My Leftist radical friend called from Lucknow, where she reached after hopping from Meerut to Moradabad to Aligarh, apart from touching Uttar Pradesh’s myriad qasbahs strung along the highways. She was drafted into a fact-finding team whose members were tasked with sifting fact from fiction in the politics of meat being played out in the state, under the misguided impression that truth always trumps falsehood.

“Our agenda has changed,” the radical Leftist said. “It is now about exposing hypocrisy.”

“Of whom?” I asked.

She was quick to respond, in that feisty tone typically hers. “Of Hindus, who eat meat but don’t wish to stand up and be counted.”

I winced. It was undoubtedly a politically incorrect, and dangerous, statement to make in Uttar Pradesh, the political map of which is awash with saffron. In the hope of weaning her away from the path of intellectual rectitude, I said, “It is charming, isn’t it, to know that strike still works?”

She understood I was referring to the strike by meat traders against the state government’s crackdown on illegal slaughterhouses, the closing down of meat retail shops that are not licensed to ply their trade or whose licences have expired or who don’t maintain the hygiene required of them. Perhaps the sharp dip in the supply of meat and the possibility of many losing their livelihoods prompted the noble-hearted chief minister, Adityanath, to meet the representatives of the meat trade on Thursday.

Temporarily anchored in Lucknow, my friend knew all the details of that parley and began to recapitulate them for me.

The meat traders told the chief minister that it was the government’s responsibility to ensure slaughterhouses conformed to hygiene and pollution norms, and until adequate arrangements were made, they should be permitted to slaughter animals – goats, buffaloes and chickens – at alternate sites or where they had been doing so until recently.

The meat traders said retail shops would apply for licences, or renew those that had expired, but these should be granted without needless delay. With time, they would encourage retailers to refurbish their establishments, get ice boxes or refrigerators, even air-conditioners. But they wanted guarantees that neither government officials nor anti-cow slaughter vigilantes would apprehend vehicles ferrying animals nor extort money from drivers and owners.

“The chief minister,” my radical friend said, “wanted them to withdraw the strike, but they said they would wait until April 5 to see whether the government keeps its side of the bargain.”

Perfect timing?

On the following day, April 6, my friend continued, the Uttar Pradesh wing of the All-India Jamiatul Quresh, which represents the Qureshi biradri that dominates the meat trade, will hold its panchayat in Lucknow to decide whether it should call off the strike.

With a teacher’s superior tone, unmistakable even in our phone conversation, the radical Leftist asked, “Do you know the significance of April 5?”

Face-to-face, I would have arched my eyebrows in admission of ignorance. That was now relayed to her by my silence. “April 5 is the day Navratri ends,” she said.

“So?” I asked.

In my ears echoed her throaty laughter for, I think, a full minute.

“That day marks the end of fasting for Hindus,” she said. “Even those who are not devout, even those among PLUs [people like us], because of peer or domestic pressure, abstain from meat and liquor. From April 6, they begin to binge on food, and those who consume meat do so with abandon.”

She said the meat traders had been smart in rebuffing the state government’s plea to call off the strike. “They want to see action on their demands,” my friend continued. “And because meat sales, anyway, dip during Navratri, they can afford to wait.”

“Thereafter?” I asked, a little sceptical about what I thought was convoluted logic.

“The meat traders perhaps think the government will come under pressure because Hindu[s] will want to eat meat and feel dismayed, perhaps even get angry, at being deprived of it,” she replied, parsing out for me the manoeuvres and counter-manoeuvres in the politics of meat.

“They have got it wrong, those meat traders,” I said, “If Hindus were so fond of consuming meat, Adityanath wouldn’t have ordered a crackdown.” And just to be funny, I added, “Sabka saath, sabka vikas actually means Hindu first.”

My friend did not respond to my aside and, instead, began to update me on what she had seen and heard on her tour of Uttar Pradesh. No doubt, Hindus are sullen, confounded, upset – responses varied in accordance with her respondents’ fondness for meat – at Adityanath’s crackdown on illegal slaughterhouses and the sudden demonstration of zeal by the police in maintaining hygiene.

“Who do you think consumes all the chicken and goats and kebabs and nehari made of buffalo meat?” she asked, as if I were oblivious of the dietary habits of a large segment of Hindus. It is they who patronise restaurants and roadside kebab stalls, and in the marriage banquets and parties they host, a placard announcing the non-vegetarian section is almost always seen. “As in Delhi so in Lucknow, the non-vegetarian section bustles with people.”

Road-side biryani and kebab stalls in Lucknow are hugely popular. (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Demonetisation parallel

“Yogi Adityanath is no fool,” I responded. “He wouldn’t want to hurt Hindu sentiments over meat.”

She said the issue of meat, as with just about everything in India and Uttar Pradesh, is complicated. For one, she said, the crackdown on slaughterhouses and retail shops has been given a spin of legality. Who would ever publicly protest against the closure of shops operating without licences or slaughterhouses violating pollution norms?

She added, “It is just like the demonetisation debate.”

“What?” I exclaimed, unable to fathom the link between the sudden disappearance of mouth-watering galawati kebabs to the unavailability of new Rs 2,000 currency notes in the weeks following the invalidation of old Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 currency notes.

She reminded me about how demonetisation led to micro and small manufacturing units shutting down and a large number of people being thrown out of jobs. There were patients with psychiatric problems who suffered severe relapses because they didn’t have money to buy medicine. “People endured their hardships stoically because demonetisation was styled as a war against black money,” she said.

I asked, “Are you saying that people are willing to forego meat for the larger cause of shutting down illegal abattoirs and meat shops that are not licensed?”

“You got it,” she said, but added, “But there is also an element of hypocrisy.”

She said Adityanath doesn’t seem unduly bothered about finding out whether vegetable vendors have licences, whether their produce is fresh, or if a dash of colour has been added to them to give a gloss to their natural colour, whether the produce sold has excessive pesticide residue.

My friend broke out into a flurry of questions: Are vegetarian hotels and halwai shops checked for their hygiene standards? Is the milk we get contaminated? Should streetside golgappa and chaat and fruit juice vends be banned since their sellers have slime under their nails and don’t even wear gloves? Do all our bazaars adhere to fire safety norms? Look at our overflowing bins, how towns in Uttar Pradesh have become wastelands of plastic.

I was about to say “stop it” when my friend produced her trump card, stunning me into silence. “If it is the duty of municipalities to maintain slaughterhouses and ensure unlicensed shops don’t open, shouldn’t Uttar Pradesh Deputy Chief Minister Dinesh Sharma be asked to account for what he had been doing during his tenure as the city’s mayor?”

“You don’t ask the victorious such questions,” I said.

Diet culture

The radical Leftist embarked on providing me a sociological insight into the Hindu dietary culture of Uttar Pradesh. Everyone knows Dalits consume meat. Traditionally, though, meat was cooked and eaten with relish at the homes of Kayasthas and Rajputs. Among the latter, it was largely the men who ate, their meat-cooking utensils kept apart from those of others.

Call it the pull of modernisation or westernisation, as Hindutva ideologues would say, or the inevitable outcome of growing prosperity, many of various castes took to consuming meat. “From what I have gathered, they don’t cook meat at home, but go to restaurants and streetside vends to savour the kebabs, biryani and other curry preparations,” the friend said. “Or they partake of it at the houses of friends, where it is alright to cook meat or chicken.”

It suddenly occurred to me that her lecture on the sociology of food was her way of telling me that Adityanath will have to reconcile with the meat traders because he runs the risk of alienating the very Hindus whose interests he has championed and whose votes he harvested in abundance.

I told her as much, adding, though in jest, “Guess Adityanath wouldn’t want Hindus out on the streets asking for their pound of flesh.”

She laughed with a hint of exasperation and muttered, “You always get me wrong.” They won’t come out on the streets because of the pull of the normative. “They are not traditionally supposed to eat mutton and chicken, and though they love savouring it, to use that negative term, non-vegetarian dishes, they won’t publicly demand it as a right,” she added.

“It is hypocrisy,” I said.

“If tomorrow there are protests against prohibition in Bihar, will Muslims who drink come out to protest against it?” she asked mockingly.

My friend said she had a chat with Roop Rekha Verma, former vice-chancellor of Lucknow University, who made her see the lack of protest against the short supply of mutton and chicken from another perspective.

“Judging from the voting pattern of Uttar Pradesh, Verma said she couldn’t rule out the possibility of Hindus foregoing meat as their contribution to the building of a Hindu Rashtra,” my friend said, guffawing. Her words were hard to make out. But I think she said, “In the same way, people endured demonetisation to contribute to building a corruption-free India.”

Once it was all quiet over the phone, she said, “Meat-eaters, unite. You have nothing to lose but your hypocrisy.”

Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid.