In Mewat, Haryana, the traditional cheer of Eid ul Zuha was muted this year, overcast by clouds of fear. Four out of five residents of the district are Muslims. Outside Jammu and Kashmir, Mewat has the highest ratio of Muslim residents except Dhubri in Assam. The Meo Muslims practise Islam but also retain many Hindu names and practices. Mewat, recently renamed Nuh, is one of the poorest districts of Haryana. In earlier years, impoverished Meos would sometimes come together for the annual Eid sacrifice, seven households joining to sacrifice one animal. But this year, for the first time, most Muslim households did not sacrifice any animal.
The dread of Muslim residents mounted after raiding teams of the state police, supported by non-State cow vigilantes, collected samples of biryani sold by locals on the highways to Alwar and Gurgaon to test whether these contained cow meat. This was about a week before the Eid. No official reports were made public about the findings of the tests, but cow vigilante leaders claimed that five of the seven samples tested ‘positive’ for cow meat.
Memories are also fresh among Muslims of the lynching of Mohammed Ikhlaq in Dadri less than a year ago, based on the rumour that he had killed a cow and eaten its meat during Eid. People in Mewat feared that mobs could attack any of them, claiming that the meat that they were eating and distributing was cow meat, and they could be killed in the way Ikhlaq was. In fact, ‘Ikhlaq’ had become a verb in people’s conversations: ‘people may Ikhlaq us’, they said, meaning that they could be lynched.
It has become risky to transport cows. If a truck is found to carry cows, then gau rakshaks stop the truck, thrash the driver, often vandalise or burn the vehicle, and then drag the driver, if still alive, to the police.
These rakshaks derive a great sense of social power from this role. But even if the transported animals are not cows — buffaloes, or even camels — the transporters remain equally vulnerable to attack. Instead of gau rakshaks, they pose to be animal rights activists, often claiming allegiance to Union minister and leading animal rights activist Maneka Gandhi. And they are still attacked even though they are not transporting cows.
Apart from the long shadows that the Haryana police biryani raids cast on Eid festivities, the even more permanent damage they inflicted was on the livelihoods of thousands of poor Muslims. Along highways, young men would sell on portable wooden carts steaming biryani to truck-drivers and workers. They would mainly use buffalo meat, which was economical and conformed to local tastes. A plate would sell for Rs 15 to 20. It offered a source of inexpensive and sanitary nutrition, and had become a major part of the contemporary culture of the region.
But even more than this, the biryani stalls were a source of decent livelihood to approximately 15,000 people. It is estimated that around 3,000 such stalls operated across the district. Each offered employment to at least five people, for a range of tasks from the rearing and sale of the meat and rice, collecting firewood, cooking that began typically before dawn inside thousands of Mewat homes, transportation and sale.
However, after the raids by the police, almost all of these have shut down. In an impoverished district with low literacy, there were few jobs for residents who owned little land. Many worked in stone quarries but these were recently shut down. Tens of thousands drove trucks, but more than 50,000 of their driving licences were recently cancelled when they submitted these for renewal. On the back of so much livelihood distress, the abrupt closure of the biryani trade in terror of official action has resulted in suffering and anger.
Cow slaughter is prohibited in Haryana since the mid-1950s under the Punjab Prohibition of Cow Slaughter Act (1955), but lawyer Ramzan Chaudhary tells me that this statute was lightly enforced. This changed with the election of a BJP government in Haryana in 2014. The socially conservative chief minister led the passage of a far more stringent Haryana Gauvansh Sanrakshan and Gau Samvardhan Act, 2015. This first expanded the prohibition to include slaughter of any ‘gau vanshaj’ — including bulls, oxen, heifers and calves, even when these animals are disabled, diseased or barren. It made possession even of tinned and imported beef a crime. It prescribed high penalties including rigorous imprisonment of three to 10 years. The earlier law made no provision for testing or sampling meat samples, but this statute provided for establishing laboratories for such testing. The Haryana government constituted a police — Cow Protection Task Force — led by a DIG Bharti Arora, who went on record about her missionary zeal to protect cows.
It was policepersons of this task force who conducted the Mewat biryani raids, sending samples to the Lala Lajpat Rai University of Veterinary and Animal Sciences, Hisar. The Tribune reports that all that the forensic investigation could conclude was that the meat was ‘cattle meat’, not whether or not it was cow meat. It stated that the laboratories are not equipped to conduct any such tests that would stand legal scrutiny in a court of law.
All of this makes the official motive for the police raids on the biryani stalls even more troubling. Lacking the expertise and equipment to actually test whether the meat samples were of cows or buffaloes, what the raids timed a week before the Eid festival accomplished was only to create a climate of dread that crushed both the festival and one major livelihood source of thousands of poor persons. The greater tragedy is that this seems to have been precisely what the government, openly hostile to a segment of its citizens based on their religious identity, actually wanted to accomplish.
Harsh Mander is the author of Looking Away: Inequality, Prejudice and Indifference in New India.
The views expressed are personal.