On Sunday afternoon, at a food stall along the Gurugram to Alwar highway in Haryana’s Muslim-dominated Mewat district, Salauddin, 35, the owner of the joint, negotiated with a group of travellers who wanted to eat biryani. Salauddin attempted to divert their attention to the korma he had, but one of the travellers lost patience and beckoned to his friends, saying they could get biryani elsewhere.

As they left, Salauddin said: “Pure Ghasera se Doha tak biryani kahi nahi milega (There’s no biryani available in any of the joints between Ghasera and Doha).”

At least 60-70 food joints, which largely cater to travellers, normally dot the 60-odd km stretch between Ghasera and Doha villages on the Gurugram-Alwar highway. Of these, almost half exclusively offered biryani till recently. However in the past month, many of them have shut shop or switched to selling alternatives like korma.

Police raids

Owners of the joints say that they have been forced to stop making biryani after police raids on their premises in the run up to Bakr-Eid (that falls on Tuesday), which also happens to be a time when sales go up.

Villagers in the area say such raids had never taken place before.

In March, Haryana passed a law that made the sale of beef a non-cognisable offence.

Media reports suggest that the raids started after the police received complaints that biryani containing beef (cow meat), was being sold in Mewat in the run up to Bakr-Eid.

The issue was actively taken up by the Haryana Gau Seva Ayog, or Cow Commission, which is entrusted with implementing cow slaughter laws in the state. It is led by Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh ideologue Bhani Ram Mangla, and its members have often defended the actions of cow protection vigilante groups in the state.

A special drive was launched in August during which samples from food stalls along the highway were picked up and sent for testing to check if beef was being sold. The drive was monitored by the Cow Protection Task Force of the Haryana Police. A Hindustan Times report said that seven samples collected from Firozepur Jhirka “tested positive” for beef. However, senior police officials have so far denied receiving any official reports on the laboratory tests conducted on the samples.

Mohammed Farooq, 21, owns one of the stalls selling biryani in Firozepur Jhirka area. “The police came on August 9 and took away my vessels, which still contained several kilos of unfinished stock, to check what meat it contained,” said Farooq. “I had to close down my shop for four days and when I reopened, I had to remove biryani from the menu.”

Salauddin also said that he had dropped biryani from his menu. “I stopped making biryani after the police raided my neighbour’s shop,” he said. “As far as I know, all stall owners procure meat from the markets in Nuh and Firozepur Jhirka. It is buffalo meat that they buy for Rs 120-Rs 130 per kilogram. Nobody knows where the police received complaints about cow meat from. It is all a hoax.”

Ban on biryani?

Farooq, who belongs to the Qureshi community that traditionally works as butchers and cattle dealers, also mentioned that a meeting among village representatives and the police in Doha village was held in the first week of August, where villagers were asked to give up the biryani business that several of them run.

“The decision to stop selling biryani was taken in that meeting,” said Farooq, adding that he was disappointed that only Hindus and Meo-Muslims, the majority among the minority community settled in Mewat, were included in the meeting.

“We protested for a while but later had to give in,” he said. “This matter otherwise could have resulted in communal unrest, making life more difficult for us.”

A constable patrolling the area agreed that it was a good thing that the biryani business had stopped. “At least there will be no law and order issue now,” he said.

“The highway stalls sell gosht biryani and it costs Rs 30-Rs 40 per plate,” said a meat trader in Firozepur Jhirka, who did not want to be identified.

He added: “Gosht refers to red meat. So the alternatives are mutton and buffalo meat. But mutton is expensive so gosht has practically become the synonym for buffalo meat, which is available in the market.”

“At times, we get to hear about cows being illegally slaughtered,” said the meat trader. “That’s a different issue, if at all true. But how can all shop owners who are procurers of the meat be blamed and harassed for that?”

Bakr-Eid business hit

The food stall owners have condemned the action by the state, saying it has affected their livelihoods.

“It is only in the Eid month that sales go up and we earn a decent profit,” said Farooq.

Another stall owner, an elderly man, agreed. “Is Eid toh Mewat mein biryani ka naam na ley (This Eid, do not utter the name of Biryani in Mewat),” he said.

His employee, Shahid, 31, interrupted him. Dropping the ladle with which he was serving meat curry to a group of travellers, he pointed towards a bike-borne vendor saying: “Only they are doing good business this Eid,” adding, “this business idea is new.”

The bike-borne youth sold plates of biryani at the roundabout in the Ferozepur Jhirka market till noon, when he speed away.

Shahid said, “On September 15, a meeting is about to happen in Firozepur Jhirka. The final call on the biryani matter will be taken there.”

At Niwana village in the area, Sarpanch Farheen said that he too had heard of talks going on about organising a meeting to settle the issue after Bakr-Eid.

“This entire episode is the result of a conspiracy by the Gau Sewa Ayog,” said Farheen. “A politics of fear is being played.”

Referring to the August 24 incident in Mewat in which a couple was murdered and two girls in the family were gangraped by a group of robbers, with the victims later alleging that one of them belonged to a local cow protection vigilante group, Farheen said: “It seems like the BJP is resorting to cheap tricks to divert attention from the criminal matter.”

The ruling BJP-led government in Haryana does not have a legislator in the Muslim-dominated Mewat district. Legislators from all three constituencies in the district belong to the Indian National Lok Dal and the Congress parties.

Owners of food stalls along the highway, including Farooq and Salauddin, alleged that policing in connection with beef had intensified after the murder and gangrape incident.

‘Food policing not done’

Jagmati Sangwan, former Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader from Haryana, said that the state was indulging in food policing. “What right does the state have to question someone’s choice of food?” she said. “One has to see what message it gives when something like that is done before a major festival, which is Bakr-Eid, for the minority community.”

She referred to the Gau Sewa Ayog as a parallel structure that is now acting full-time on food policing assignments, adding that the state had never seen such systematic food policing before.

“It is a serious matter,” said Sangwan. “In the gangrape incident the police was late in reaching out to the victims, and in matters related to alleged beef consumption the police is acting hyper-active.”

She added: “Also, where does the police go when there is rampant gambling during Diwali and hooliganism in Holi.”

Deputy Inspector General Bharti Arora, who heads the police’s Cow Protection Task Force, said that there was no ban on biryani in Haryana. However, she clarified that the sale, possession and consumption of beef is banned.

“We collected samples on the basis of an input regarding beef biryani being sold at certain areas in Mewat,” said Arora. “Samples have been sent for testing and the results are awaited. However, no further raids are planned as of now.”