 participants competing in 239 events over four days, the Kalotsavam is Asia’s largest art and cultural festival for students.

Following a high-level meeting in Kollam as part of the preparations for the 62nd edition of the Kalotsavam, which is scheduled for the first week of January, General Education Minister V Sivankutty stated that the existing vegetarian menu would continue and no non-vegetarian dishes would be offered.

Furthermore, he stated categorically that his department would not appreciate any further conversations on the subject as it has taken a final decision on the matter.

Related: Netizens have a beef with food served at Kerala school fest

Furore over food

Following the furore over food during the 61st edition of the Kalotsavam in Kozhikode in January this year —  with Left loyalists accusing their government of allowing Brahmanical dominance in the Kalotsavam food menu —  Sivankutty had announced that non-vegetarian dishes would be added to the menu in 2024.

However, the minister has givin no explanation for reversing his earlier stance. But sources in the ruling party indicated to South First that the government wanted to avoid another direct clash with Hindu orthodoxy in the state right before the upcoming Lok Sabha election.

Ever since Pinarayi Vijayan became the chief minister seven years ago, the state government has made efforts to combat orthodoxy, but it boomeranged in most cases due to the resistance of Hindutva organisations.

The question of allowing women of menstruating age to visit the temple dedicated to Lord Ayyappa at Sabarimala and the opposition to it illustrated how the administration went back on its earlier claims of political correctness.

Related: Am done with Kerala School Youth Festival: Chef Pazhayidam

Food for debate

It is interesting to note that the vegetarian menu at Kalotsavam was not a controversy until the Kozhikode edition, and the claims of Brahmanical hegemony came from a small number of Left-leaning people in the state, who otherwise used their social media accounts to ensure a sizeable support base for the Vijayan government.

General Education Minister V Sivankutty having a meal at Kerala Kalolsavam venue in Kozhikode. (Supplied)

According to insiders in the School Education Department, the state’s famed vegetarian chef, Pazhayidam Mohanan Namboodiri, would continue to prepare the dishes.

Namboothiri had issued a statement in January stating that he would no longer be preparing the food for the gala event due to the controversy. Namboodiri, better known as Pazhayidam, is one of Kerala’s top chefs and has been providing vegetarian dishes to thousands of people every day at the Kalotsavam food booths for the past several years.

Namboothiri informed the media in January that the “unnecessary uproar” over not providing non-vegetarian dishes at the Kalotsavam had affected him severely.

The School Education Department has been pleading with Namboothiri for months to reconsider his decision, and he had just prepared meals for a district-level school children’s festival held in Ernakulam.

So far, Namboothiri’s position has been that it was the government’s decision to serve vegetarian dishes to students, and there was no need to make it a communal issue.

With Sivankutty’s decision not to change the festival menu, his stand has been vindicated.

“The government could have decided to serve non-vegetarian dishes, but some people decided to tarnish my reputation. Some people attempted to introduce caste and religion. We understand if there is a complaint about the food supplied, but it was regrettable that the discussion was redirected to other needless matters,” Namboothiri said in January.

He stated that non-vegetarian dishes could be provided only if there is a guarantee that only a lesser number of people would be served.

The state school youth festival is well-known for its large attendance, which ranges from 30,000 to 40,000 people every day.

The Kalotsavam’s vegetarian menu sparked a heated dispute in January when college lecturer-turned-television anchor Arun Kumar questioned why only vegetarian dishes were served for the Kalotsavam participants. His question was taken up by many social media users.

“Caste operates on the basis of purity-impurity convictions.  Sometimes it masquerades as ‘safe’ vegetarian food,” Kumar, an LDF fellow traveller, wrote on Facebook.

Also read: Onam and the debate about its vegetarian character in Kerala

Vegetarian fundamentalism?

Several others picked up the issue, claiming that the festival’s “vegetarian only” food was part of “vegetarian fundamentalism” and a “reflection of caste belief.”

One of the blogs on the subject bemoaned the presence of Brahmins in art festival kitchens. It reflected the “surrender of renaissance and democratic values at the feet of Brahmanism”, the blogger said,

When Pazhayidam declared his desire to leave the Kalotsavam, Arun Kumar stated that he wished to see the chef continue at the festival, saying that his statement challenged only the fascist tradition of always equating arts with vegetarian cuisine.

He also met Pazhayidam in person. However, the issue soon became political with the BJP taking it up.

“Some people attempted to divide people and used the food served at the festival to do so. The CPI(M), which is in power, orchestrated this. This dispute has not existed in this state for many years. They attempted to incite communal strife in the name of food,” stated BJP state president K Surendran.

Meanwhile, a section of LDF-leaning social media users demanded the vegetarian menu, pointing out the frequent instances of food poisoning in the state. They demanded strict safety measures if non-vegetarian food is served.

However, some people started to question why only a Namboothiri has been cooking the meals, giving it a casteist  colour.

Sivankutty previously stated that Pazhayidam kept winning the contract for running the kitchen since he was the lowest bidder. Furthermore, his cooking was excellent, and there were no issues with the quality of the meals he prepared.

The youth festival’s food tents serve snacks, tea, and desserts at regular intervals in addition to breakfast, lunch, and dinner to participants, teachers accompanying them, and parents.

While the problem remained difficult to resolve, the position taken by the Indian Union Muslim League, the second-largest constituent of the Congress-led opposition UDF, is important.

When certain Hindutva forces tried to blame the IUML for indirectly seeking to add non-vegetarian dishes to the menu, IUML leaders urged the government to continue serving only vegetarian delicacies and termed the dispute “unfortunate and sad”.

”All can have vegetarian food, but some people don’t have non-vegetarian food. And that is why the youth festival has only a vegetarian kitchen,” IUML senior leader KPA Majeed said.