Sirajuddin Qureshi is the president of All-India Jamiatul Quresh, which is an association of the Quresh community, a Muslim subgroup that has been traditionally engaged in the meat trade and has witnessed a degree of economic mobility. On March 30, Qureshi led a delegation of meat traders to Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath after a state-wide crackdown on the so-called illegal abattoirs and sealing of meat retail shops.
In this interview with Scroll.in, Quresh gives details of the delegation’s conversation with Adityanath, the witch-hunt against meat traders, speculates on the possibility of the meat strike in Uttar Pradesh being extended to the entire country, and talks about his conversation with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whom he met in 2014. Excerpts:
Did the closure of illegal and mechanised slaughterhouses in Uttar Pradesh come as a shock to you?
It wasn’t a shock because they (Bharatiya Janata Party) had already announced that if they were to come to power, they would immediately impose these restrictions.
But haven’t legal slaughterhouses been closed down as well?
All government-owned slaughterhouses in Uttar Pradesh and India come under the local bodies, the municipalities. The person who goes to the slaughterhouse pays money, takes a receipt, slaughters the animal and brings the meat to his shop. If certain facilities at these slaughterhouses haven’t been provided, then whose responsibility is it? The local body’s, obviously. The person who is slaughtering the animal there isn’t at fault.
Suddenly these slaughterhouses, that is, those the municipalities run, have been closed down on the ground that these are illegal. They have been deemed illegal because no clearance has been obtained from the pollution department or this or that department. In the process, the person who goes to the slaughterhouse daily, to avail of its facilities, becomes jobless and has no business to run. Such a person works from morning till evening – that is, he gets the goat slaughtered, takes the meat from the abattoir to his shop, and sells it to customers. In the evening he brings back home the money that he earned through the day.
Here you are basically talking of shopkeepers, right?
Yes, these are the people who procure animals from mandis (wholesale markets) and take them to the abattoir for slaughtering them. If you ask me, what are called slaughterhouses are not slaughterhouses at all.
You mean slaughterhouses that are run by municipalities?
These are sites where animals are allowed to be slaughtered. But these places don’t have walls; there is no tiling of floors, no water, etc. Since those who bring the animals to the abattoir for slaughtering are charged, it is the municipality’s responsibility to provide water and keep it clean. So what happens? People continue to slaughter animals in that unhygienic area – they aren’t bothered.
Why aren’t they bothered?
Take a person who brings a goat to the abattoir for slaughtering. He is not its consumer. He is going to sell the meat at his shop. In other words, it is the customer who’s eating meat which might not be hygienic at all. It is the government’s responsibility to ensure that every citizen gets hygienic meat.
On the other hand, the person who prepares the meat and sells it is not only a businessperson, but also an expert who is extremely skilled. Can anyone replace him? No, this is because no person other than him would want to touch meat.
What you are saying is that municipality-run slaughterhouses are all legal.
Yes, and it is the government which should provide adequate facilities for slaughtering animals.
Did you convey the distinction between legal and illegal slaughterhouses to Uttar Pradesh Yogi Adityanath when you led a delegation of meat traders to meet him?
I told him, “Sir, I don’t understand the difference between legal and illegal slaughterhouse.” This is because all slaughterhouses (other than those set up for exports and are private) come under the local bodies – and, therefore, under the government.
Uttar Pradesh’s Deputy Chief Minister, Dinesh Sharma, was previously Lucknow’s mayor...
The chief minister was right in asking as to why the previous governments did not provide the required facilities at the slaughterhouses. He said they should have cleaned them, modernised them.
To it, I said, “Sir, who’s going to listen to us? If you are going to listen to me, I’d be very happy.” It is true the previous governments did not bother about modernising and making the slaughterhouses hygienic. I told Adityanath that if he can do it, consumers will have access to hygienic and quality meat, the provision of which is the government’s responsibility.
But there is also the issue of shopkeepers who…
When shopkeepers want to secure or renew their licences for meat shops, they are dependent on the mood of municipality officials. If they wish to grant licence, they do. Otherwise they don’t. As a result, a lot of shopkeepers don’t have licences – and because of which their shops have been sealed. In fact, the last date for renewal of licences was March 31. Yet their shops were sealed on the ground that their licences hadn’t been renewed even though a few days were left for their expiry.
Do you feel this is because meat traders are discriminated against?
Well, the chief minister said he is the kind of person who wouldn’t discriminate against anyone.
He said that?
Well, he said that there are 22 crore people in Uttar Pradesh and all are equal for him. He assured us that there wouldn’t be any discrimination on the basis of caste and religion.
So what did you say to him in response?
I said, “If that is how you feel, thank you very much.” He also said he hadn’t issued instructions for the crackdown, but the officials had acted on their own and that he would take suitable action against them.
But Adityanath wanted you all to call off the strike, right? Why?
Because of the scarcity of meat. I told the chief minister that only 30% of people in the trade are Muslim. I said the remaining 70% are from other castes and religions. Tell me, how many farmers who sell goats or cattle are Muslim? How many transporters are Muslim? How many labourers are Muslim? Then you have the leather industry. Are Muslims employed in it? The total meat trade in India is worth Rs 2.5 lakh crore, of which Uttar Pradesh has a share of Rs 50,000-Rs 60,000 crore. Uttar Pradesh has more number of animals than other states.
Did you cite these figures to Adityanath?
Yes, I did. And I said, “I don’t mean you, but if some people have this feeling (that Muslims are the only beneficiaries of the meat trade), it should be rectified.” I also asked him to provide adequate facilities. He said he would look into the matter, but he also added that we have to modernise meat shops. I said, yes, it is my duty and I will do it.
But you need time to modernise shops, don’t you?
Time is just one factor. A good many shopkeepers are too poor to have the finances for modernising shops – for instance, installing air-conditioners, deep freezers, etc.
But isn’t this, in a way, discriminatory as well? Such demands are not made on shops selling vegetables and sweets.
Our people – meat traders, that is – don’t handle meat in a proper way, I admit. That said, some of the state governments are providing air-conditioned vehicles in which meat is transported from the slaughterhouse to meat shops.
But those states don’t have the kind of problems being encountered in Uttar Pradesh.
Take a shopkeeper who sells meat culled from a goat or two. 80% of his customers would be non-Muslim.
Did you tell this to Adityanath?
Yes, I did, and he said he knew it. I suppose he has many problems to which he wouldn’t want to admit. He said he wanted everything clean, that animals shouldn’t be slaughtered on the streets, that he didn’t want the blood of animals to go into drains. He said, forget about Hindus, even Muslims don’t like it.
I said we will try, and we will give our full cooperation. But your government should also give us full cooperation.
To get back, why did he want you all to call off the meat strike?
The chief minister was worried over the scarcity of meat, which isn’t available in restaurants and to citizens. It isn’t available even in zoos. They tried to feed poultry to a lion in the Lucknow zoo and it refused to eat.
Are you serious?
Yes. The lion only eats meat. But even the chicken and fish shops were closed in the initial days of the strike. Their owners supported those in the meat business. Let us wait and see. The chief minister was forthright in expressing his views.
The meeting took place on March 30. Has the scenario changed in Uttar Pradesh since then?
In some parts of Uttar Pradesh, the situation seems to be getting alright. But the major problem that the industry faces is the transportation of animals. The non-state actors – the vigilantes, so to speak – detain trucks ferrying animals.
Trucks ferrying goats?
Whether goats or buffaloes, they just whisk away the trucks.
Is it still continuing?
Yes. And we are going to take up this issue with the chief minister again.
It is on April 6 that you will take a decision to call off the strike, right?
On April 6, the Jamiatul Quresh will hold a meeting in Lucknow. I have invited delegates from all parts of Uttar Pradesh to the meeting. If meat traders say their problems haven’t been resolved, we will continue with the strike. If their problems still persist even after that, we will extend the strike to the entire country.
Yes. After all, these people are targeting the meat people all over the country – in Maharashtra, Jharkhand, Haryana, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh. In the name of pollution they are closing down slaughterhouses and meat shops. The National Green Tribunal is also after them – but it isn’t our responsibility to maintain slaughterhouses – it is the government’s. The Supreme Court gave the directive that all slaughterhouses should be modernised – but nobody has done it yet.
Hygiene is one aspect of the problem. The other aspect is the capacity of slaughterhouses. When Delhi’s abattoir was located in Idgah in Delhi, there were far more animals being slaughtered there in 1994 than they are in the modernised one in Ghazipur. So how is the demand for meat going to be met?
I will not use the word “illegal”. Fact is if the demand isn’t met by the slaughterhouse, people will slaughter illegally. That’s their rozi-roti [livelihood]. When they were constructing the Ghazipur slaughterhouse, I told (then chief minister) Sheila Dikshit that it has to be conceptualised keeping in mind that 12,000 animals were being slaughtered at the Idgah abattoir before the court order came for closing it down. In 2009, Delhi’s daily demand was equivalent to 25,000 animals. But her officers just wouldn’t listen to me. The cost of the new slaughterhouse was around Rs 200 crore. I told them that if they were to give me Rs 50 crore, I would build a slaughterhouse better than the one they were planning in Ghazipur. She told me that her government would build new slaughterhouses at other places in Delhi as well.
But these were never built?
These will never be built.
Given the fact that non-Muslims are major consumers of meat and yet don’t stand up against the targeting of the meat trade, don’t you feel cheated or betrayed?
Hindus love eating meat, they can’t do without it. Maybe they can for a couple of days. But it is part of their food habit. It is not so with Muslims because a large segment of them are too poor to afford meat. There is also the other thing – just about every food item can be adulterated, but not meat (of goats and buffaloes). Till now, it remains pure and natural. No hormones are injected into meat. The animals slaughtered in India are natural grazing ones. This is why meat from India is very popular wherever it is exported. Even chicken is not pure. I call it artificial chicken. Vegetables and fruits are coloured.
So don’t you think non-Muslim consumers of meat should stand up?
I don’t think they support the government’s stance. I think we have their silent support. Then again, there are people from other religions who are dependent on the meat trade. Farmers, those in the leather, perfume, pharmaceutical industries and such like. There are just too many items dependent on animal byproducts.
So why doesn’t your organisation get people from other industries to come together on one platform?
They are there.
They are there. On the April 6 meeting, too, they will be there.
At the Jamiatul Quresh meeting?
Yes. Hindu Dalits.
There is a view which says that the meat trade has been targeted to undermine the growing prosperity of the Quresh community.
But how many people are really rich among the Qureshis – maybe five or ten.
But in the retail meat trade, sales have gone up.
Yes, but 50% of the meat business belongs to non-Qureshis. Even in the retail business, Punjabis, for instance, are very much there, so are Dalits.
So you don’t think economic factors are driving the targeting of the meat trade?
I don’t think the government has that intention.
What about extra-state actors, the vigilantes?
If it is so, it should be condemned. The meat business is the only business that Muslims are doing without having to stretch out their hands to anyone. This is what I told the prime minister also.
When did you meet the prime minister?
In 2014, after he became prime minister. He had expressed concerns over the meat industry and talked about the pink revolution (during the 2014 election campaign). I told him it wasn’t true that only Muslims are engaged in the meat business. I listed for him the communities involved in it. He said animals are being slaughtered and that there would be a shortage of animals. The prime minister said the farmer was suffering because of the meat trade. I said, no, he isn’t. I said the farmer is getting a better price selling his animals than wheat, rice and sugarcane. He gets the rate that he asks for.
Moreover, I said we don’t slaughter female animals, we do that only when they are dry.
But there is no choice there. Most states have laws banning cow-slaughter.
Even the slaughter of bulls is now banned in most states.
So what did the prime minister say?
He listened to me.
So he was worried about the animal population going down?
The animal population has gone up now. The present population of buffaloes is more than a 100 million. Sheep are perhaps around 60 million, and goats another 50 million. There is no shortage of animals for meat.
Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid. It is available in bookstores.