Delhi: Mehfooz Alam’s eyes were glued to the narrow lane that leads shoppers to the meat market in south Delhi’s INA market, a popular shopping destination for foreigners and residents in the heart of the city.
It was four in the afternoon and the back of Alam's shirt was drenched with sweat from standing by the meat and fish shop where he works since nine in the morning, while he observed the fourth day of fasting for Ramzan.
News of a ban on the sale of meat in Delhi for the nine days of Navratri festival celebrated by Hindus had rattled the 65-year-old butcher, who had planned to provide more for his family this Ramzan, than he was able to in the past two years of the Covid-19 pandemic.
As he waited to make a sale to take something home for iftar, his hopeful glances at passing shoppers did not end in any sales.
A daily wager for 18 years in the INA market, Alam said that even though an official order banning the sale of meat for Navratri—announced by the South Delhi Municipal Corporation (SDMC) mayor Mukkesh Suryaan on 4 April—never came through, he had no customers because the media reporting around the so-called ban had given the impression there was a legal ban in place.
“Every Muslim understands what this ‘ban’ means, but we can’t even express our anger. They are now using our religion to attack the bread we eat,” he said.
Leaning on a pillar near his shop, Alam, who earns Rs 500 every day, spoke of how anxious he wasn't just about his earnings in the next few days, but his fears of being unable to make a living and live a life of dignity in face of the unprecedented persecution of Muslims by Hindu majoritarian forces underway in India.
“Musalmaan sehta bhi hai, phir bhi chup chaap chalta rehta hai, iski koi toh haddh hogi?” (Muslims bear everything and yet quietly carry on with their lives, but there must be a limit to this (hate).
Article 14 visited various markets in south Delhi on 5-6 April, including INA, Lajpat Nagar, Greater Kailash, Okhla, Jamia Nagar and Sarita Vihar, speaking to Hindu and Muslim meat sellers, as confusion reigned over the implementation of the so-called ban on the sale of meat in south Delhi, leaving many scared and fearful of a similar diktat at the next Hindu festival and the one after that.
We found that while some meat shops did close in the confusing aftermath of the announcement, fearing trouble from the authorities and Hindu vigilantes that may have triggered a communal incident, meat sellers opened for business when the order was largely ignored, but the tension triggered by the incident was keeping many customers away.
On 8 April, Article 14 reported that Suryaan’s ban was illegal because he had no power to issue such an order. In addition, the ban violates the Constitution and the law, with similar attempts made over the last decade in five other states struck down by the courts. The ban is, essentially, some argued, a majoritarian writ.
Bigotry Bigger Strain Than Loss Of Income
For Alam, and other daily wagers like the delivery boys who take home what they earn that day, the so-called ban has robbed them of a few days of earnings, but the psychological strain of the bigotry, now disrupting the functioning and straining relations in the vibrant markets of the national capital, is taking a bigger toll.
While Delhi is governed by the Aam Aadmi Party, the three municipal corporations—north, south and east—are under the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), currently the party in power at the centre. The last civic body election was in April 2017, and Suryaan was unanimously elected by fellow councillors as the mayor of the SDMC in June 2021. The BJP has won three consecutive MCD elections in Delhi, with the next one due in April 2022.
Suryaan’s call for banning the sale of meat, illegal and violative of the fundamental rights of life and livelihood guaranteed by the Indian constitution, comes at a time of targeted attacks on Muslim shops and establishments in BJP-ruled states like Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka, calls for boycotting halal meat, imposing restrictions on Muslim vendors operating in temple fairs, widely perceived to be part of the Hindu right-wing’s agenda of economically and socially disenfranchising the Muslim minority.
Videos of Hindu mobs in Meerut calling for the closure of meat shops and threatening violence have surfaced in the past few days. Other videos show Hindu extremist Bajrang Muni calling for the kidnapping and rape of Muslim women. A Muslim vendor in Meerut has said that he was instructed by the police to not sell “non-vegetarian” biryani during Navratri after hooligans vandalised his cart.
On 1 April, a Muslim meat shop owner was allegedly assaulted by goons in Karnataka’s Shivamogga district.
Muslim-owned meat shops in states like Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh were also attacked or forced to close in 2021.
While the south Delhi mayor’s call for a meat ban petered out, in part because of the location being Delhi, the national capital is not untouched by the Hindu majoritarian radicalisation, with two open calls for violence against Muslims being made at Jantar Mantar and Burari in the past nine months.
Looking at the range of hate crimes, from the lynching of Mohammed Akhlaq to the more recent calls for genocide, Farah Naqvi, activist and author of Working with Muslims: Beyond Burqa and Triple Talaq, said, “You’ve got to be blind, not to join the dots. The fundamental issue is that there is an open season targeting an entire community and their constitutional rights, social, cultural and economic.”
Over the past 10 years, similar attempts to stop the sale of meat have been made in varying forms in five states: Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Uttarakhand, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh.
Naqvi said that as the Muslim community majorly earns through the informal and unorganized sectors, driving them out is largely how the “Hindutva brigade plans to bring the community to its knees on the economic front.”
“By the meat ban, or the halal certification issue or even the fruit vending issue, they want to push Muslims out of their livelihoods, as they did during Covid in 2020,” she said, referring to the harassment Muslim street vendors faced after the Tablighi Jamaat controversy in March 2020.
Was Sale Of Meat Banned in Delhi?
On 4 April, after sending a letter to the commissioner of the SDMC urging him to issue an order for the closing of meat shops in the south Delhi municipality from 2 April to 11 April, Suryaan told the press, “During Navratri, 99% of households in Delhi don't even use garlic and onion, so we've decided that no meat shops will be open in south MCD; the decision will be implemented from tomorrow. Fine will be imposed on violators”
The mayor had demanded the ban be strictly implemented. However, the press bureau of the SDMC on 5 April said that Suryaan’s letter is not a legal order and therefore shops can be open.
After Suryaan’s demand, east Delhi mayor Shyam Sunder Aggarwal also appealed to the traders of the east Delhi municipality to shut meat shops during Navratri.
Delhi Congress vice president and councillor Abhishek Dutt pointed out that the mayor did not have the power to issue such orders and can only give suggestions to the commissioner, who can later choose to issue orders or dismiss the suggestions. Dutt also said that according to the 2021 Meat Policy meat shops should not be situated within a 150 meters distance of religious places like temples or any place of worship, “but there are several such shops opened near them. If BJP is serious about the religious sentiments then why are they not controlling this, there should be action against all such illegal shops”.
Furthermore, the regulation of meat shops is governed by the Delhi Municipal Corporation Act 1957, under which only the commissioner can call for closing meat shops in case found violative of different rules relating to sanitation and display of meat.
Suryaan’s attempt to ban meat shops in Delhi during Navratri came amid Karnataka’s halal row where right-wing organisations told Hindus to boycott halal meat during the ‘Hosa Tadaku’ festival on 3 April.
On 5 April, BJP member of parliament (MP) Parvesh Sahib Singh Verma extended his support to the so-called meat ban announced by the two Delhi mayors and said the ban should be extended across the country. Singh, a second-time MP from west Delhi, said, “I request Muslims that don't come (sic) into any controversies.”
During the movement against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), 2019 and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) that started in Delhi in December 2019, Verma had said that if the anti-CAA protests at Shaheen Bagh continue, Delhi will face a “Kashmir-like situation” wherein protesters might “enter homes and rape sisters and daughters”.
‘You Don’t Know What Can Happen’
Mohammed Muneeb, 24, who was sitting in front of a pile of chicken legs, and an empty bill book with no sales registered for the day, said that even though no official order from the commissioner had arrived, he had shut his shop in INA market for two days out of fear.
“Humne jab suna ke ban jaisa kuch lagaya hai, humein laga yahan bhi kuch na hojaae Hindu-Muslim ke chakkar mein” (When we heard about this ban sort of an order, we were anxious about some issue being stirred in the name of Hindu-Muslims), said Muneeb, speaking in a hushed tone.
Muneeb has a second meat shop in Ghaziabad, UP, which he has shut since the Navratri began.
“UP mein koi bharosa nahi iss sab maamle mein” (You don’t know what can happen in UP in these matters), he said.
Ashok Bajaj, who has owned a shop in the INA market for 50 years, was counting the same notes again and again while he spoke angrily about having ordered his stock from suppliers for sale before the so-called ban.
“If they really cared about Navratri, why did they wait till the three out of nine days of the festival were over (before announcing the ban),” he said. “This area is near the embassies, so foreign customers also come here to make purchases, but news of the ban and the way the media has reported it is making life difficult for us.”
The INA market has 37 shops, 60% owned by Hindus.
Sanju, a 34-year-old delivery man, said the meat shop in Lajpat Nagar where he works is owned by a Hindu and shuts on Tuesdays and Thursdays (regarded auspicious by many Hindus) because it is in a Hindu-dominated area, and the sales dip on these days. So, on those two days, he delivers for another meat shop in Malviya Nagar, also owned by a Hindu.
When both these shops close routinely for Navratri every year, he quickly finds employment elsewhere, but this time Sanju said it was hard to find a temporary job because of the fear and confusion triggered by Suryaan’s so-called order.
“I earn Rs 300 every day and support a family of four,” he said.
BJP’s Beef With Meat
Nisar Ahmed and Krishna Kumar, seasoned meat sellers in their sixties, and friends who’ve laughed and gossiped over innumerable cups of hot tea are both angry and frustrated about what they see as the start of a concerted effort to disrupt the secular fabric of the market they have called home for more than 20 years.
They closed their shops after hearing about the so-called ban on 4 April and opened them on 6 April.
Sitting in the middle of a mix of open and shuttered meat shops, Ahmed said that selling meat is being made an issue because the right-wing ecosystem seems to believe that only Muslims sell meat.
“It is because of this Hindu-Muslim politics that we’re out of business today. They use Ramzan, Navratri, everything for their own politics, but we won’t let their divisiveness affect us,” he said.
Sharing his displeasure at having to send his delivery boys home for four days, Ahmed said, “What choice did I have?”
“Muslims are being targeted for everything, even when we mind our own business. We don’t even lift our heads up when we walk,” he said.
Kumar agreed with Ahmed.
“Do liquor shops not harm Hindu sentiments? Or did he announce the meat ban because he wanted his name in the news?” said Kumar, referring to Suryaan, the south Delhi mayor.
‘It Is A Big Punishment For A Muslim To Be Poor Today’
At the end of the day on 6 April, Alam had nothing to take home to his family.
Alam is worried about what will happen if the Hindu right-wing ecosystem persists in imposing restrictions on Muslim shops and establishments every time a Hindu festival rolls around.
“It is a very big punishment for a Muslim to be poor today,” he said.
Then, with his face dissolving into frown lines, he said, “They are trying to create an unmendable divide that lasts between Hindus and Muslims, but Allah is watching.”
(Tarushi Aswani is an independent journalist based in New Delhi.)