From the time slaughterhouses were shut down and meat shops sealed in Uttar Pradesh after Chief Minister Adityanath ordered a crackdown on illegal establishments in March, the Quresh subgroup of Muslims in Delhi has been apprehensive of a Bharatiya Janata Party triumph in the city’s civic polls, which are due on April 23. They fear the party will target the meat retail trade, which is largely their monopoly.

The municipal election, whatever its outcome, will not, obviously, dethrone the Aam Aadmi Party government in Delhi. But given that the power to run slaughterhouses and issue licences to shops lies with the municipality, a BJP victory could inject greater vigour, and virulence, in the politics of meat in the Capital, as has been happening in states where the party is in power.

Of that happening, there have been ominous signs over the last few days – the spreading of rumours of a shop selling beef, and a woman being beaten for chucking a stone at a cow. But none is more alarming for the Qureshis than the BJP’s decision to make Adityanath one of its star campaigners for the election.

Though it is unlikely that Adityanath will deliver venomous speeches, as was his wont before he was catapulted to the post of chief minister in Uttar Pradesh, he has become such a powerful symbol of the anti-meat attitude that his very presence in the Capital will roil the emotions of even those who love their kebabs and nehari.

Under the radar

Till now, meat politics in Delhi has been pursued largely under the radar. For instance, the East Delhi Municipal Corporation (the city’s municipal corporation was trifurcated into the north, south and east corporations in 2012) revised its licensing policy for meat shops through an order on January 1, 2016. It mandated owners to procure a no objection certificate from the councillors of the area where their shops were located.

The Delhi Meat Merchants Association challenged the order in the Delhi High Court. The corporation justified the revision, saying its councillors often received complaints from residents against meat shops in their neighbourhoods. As representatives of the people, the councillors were, therefore, best suited to determine where meat shops should be allowed to function, it was argued.

The Delhi Meat Merchants Association thought otherwise. It argued that the East Delhi Municipal Corporation was unjustifiably delegating its powers to area councillors, thereby abdicating its statutory duty of issuing licences. More pointedly, it said the revised policy left applicants at the mercy of the “whims and fancy of the area councillor who belongs to a political party and whose decision of issuing NOC [no objection certificate] or not would be influenced by the political ideology”.

It requires little imagination to figure out that “a political party” in the association’s petition refers to the BJP, which enjoys majority in all three outgoing municipal corporations.

In May, the High Court struck down the East Delhi Municipal Corporation’s order. Among the reasons justice RS Endlaw cited was that though the area councillor is expected to represent the entire electorate, including those who voted against him or her, this seldom happens. Therefore, the judge said, “this may result in the decision to grant or refuse licence having a political hue rather than administrative, as is statutorily required. The area councillor thus cannot be said to be best suited to identify the location for grant of licence”.

Most Qureshis believe this is the BJP’s style of doing politics over meat, of giving a veneer of legality to measures inimical to the meat trade. The Qureshis look upon the corporation’s 2016 order as a ploy to make it more difficult for Delhiites to purchase meat. According to a 2014 government survey, 61% of the city’s residents are consumers of meat – mainly chicken, goat and buffalo.

For nearly three decades, environmentalists, Hindu religious groups, animal rights activists and a segment of the political class have been campaigning against meat for one reason or another. If it isn’t against cruelty towards animals, then it is against the pollution caused by the industry, the illegal slaughter of animals, or the unhygienic handling of raw meat. Some of these concerns are indeed genuine.

Over the years, India has seen campaigns against meat for one reason or the other, by animal activists, environmentalists, religious groups and even politicians. Image credit: Sajjad Hussain/AFP

Sole slaughterhouse

Yet, Delhi has an infrastructure that makes it impossible to address these concerns while meeting its burgeoning demand for meat. Though it is the responsibility of the municipal authorities to oversee abattoirs and ensure that residents have access to hygienic meat, it is the owners of meat shops who are blamed for any shortcoming.

It was to address these concerns that the Delhi Meat Merchants Association petitioned the High Court in 2013, to order the North and South Delhi Municipal Corporations to establish one modernised slaughterhouse each in their precincts.

Delhi’s 18.6 million people have just one slaughterhouse – the modernised abattoir in Ghazipur, East Delhi. It works in three shifts of 11 pm to 6 am, 6 am to 2 pm, and 2 pm to 10 pm, with each shift having an installed capacity to slaughter 5,000 goats and sheep and 1,000 buffaloes. In reality, though, on average, only 4,000 goats and sheep and 500 buffaloes are slaughtered daily.

This is because, as a senior official of the Ghazipur abattoir said, only two shifts – 11 pm to 6 am, and 6 am to 2 pm – are reserved for shopkeepers, while the third is for the private firm that operates it. And it is ridiculous to expect shopkeepers to come to the slaughterhouse late at night after having worked at their shops the entire day. This means the late night shift goes abegging and much of the daily slaughtering happens in the morning shift.

Demand-supply gap

When the Ghazipur slaughterhouse began operations in 2009, it was touted to have the capacity to supply 170,000 kg meat daily. But even then, this was far below Delhi’s estimated daily demand of 490,000 kg of meat. In 2016, this figure is said to have crept up to 900,000 kg.

In its petition to the High Court demanding two new slaughterhouses, the Delhi Meat Merchants Association calculated that the city’s appetite for meat, excluding that of chicken and buffalo, can only be met by slaughtering “not less than 30,000-32,000 goats and sheep”.

Given that only 4,000 goats and sheep are slaughtered daily in Ghazipur, Delhi’s meat craving is satisfied by abattoirs operating illegally. After all, the meat trade can’t be insulated from the market truism of demand fuelling supply. Unless a substantial chunk of Delhi’s 61% meat-eaters turn vegetarian overnight or a slew of slaughterhouses are established, the supply of meat in the city will be sourced from illegal abattoirs for years to come.

But before you begin to bristle against illegal abattoirs and shopkeepers who source meat from them, it might be advisable to question the municipal corporations and even the judiciary for ignoring the yawning gap between demand and supply.

Before the Ghazipur slaughterhouse, Delhi’s supply of meat was met by the abattoir on Idgah Road, which was closed down because it was deemed unhygienic, polluting and the cause of traffic congestion.

In an affidavit submitted in response to the Delhi Meat Merchants Association’s petition for new slaughterhouses, Dr SC Sharma, director, veterinary services, North Delhi Municipal Corporation, said the Idgah abattoir slaughtered 8,000-12,000 animals daily between 1993 and 1994. On May 2, 1993, the number of animals slaughtered crossed the 13,000 mark.

In contrast, Ghazipur slaughters on average just 4,000 goats and sheep and 500 buffaloes daily. But even if we were to go by its installed capacity – that is, 5,000 small animals and 1,000 buffaloes in each of the two shifts – the total would still come to 12,000 animals, on par with the figures between 1993 and 1994.

However, between 1991 and 2011, Delhi’s population grew from 9.4 million to 16.5 million. The consumption of meat, as several surveys have shown, also rose with India’s rising prosperity. These facts suggest the Ghazipur facility wasn’t built with an eye on the future, and was, therefore, bound to push the slaughtering of animals underground.

According to a 2014 study, 61% of Delhi residents are meat-eaters. Image credit: Reuters

Early warning

It wasn’t that the planners and the judiciary weren’t warned of this. Way back on November 8, 2005, Dr RBS Tyagi, who was then the director, veterinary services, of Delhi’s undivided municipal corporation, filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court saying that Ghazipur wouldn’t be able to meet Delhi’s demand for meat and illegal abattoirs would mushroom.

“Who would like to slaughter animals at home? But, really, do you expect shopkeepers to travel from, say, Narela to Ghazipur to source their supply of meat? And then people raise all these issues…,” said Tyagi, who is now director of veterinary services with the South Delhi Municipal Corporation. The Delhi Meat Merchants Association has made him one of the respondents in its petition.

Tyagi has told the High Court that a new slaughterhouse should be built in South Delhi, as has SC Sharma for North Delhi. “The problem is that land in Delhi comes under the Delhi Development Authority,” Tyagi said. “I wrote a letter to it asking for allocation of land for a slaughterhouse. But it replied saying it had no land… People want to consume meat but don’t want a slaughterhouse near them.”

From Idgah to Ghazipur

But this is just one of the many layers in which the politics of meat comes wrapped in Delhi, palpable in the campaign that led to the shifting of the slaughterhouse from Idgah to Ghazipur.

In 1990, one Iqbal Qureshi petitioned the Delhi High Court to make the Idgah abattoir hygienic. It prompted several private citizens, the Sanatan Dharma Sabha, Hari Mandir and animal activist and Union minister Maneka Gandhi to intervene.

On October 1, 1992, the High Court ordered that the Idgah abattoir be closed on or before August 30, 1993. The Delhi Meat Merchants Association and other affected parties went in appeal to the Supreme Court, which stayed the High Court order. They received a big blow, however, on March 18, 1994 when the High Court said the Idgah abattoir could slaughter only 2,500 animals.

Given that 11,544 animals had been slaughtered on February 13 of that year and 9,298 just five days before the High Court’s order, it remains a puzzle why the judges put a cap of 2,500 animals on the Idgah abattoir. Did they even wonder how Delhi’s demand for meat was to be met? Did they give a thought to the many whose livelihood would be jeopardised? (The last is similar to the worry being expressed now over the Supreme Court’s order to disallow the sale of liquor within 500 meters of highways.)

The order stoked the fury of butchers and retail meat shopkeepers, who went on strike for three months. In response, the court created the Jain-Chaturvedi Committee, with justice JD Jain as chairman, to look into the working of the Idgah abattoir.

That prejudices against Muslims also drive the politics of meat became evident in the Jain-Chaturvedi Committee’s report. Three of six experts who assisted the committee chose to write a dissenting note in which they accused Jain of harbouring biases against Muslims. Here is an excerpt from the dissenting note:

“At one point when the question was raised that a large number of poor people were being unemployed, the Chairman made a statement that Muslims created problems anyway as they were multiplying at a faster rate than others. He was immediately corrected…”

Referring to Jain’s assumption that only Muslims consumed meat and all butchers came from among them, the dissenting note said, “Therefore it was again pointed out to him that 70%-80% of meat consumers in Delhi were not Muslims and that a good number of butchers were also non-Muslims.”

The dissenters couldn’t fathom why the Delhi High Court was in a tearing hurry to close down the Idgah abattoir. It pointed out that the United Nations Conference on Environment had given nations adequate time to stop the use of chloro-flouro-carbons (used as refrigerants), which were causing the depletion of the ozone layer. “Then why is the Delhi High Court in such an unreasonable hurry overlooking all human and consumer considerations in case of a slaughterhouse which has much less of the far-reaching consequences than CFC [chloro-flouro-carbons],” they asked.

Alas, it is not for us to answer such questions.

Protests and misconceptions

Nevertheless, in 2004, the Supreme Court ordered the shifting of the abattoir from Idgah to Ghazipur. But now, people living in the vicinity of Ghazipur erupted in protest against the site of the new slaughterhouse, and organised themselves into an outfit called the Butcherkhana Virodhi Manch.

Air Commodore GK Prasad filed a suit in the court saying the abattoir would attract birds and pose a danger to flights operating from the Hindon Air Base, 10 km away from Ghazipur. He was shown photographs of birds already flocking to Ghazipur, which is a landfill. How come the air commodore didn’t, quite literally, see the problem previously?

Then, Air Chief Marshal S Krishnaswamy wrote to the then Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit, voicing, more or less, the same worry Prasad had earlier expressed. The municipal commissioner replied to Krishnaswamy, pointing out that the Ghazipur facility wouldn’t be open to the sky and, therefore, wouldn’t attract birds.

Ghazipur falls under the East Delhi Municipal Corporation, which had issued the order in 2016 asking meat retailers to procure no objection certificates from area councillors for their licences to be renewed or granted. It only shows that the politics over meat in Delhi continues and will likely get a fillip should the BJP win the civic elections.

“It is a misconception that only Muslims are in the meat trade,” said Arshad Habib Qureshi, president of the Delhi Meat Merchants Association. “From farmers who sell their cattle, transporters, commission agents, livestock wholesalers are largely Hindus. Muslims constitute 30% of the workforce, mostly employed as labourers, retailers and butchers.”

Given that 61% of Delhites are non-vegetarians, and with Muslims making up less than 12% of the city’s population, it is obvious that Hindus consume most of the thousands and thousands of kilograms of meat that Delhi produces. “The city’s five-star hotels on their own consume 17,500 kg of meat daily,” said Irshad Qureshi, general secretary of the Delhi Meat Merchants Association. “And you aren’t even counting innumerable three-star, one-star hotels, restaurants and roadside kiosks.” He went on to ask, “Do Muslims eat at five-star restaurants?”

Political parties other than the BJP are wary of making meat an election issue, fearing it would polarise the electorate, as it did in Uttar Pradesh. But in Quresh Nagar, aka Qasabpur, which is where a large chunk of Delhi’s Qureshis have been residing for centuries, there burns the hope that Delhites will think of their passion for meat before pressing the button on the electronic voting machine on April 23.

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