‘You may as well kill us’: Human cost of India’s meat ‘ban’

Shakeel Ahmad has been selling meat since 1970s

The government’s crackdown on meat shops in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh has left many traders and butchers without much work and money. The BBC’s Vikas Pandey meets them in Allahabad city.

“I have no money since my shop shut two weeks ago. I don’t know how to feed my children and aging parents. Is it because I am a Muslim, or a meat trader?” Shakeel Ahmad, 52, asks.

He is angry with the state’s new chief minister, Yogi Adityanath, who opposes the slaughter and consumption of cows, considered sacred by India’s Hindu majority.

Authorities have closed many slaughterhouses since Mr Adityanath’s BJP party won the state elections earlier in the month. Small shops selling goat and chicken have also been forced to shut, despite the slaughter of these animals being legal.

Most butchers are Muslims and many suspect that they are being targeted unfairly. They allege that their businesses are being shut on technicalities. One meat traders association went on strike, alleging harassment by state authorities.

Mr Ahmad says he understands the crackdown on slaughterhouses which sell beef “because it was one of the BJP’s campaign promises”.

He adds that municipal authorities recently rejected his application to renew his licence.

“They want me to set up a waste disposal unit, but I don’t have the money needed for it.”

Mr Ahmad lives in a small house with nine other family members in a densely populated area, mostly inhabited by the Muslim Qureshi community.

His mother, Fatima Begum, says that the community in this area has traditionally earned its livelihood through the meat trade.

“Men in this community don’t have any other skill. We are already poor, and now we are not sure where the next meal is going to come from. They may as well kill us,” she says.

Ms Begum says she needs regular medication because of her old age.

“I am running out of my medicines, but I haven’t told this to my son because I don’t want to add to his troubles,” she says.

Mr Ahmad’s wife, Husna Begum, is worried about her children’s education.

“I want my children to get a good education and come out of poverty. If the government thinks meat shops are bad, then give us something else to do.

“Is it a crime to dream about a good future for your children?” she asks.

‘I am scared’

A few blocks away, I meet Mohamed Shariq who has also shut his shop.

“I have the licence needed to run my shop, but I fear attacks from right-wing groups,” he says.

Mr Shariq’s fear is not unfounded.

Media reports suggest that several meat shops have been attacked in the state in the past two weeks.

Mr Shariq invites me to his house, and asks a question.

“Just look around. My house is already breaking apart. I have to feed 10 people. Is it fair to ban our only source of livelihood?”

His brother P Qureshi and other members of the family also join the conversation.

They are all worried about their future.

“I hope and pray that the chief minister understands our problems and stops people who are misusing his name. We know there is no official ban on slaughtering sheep and goats, but we are still scared,” Mr Qureshi says.

Every house in this community has similar stories.

Abdul Qureshi, who ferries animals in his cycle rickshaw, says the crackdown seems so unreasonable because Hindus too eat meat.

“Most of the customers in this market are Hindus. Even the Indian Army people buy from our shops. I don’t understand how banning a food item proves anybody is more or less religious,” he says.

‘Not just Muslims’

Gulzar Qureshi is the community leader here, and he explains that “people don’t understand that this is not just Muslims’ problem”.

“Most people who rear sheep and goats are Hindus. I know so many Hindus who have come here from their villages to sell their animals and are now stuck,” he says.

Chunni Lal is one of them.

“I am running out of money to feed the five goats I have brought with me. Nobody is willing to buy them,” Mr Lal says.

Gulzar Qureshi says people who believe that the meat trade ban has only affected butchers and slaughterhouse owners are wrong.

“That’s just over simplification. Cattle farmers, middlemen who buy animals and butchers are all affected,” he says.

He adds that even rickshaw pullers who ferry these animals, and tannery workers who need leather don’t have much work these days.

“We are not asking for fancy roads and schools. Just let us earn whatever little amount we make for our children. I think that’s the least a citizen can expect from his government,” he says.

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