Organised by the Sarva Shramik Sangh under the umbrella of the New Trade Union Initiative, the protest started out at Maharashtra’s largest abattoir in Deonar and ended with nearly four hours of speeches and sloganeering at Azad Maidan. Union leaders also presented a detailed letter of dissent to the chief minister through Madhav Bhandari, the only representative of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party present at the protest.
Lashing out against the state government’s decision on March 2 to extend the long-standing ban on cow slaughter to bulls and bullocks, the protesters repeatedly emphasised that the change has left more than "one crore Maharashtrians" without a source of livelihood, besides stripping consumers of their right to choose their own food.
Besides students and beef consumers from a variety of backgrounds, a delegation of sanitation workers from Mumbai participated in the protest to support those directly affected by the ban. “I don’t eat beef from bulls or bullocks, but it’s not right when so many people lose their jobs,” said Baghuram Salve, a sanitation worker.
Most prominent among the protesters, however, were members of the All India Jamiatul Qureshi, an organisation of the Qureshi caste of Muslims historically engaged as butchers. Here are some of their stories.
‘I tried killing myself this week’
Farida Ansari at the Azad Maidan protest.
Seated amidst a small group of 40-50 women protesters in a corner of Azad Maidan, Farida Ansari didn’t stand out. But the red marks on the neck of the distraught 40-year-old had a dark story to tell.
“I tried to kill myself three days ago, because there was no money to feed the children,” said Ansari, who lives with her husband and four teenage children in a slum close to Mumbai’s Deonar abattoir. Before the beef ban was imposed, Ansari worked as a packaging labourer with a small meat company while her husband worked as a butcher. Together, they brought in an income of around Rs 7,000 a month.
In the weeks since the ban, Ansari’s employers were forced to shut shop as bull and bullock meat stopped flowing into the market, and even buffalo traders put a stop to their business as a mark of protest.
“For almost a month, our family has had no income and savings have dried up,” said Ansari. Three days ago, when they realised there was almost no food at home, Ansari and her husband got into a fight about making arrangements for money.
In despair over their helpless situation, Ansari tried to hang herself from the fan late into the night. “My husband happened to wake up and see me, and he saved me,” she said. Unsure of how to proceed with her life now, Ansari attended the Tuesday protest as a desperate measure. “The government needs to give us our jobs back,” she said.
‘All TV news channels have neglected us’
Sayed Azim at the protest rally.
Sayed Azim, a beef butcher from Maharashtra’s arid Buldhana district in Vidarbha, cannot decide if he is angrier with the state government or with the media.
“The government has troubled us a lot this month, but why is the media not listening to us?” said Azim, one of the 80 lakh Qureshis in Maharashtra who have been affected by the ban on bull and bullock slaughter. In Buldhana district, farmers and traders have held two major protests against the beef ban, but Azim claims it was only the Urdu newspapers that bothered to report them. “Not a single TV channel has taken the trouble to present our point of view and talk about how we are losing our livelihoods,” he said.
According to Azim, the ban on bull and bullock slaughter was imposed hurriedly and without any foresight on the part of the government. “The Qureshis had been given a Scheduled Caste status because of their traditional occupation, so how can they just suddenly snatch away our only source of income?” said Azim, pointing out that the state government has still not made any announcements about compensation or alternate jobs for people in the beef industry.
Like many of the beef butchers and traders around him, Azim is now worried about his children’s education. “The Modi government has been saying ‘beti bachao, beti padhao’, but if our families are unemployed, how do they expect us to educate our daughters or sons?” he said. “And if the government is so keen to ban things, why not ban alcohol or cigarettes, which are genuinely bad for health, instead of targeting peoples’ food?”