Muslim meat traders say they are being targeted as the Hindu nationalist BJP closes slaughterhouses in Uttar Pradesh.
On a midweek afternoon in Meerut’s centuries-old Gudri Bazar, a buffalo meat trader called Gufran Farooq displays the blade of a cleaver against his palm. There are no bloodstains, he points out: the knife is far too clean. So is the marble counter-top, the kheema (meat) grinder, and the S-shaped hooks hanging from the bar above.
“The situation is serious,” he says. “Everything in my life has come to a standstill.” He nods towards the lane, which lies strangely quiet between the shuttered shopfronts. “The stray dogs are getting thin.”
For more than six weeks, no buffalo meat has been bought or sold in Meerut’s markets. Across Uttar Pradesh (UP), northern India’s fractious behemoth of a state, slaughterhouses have been closed down by a new government led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Meerut, which lies on the western plains of the state, just 70km away from India’s capital, is divided, and marked by a history of inter-faith conflict. Residents explain its geography as a patchwork of Hindu areas and Muslim ones. Religious identity crops up – spoken or carefully unspoken – in almost every political conversation.
In Hindu parts of town, locals seem reticent about the slaughterhouse ban, maybe because it isn’t their issue. Buffalo butchers such as Farooq are Muslim.
Instead, they point to other recent shifts: cleaner streets, faster-flowing traffic. But one BJP supporter tells me, on condition of anonymity, that a slaughterhouse crackdown can only be a good thing. Why? “We are vegetarians,” he smiles. In fact more than 70 percent of India eats meat.
The government insists that only illegal abattoirs have been affected by their policy: the slaughterhouse shut-down, they say, is representative of a vigorous commitment to law and order.
The distinction – legal versus illegal – is a curious and complicated one to draw in a largely informal economy. More than 83 percent of India’s business goes unregulated, untaxed and unrecorded.
Like many larger sectors, the meat industry straddles the informality divide. But no other informal or semi-informal sector is facing similar sudden, punitive scrutiny.
‘They want to make Muslims jobless’
Speaking from his office in the state capital Lucknow, Maulana Khalid Rasheed, imam of the famous Eidgah Aishbagh mosque, says: “It is not the fault of the people employed in the sector, but of the successive governments [of UP] that have failed to properly regulate the industry.”
Ramesh Dixit, a political analyst and former professor of politics at Lucknow University, tells Al Jazeera: “The local [meat] trader is Muslim, and he’s being targeted.”
The idea of government is to push these Muslims out of business … That is why they want to victimise them, and terrorise them – all in the name of cows.
Ramesh Dixit, political analyst
It’s big business, says Dixit, and the government would rather see it in the hands of corporate enterprise. “The idea of government is to push these Muslims out of business; they want to make Muslims jobless. That is their design. That is why they want to victimise them, and terrorise them – all in the name of cows.”
Across India, BJP-led states have seen the scope of their beef laws – and the penalties for violation – swell.
Farooq and his anxious neighbours say their businesses are legitimate. Cow slaughter has been illegal in UP since 1955, but they deal in buffalo. They don’t know where to turn.
A divisive choice
Before the Hindu cleric popularly known as Yogi Adityanath moved into the chief minister’s official residence in late March, the premises were ritually purified with cow’s milk. Aides stripped the mansion of all leather furnishings. A stable block was built on the grounds: the new chief minister had asked for a few favourite cows from his temple in Gorakhpur to be sent to him in Lucknow.
Like all devout Hindus, Adityanath, born Ajay Mohan Bisht to a family from a privileged caste in neighbouring Uttarakhand state, holds the cow as sacred. Enshrining the protection of the cow has been a particular crusade of his: a member of parliament since 1998, he has twice tabled a bill banning cow slaughter throughout the constitutionally secular republic.
Even after an emphatic victory for the BJP in this year’s elections, the appointment of Adityanath to the state’s top post came as a surprise to most political commentators. The BJP, in power at the centre since 2014, campaigned in UP under a slogan of progress and unity: “sabka saath, sabka vikas” – together with all, development for all. Adityanath, with his track record of inflammatory anti-Muslim rhetoric, seemed like a strikingly divisive choice for the state.
Adityanath has earned his reputation as a rabble-rousing Hindu nationalist hard-liner. A 1999 police report filed against him and 24 others lists the following crimes: attempting to murder, carrying deadly weapons, rioting, defiling a place of worship, trespassing on a Muslim graveyard and promoting enmity between two religious groups.
In 2007, Adityanath was jailed for 11 days after he and his band of devoted followers, the Hindu Yuva Vahini, were arrested for attempting to stir up communal violence in Gorakhpur – his power base.
‘The whole community is worried’
Among UP’s Muslims, Adityanath’s political elevation has seeded “a kind of silence, a kind of fear”, according to Imam Rasheed. “The whole community is worried,” he explains. “We are worried because of the track record of Mr Yogi Adityanath and the language he has used about Muslims in the past.”
About 20 percent of UP’s 220 million inhabitants are Muslims, and according to government data, the state has India’s highest rates of interfaith conflict.
Chandra Mohan, the BJP spokesperson for UP, says “Yogiji” will be a chief minister for everyone. But Rasheed is watchful. Adityanath’s government is the first not to include a single Muslim cabinet minister, he points out. (The council of ministers does include one Muslim in a more junior post: Mohsin Raza is Minister of State for Minority Affairs).
The imam laces his fingers and declares himself resolved to “wait and see”. After all, he appreciates Adityanath’s demands for punctuality and honesty in the civil service and agrees with his choice to waive loans extended to drought-hit farmers.
But early indications for his own community, Rasheed concedes, are troubling: “The manner in which they have started to target the meat industry is very worrying, as far as Muslims are concerned … It has sent a negative message.”
Behind Meerut’s historic clock tower, the butchers and biryani sellers of Kotla market sit idle – sipping tea and making small talk. The police come by from time to time, they say, to make sure they aren’t trading.
A local journalist confirms that in mid-April, he saw two uniformed police officers pull up on a motorbike. “Don’t you know you’re not allowed to sell meat?” he recalls one of them asking.
Station House Officer MK Upadhyay disputes this. Closing down market stalls, he says, is up to the Municipal Corporation; the police have had nothing to do with it. In the slaughterhouse closures, he explains, their role has been limited to security, not enforcement.
The traders pass around a smartphone and hit play on a video shot at a commercial slaughterhouse on Meerut’s outskirts on March 22, the same day that the crackdown notice was issued in Lucknow.
In it, a man in a blue vest and crisp white skullcap stands at the centre of a crowd, addressing khaki-clothed officers. He is Haji Shahid Akhlaq, the abattoir’s owner and a former member of parliament from the Bahujan Samaj Party, a significant political force in the state. On the screen, Akhlaq appeals to the police: even five-star hotels serve meat, he says, even Hindus eat meat.
Commentators argue that the new slaughterhouse policy is overspill from an increasingly muscular Hindutva (an ideology seeking to establish the hegemony of Hindus) cow-protection campaign, for which Adityanath has been something of a poster boy.
But BJP spokesperson Mohan explains the crackdown in economic rather than ideological terms. It was conceived at least in part to protect UP’s all-important dairy sector, he tells Al Jazeera: “Milk products are constantly going down because of illegal slaughterhouses.”
It’s a reasoning that seems to exclude the symbiosis of the meat and dairy sectors. It’s also misleading: official data suggests that numbers of both buffalos and cows in the state are on the rise; UP’s milk production has grown by 17 percent since 2012.
Rising meat prices
During the same period, the total value of buffalo meat exported from India has expanded by 27 percent, generating more than $4bn last year. As much as 43 percent of that meat came from UP, processed in the sort of high-tech integrated plant that Akhlaq has run for the past 14 years.
Export-oriented buffalo-meat units dot the Hapur Road on the outskirts of the Indian capital, New Delhi. These are not higgledy-piggledy open storefronts on ancient alleys, but modern, mechanised operations.
At Al-Faheem Meatex Pvt, the gates scroll open for Maersk trucks and ganache-glossy Jaguars; the driveway is wide and lined with Bismarckia palms.
Haji Imran Yaqoob, the managing director, explains that he ships frozen meat to Vietnam and countries in the Middle East; his business has nothing whatsoever to do with the local market. Local traders have been hard-hit, he concedes, but his own business has chugged on uninterrupted.
Neither of these things are true of Akhlaq’s business. His pleas to the police on March 22 had little effect. His plant was shuttered – on spurious grounds, he told local press: an anomaly between his unit’s construction plans and real-life set-up – and is yet to reopen.
The shutdown of the Akhlaq slaughterhouse has had a major impact on the local meat market. After all, for the past three years Akhlaq’s abattoir has been plugging a crucial infrastructure gap in Meerut: a legal venue for buffalo slaughter.
Meerut has grown. What was once the liminal between rural and urban is now residential space, and nobody wants to live next door to a knacker’s yard. Three years ago, the municipality closed up the only legitimate slaughterhouse accessible to its many butchers.
Although UP law says that local government must build and maintain slaughterhouses to enable the hygienic supply of meat, no viable facilities have been provided to the many thousands of Muslim butchers since then.
Kunwar Sen, the health officer for Meerut, says that a new “model slaughterhouse” is in the works, but that its date of readiness remains “speculative”. Asked to speculate, one department staffer guessed it would be available to local butchers in three months; another estimated a year. The facility has yet to receive approval from the pollution department.
Like many others, Farooq has remained in business by sending his buffalos out to Akhlaq’s, where they have been “processed”, free of charge, and returned to him in four pieces. He describes it as an act of charity on Akhlaq’s part, but it is charity that should never have been needed.
‘A fear prevailing’
Farooq means to do things right. When the campaigning BJP leaders promised their voter base that they would come for the slaughterhouses, his first thought was to get his paperwork in order. “I sensed that if BJP won, I would be a target.”
A full month before his annual trading licence expired, he submitted his application for renewal. Licence renewal is typically a fairly perfunctory routine; a matter of a few days, perhaps a week. But well over a month after handing in his documents – his old licence now invalid – Farooq still hasn’t heard back from the municipal authorities.
He is far from alone in this uncertainty. Muhammad Shaheel sells chicken. Ever since buffalo vanished from the market, Shaheel sells more of it, and at a higher price per kilo. But it’s not a happy bargain.
“Under the Akhilesh [Yadav] government we were comfortable. Since the Yogi government, there’s” – he hunts for the correct word – “a fear prevailing.” It feels, he says, like the police might come at any minute to tell you that your licence is all wrong. He’s heard that he’s expected to renovate the open-fronted alleyway shop, which was his grandfather’s before it was his: install a plumbed-in sink, a dark-glass door.
He can’t imagine being able to afford the refurbishment. Shaheel hopes that he’ll receive his certification regardless: “That much, at least, we have to trust the government.”
Health officer Sen tells Al Jazeera that his staff will soon begin site inspections. Some shops will need to shift, he says; some butchers will need to upgrade at their own expense. And yes, he concedes, perhaps, in the end, there will be fewer meat sellers in Meerut’s market.
Farooq emphasises that he doesn’t disagree with the policy in principal. “What is illegal should be stopped,” he says. “But licences should be renewed. The police are troubling us.”
He takes pride in the rhythms of his trade. At the bustling village livestock fairs where he typically sources buffalos, it takes him just seconds to spot a good, healthy bull. What are the signs? I ask him. He looks puzzled. “This is my ancestral trade,” he says, as though a good eye is genetic.
The slaughter is quick: he says bismillah before running his blade across an animal’s throat. It matters that, when he wasn’t the one doing the killing, the slaughter at Akhlaq’s was halal.
“If I wanted to, I could go to the corner, and just cut a buffalo, illegally,” he says. “But I want to do [my work] within the parameters of the laws laid down by government.”
Without a licence, and without a legally sanctioned venue for slaughter, that simply isn’t an option.
Reports of vigilantism
In fact, even before the shutdown – even before the authorities pinpointed a flaw in Akhlaq’s blueprints – it had been a while since business was business as usual.
Reports of gau raksha (cow protection) vigilantism – including a recent murder in BJP-led Rajasthan state – have made headlines across India in recent years. The high water mark of gau raksha violence in UP may still be the 2015 lynching of a Muslim man, not too far from Meerut, over rumours that he had eaten beef which was later exposed as goat meat.
But buffalo industry workers say that hold-ups of buffalo transport convoys have become commonplace. Formerly sprawling rural livestock markets contracted as farmers stayed away to avoid harassment at roadblocks.
There are 70,000 of us in Meerut, and if we organise, we can do a lot of damage. When a man is hungry, there is nothing he can’t do.
Nadeem Qureshi, Buffalo butcher, Gudri Bazaar
“Buffalos don’t come with paperwork,” says Farooq, but both “Hindu groups” and the police have stopped his weekly Meerut-bound live animal transports on multiple occasions, demanding proof of legitimacy. The police, he claims, will accept a bribe to back off.
Civilian vigilantes frighten him more: horror stories of raided trucks, thrashed drivers, and stolen livestock circulate quickly among the meat-sellers. In Kotla, I’m shown a video of bloodied and dazed buffalo transporters, allegedly (and unverifiably) shot by vigilantes during a recent raid nearby.
The impacts aren’t limited to the poor Muslims of Meerut. At Al Faheem Meatex, vigilante looters are eating into profits, and Asad Khan, the sales manager, says the trouble has intensified since the election.
Typically, the plant’s army of maroon-capped labourers process 500 to 600 buffalos a day. Since the new government came in, Khan says, they can only procure half that volume. Their suppliers – independent middlemen – pay farmers 20,000 to 30,000 rupees per animal, says Khan. “They can’t keep risking that price continually.” Some of them have already gone out of business.
“The police won’t help because the government has changed in UP,” adds managing director Yaqoob. There is no plan B for revenue generation: Al-Faheem’s managers can only hope the government will take action against the vigilantes before they are forced to make layoffs.
Jatinder Arora, a Hindu, manufactures cricket balls out of Portuguese cork and UP buffalo leather. To produce an annual average of 36,000 balls, Arora’s workers dye, cut, shape and stitch about 100 hides each month. But lately the hides are hard to come by. “No one wants to carry the leather from Hapur to Meerut. There is fear of the road – fear of being stopped.”
In the weeks since the election, he has found that he’s already having to accept a lower quality of hide to keep the production chain fed. He worries that leather prices are about to skyrocket. But he supports the BJP, and expects that “everything will be stabilised after some time”.
Asked about the vigilante groups, BJP spokesperson Mohan affirmed that the government’s priority is law and order – before dismissing the concern altogether. “Since the Yogi government came in, there has been no cow or buffalo-protection vigilantism in UP. At all. Reports of this sort of activity are all negative propaganda.”
‘All the power is with the BJP’
In early May, Adityanath made a public pledge: By the time his first 100 days in office had elapsed, UP would be safe for every “sister, daughter and trader”.
In Gudri Bazaar, buffalo butcher Nadeem Qureshi does not feel safe. He feels exhausted. After his savings ran out, he sold his four-month old scooter, then his mobile phone. “I had to put food on the table. There was no source of income. I don’t know what I will do when this money also runs out.”
“Right now, all the power is with [the] BJP,” Farooq says. “I don’t have anyone from my community in a powerful position.” Haji Akhlaq’s political connections don’t mean as much anymore, say the traders: There isn’t much he can do for them.
Farooq’s brother, Farman, is angry and talks of retaliation – “picking up stones” against the administration. “There are 70,000 of us in Meerut, and if we organise, we can do a lot of damage,” says Qureshi. “When a man is hungry, there is nothing he can’t do.”
The Farooqs have been eating rice and pulses for more than a month. So far, they are scraping by. But Farman nods to the alley, hushed between the still-shuttered shopfronts. “Look at the dogs here,” he says. The pack is shrinking. Four of them have already died.