“We are yet to get any order or notice telling us to shut our meat shops, there is a lot of confusion here,” said 33-year-old Mohammad Alauddin, who has worked at a chicken shop in South Delhi’s INA market for 15 years.

On April 4, Mukesh Suryaan, the mayor of the South Delhi Municipal Corporation had written a letter to the South Delhi commissioner, asking him to order all meat shops to be closed during the Hindu festival of Navratri, which lasts till April 11 this year. It is only fitting, argued Suryaan, a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party, since Hindu “religious belief and sentiments are also affected when they come across meat shops”.

At INA market, most labourers who work at meat shops got to know of the letter on the morning of April 5, when news television crews showed up to find out how the proposed ban was faring. “This is the first time that something like this has happened here,” Alauddin said, and everyone around him agreed.

Alauddin said there was a lot of confusion around the ban. Picture credit: Aishwarya S Iyer

Customers going to INA market to buy meat were turned away on Tuesday afternoon. Workers and owners at the INA meat shops – both Hindu and Muslim – were upset that they would lose their daily wages for a week, that they should have been informed earlier and that it was not needed anyway. They pointed to other markets where television crews had not gone, and where meat shops were still open.

The common diagnosis by workers from both religions was this: the South Delhi mayor’s gesture was meant to score political points ahead of municipal elections. The Aam Aadmi Party, which heads the Delhi government, and the BJP at the Centre have been locked in a battle over the polls.

Three weeks ago, the Centre gave its nod to the Delhi Municipal Corporation (Amendment) Act 2022 to unify the three municipalities of Delhi, and on March 5, the Rajya Sabha cleared it. This means municipal elections scheduled for April will be delayed for at least a few months. Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal claims the BJP is using the merger to delay elections as it is afraid of losing to the Aam Aadmi Party if they are held soon.

Councillor Durgesh Pathak, in charge of municipal affairs for the Aam Aadmi Party, told Scroll.in that the ban was futile so long as meat was sold in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh and Haryana.

Congress South Delhi councillor Abhishek Dutt said, “This has only been done to get media attention.” The letter that was issued by the mayor and has been circulated in the media does not have the signature of the commissioner.

While Suryaan vowed to “strictly enforce” the meat ban, Dutt pointed out, the mayor did not have the power to enforce such decisions, he could only make recommendations to the councillor.

Scroll.in contacted Suryaan, who replied that he was “too busy to talk”.

“This letter of the SDMC mayor has been received by our office,” said Amit Kumar, director of the South Delhi Municipal Corporation’s press and information bureau. “It is under examination, but it is not an order and should not be seen as an order.”

When asked about meat sellers hesitating to open their shops for fear, he said, “See, all the consequences can only flow once an order is there. As of now, there is no order so there is nothing to be scared about.”

The letter from the SDMC Mayor which does not have the signature of the commissioner.

‘An issue’

Manjeet Singh, whose family has owned a shop in this market for decades, told Scroll.in that such a ban was unprecedented in Delhi. When meat shops take their weekly off on Tuesdays, workers do various other chores, such as cleaning the stalls and preparing meat to send to restaurants.

Her son, Narendra Singh, pointed out that the meat stalls are situated at one end of INA market and anyone who comes to that section is there specially because they want to buy meat. The meat lane is tucked away in the innards of the market, far from the main road. While there is a mosque close by, there is no temple. “So then why would anyone want to come to this area to visit a temple?” he asked. “Why would religious sentiments be hurt?”

His mother added that if one did not want to eat meat during a religious festival “then maybe it is a good idea to not go to a meat market”.

Manjeet Singh, whose family has owned a meat shop in INA market for decades. Picture credit: Aishwarya S Iyer

Sixty-year-old Mohammad Sabir had worked at a meat shop in the market since he was 12. “The polls are expected soon,” he said. “If you say too much about this ban then people will register a deshdrohi [sedition] case against you. I do not understand what one can gain out of all this.”

The government was unable to provide employment and now it was interfering with private employment as well, said Sabir bitterly. “Why would we come here if there was sufficient employment?” he asked.

Thirty-four-year-old Rajesh Kumar agreed with the common consensus: “All this is politics and agenda, politics of the polls, politics of the MCD. Even if you wanted to do this, there is a way to do this. Why not inform us beforehand?”

The Hindu owner of a meat shop, standing nearby in a crisp white shirt, agreed with Kumar. “All they need is a mudda, an issue,” he said.

Mohammad Sabir says that if they protested against the ban, they would be prosecuted. Picture credit: Aishwarya S Iyer

Business as usual

The common lament in the INA meat shops was that the ban was only restricted to the South Delhi Municipal Corporation. “I will definitely suffer losses,” said Manjeet Singh. “We will also have to pay our labourers when we do not have any income coming in.”

INA market has 35 meat shops that supply to over 100 restaurants or more, Singh estimated. Should the meat ban be enforced, the shops would not have supplies to send to these restaurants either.

Scroll.in visited three areas under the South Delhi Municipal Corporation and found meat shops still doing business. The labourers in these shops said they had no clarity on this alleged ban. While they had heard about the letter they had not received any formal notice yet. As of Tuesday afternoon, no television crews had visited these shops, which carried on as usual.

“We are waiting for a formal order or for someone to show up here and then we will react,” said a meat seller in one of these areas who did not want to be named. Another seller who owns a meat store said, “I am also a Hindu – once we get clarity we will react.”

Taati is tells his relatives back home, on a video call, not to worry about the meat ban. Picture credit: Aishwarya S Iyer

Losing wages

Workers in the meat shops of INA market are anxious that they might lose their wages for a week. Most are daily wage workers, living on what they earn that day. Both Hindus and Muslims work in these shops. Many are migrants from Jharkhand, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Bengal and Nepal.

“We had come thinking we will have work but we are stuck here,” said Pachu Taati, who has worked here for the last 20 years. Had he known about the meat ban earlier, he said, he might have gone back to his home in Bihar’s Bhagalpur district for Navratri. “What will we do now?” Taati asked. “We only know this work. We do not know much.”

Labourers at INA estimate about 400 people work at the fish, mutton and chicken shops in the market. Most live in small rooms above the meat shops though some travel several kilometres to their place of work. “We won’t come tomorrow,” said one such worker.

Thirty-four-year-old Mohammad Aftab said the sudden ban had plunged him into a new world of uncertainty. “What to do now?” he asked.

But meat shop owners and labourers say they will comply with the ban out of fear. The shop licences are due for renewal this month. Failing to comply with the ban might mean losing the licences.

After all, Suryaan had also told the media that only those meat shops who agreed to halt operations during Navratri would be given licences.