“She is a very Iron lady,” says Krishna, a municipal stenographer as I wait to meet the mayor of Aligarh, the BJP’s Shakuntala Bharti on a sultry afternoon.
After over an hour, clad in a bright red sari with a thick golden border, vermillion streak on forehead and sindoor all the way back in her hair, Bharti, 51, walks in with a small black pug called Blackie.
Amongst the first things she brings up is her crusade against illegal cow slaughter, the basis for her iron lady reputation.
“I have rescued so many cows that there is no count - not just within Aligarh but outside the city as well. If there is any incident then the first person to reach is Aligarh mayor Shakuntala Bharti. If there is anyone to save their lives, it is Shakuntala Bharti,” she says smugly.
The gau raksha strand of Hindutva politics, represented by those like Bharti have so far been restricted to the fringes of the BJP, for a reason – while it was seen to have some political traction, it also carried the incendiary potential of communal tension.
But today, the new BJP government in Uttar Pradesh under the chief ministership of hardline priest Yogi Adityanath has converted the rhetoric of gau raksha, powered by half-truths and rumours, into policy by shutting down slaughterhouses and meat shops across the state.
The chaotic impact of these actions trace back to some erroneous claims made by the BJP in its manifesto, justifying the crackdown. The document stated that the party would shut down all illegal slaughterhouses and prohibit mechanised abattoirs as illegal cattle smuggling during the Samajwadi Party rule had led to a drop in UP’s livestock population and milk production.
The facts suggest otherwise.
The UP livestock census has shown a consistent upswing in buffalo population, from 229 lakhs in 2003 to 306 lakhs in 2012. The last all-India livestock census of 2012 shows a similar increase. It also indicates a 6.5 percent increase in cow population from the previous census in 2007.
As for milk, the national dairy board’s figures for UP have shown an increase from 24,863 tonnes in 2012 to 29,086 tonnes last year - a jump of 17 percent.
A FICCI report estimates that selling buffaloes that no longer yield milk for slaughter, greatly benefits farmers.
For the administration to enforce this policy even if it has nothing to do with unearthing illegal cow slaughter, has led to a frantic search for every minor lapse. To this end, teams of over 30 officials and policemen, representing ten departments set out every morning to inspect godowns, meat factories, unused buildings or even homes.
We accompanied one such team in Aligarh. In a cold drink storage unit, they found sacks of animal trachea. So far in over 35 raids in Aligarh, 9 premises have been sealed based on similar discoveries.
The Additional District Magistrate of Aligarh, SB Singh confirmed none of the recoveries ostensibly seem to be of the cow. “The animal remains recovered are of buffaloes – most are old, only in one or two cases fresh parts were found. No cow related incidents have been reported from these proceedings.”
Instead, FIRs registered against the 9 establishments are for public nuisance and negligence.
But the drumbeat of the cow in peril is kept alive by the party faithful. Bharti maintains that cows are being slaughtered openly. When asked for evidence, she brushes it off saying, “If you know I’m going to raid you and you know you are indulging in illegal activity, you will be cautious. All slaughterhouses are careful now.”
Charging the last Samajwadi Party government with giving a free rein to cow slaughter, she says, “Rakshas ke muh mein khoon lag jata hai. Us tareeke se un logon ki pravartiyan ban chuki hai.” (The demon has tasted blood and it has become a habit now). She adds sternly that she will ensure anyone caught from now on will be booked under the National Security Act, a stringent law which gives police the power to detain people upto 12 months.
The accusation of a Samajwadi Party government that favored Muslims reflects a volatile strand of the BJP’s campaign pitch where it’s top leaders routinely accused the Akhilesh regime of doling out selective benefits to minorities - be it scholarships or electricity.
Sustaining such divisive rhetoric even when in power suggests that the party intends to use its crusade on meat to keep alive Hindutva sentiment - perhaps till the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, or even beyond.
It’s a strategy fraught with risks.
The actions of the state government have greatly emboldened fringe groups. Last week, during an inspection at the Unnao plant of India’s oldest and top meat exporting group, Allanasons, two local members of the Hindu Jagran Manch tried to enter the factory to conduct their own check.
Sporting a saffron scarf, a muscular and moustachioed Vimal Dwivedi, 38, said he was denied entry during the inspection but managed to force his way in later. “When the documents were being checked by the officials, the media persons were removed from there. But I stubbornly insisted on sitting there as a member of the civil society.” No illegality or lapses were found.
While sealing illegal slaughterhouses operating without due licenses is easy, such licensed slaughterhouses and buffalo meat export units are also facing the heat. Of the 41 such units in Uttar Pradesh, 9 were sealed for minor reasons ranging from dysfunctional CCTVs to a pending permission for groundwater use.
This isn’t an isolated incident. In Meerut, Bajrang Dal activists raided a meat packaging unit without informing the authorities. They beat up a worker who turned out to be a BJP member.
Dwivedi claims that he has also pressurized the local administration into closing down meat shops in the vicinity of temples during the ongoing Navratri week.
Far from reining in vigilantes, the police appear to be acting in tandem with them.
This was borne out in the bylanes of Dodhpur road in Aligarh where almost ten meat shops remain shut. Faizan, a worker at one of the shops alleges that local police forced them to shut down shops on account of Navratri, a charge denied by the local administration.
For an overzealous administration, or for vigilantes, slaughterhouses can easily be labelled as illegal, the legacy of previous regimes. The domestic demand of buffalo meat is supposed to be met by slaughterhouses which come under the jurisdiction of the municipal corporation. In Aligarh and most cities across the state, these premises have been lying defunct and unused for several years due to inadequate facilities. This spurred a rise in small and unauthorized slaughterhouses.
While the district magistrate’s office in Aligarh is trying to revive the municipal slaughterhouse in the coming month, Bharti as the head of the corporation says a firm no. “Till the time I am mayor, I have no such plan.”
“They are worried about jobs, our gau mata is being murdered, in whom 47 crore gods reside. Their job is not more important than gau mata’s life. They need to be punished for it,” she adds.
In a city like Aligarh, where 42 percent of the population is Muslim, this drive has disproportionately hit the community who are both consumers and earn livelihood from the sector. Bharti remains unmoved, “Where in Quran does it say that cow meat, buffalo meat, milk giving animals have to be eaten? Which religious text says that?”
Watch: UP government’s clampdown on slaughterhouses
But Muslims aren’t the only casualties.
Santosh Kumar Upadhyay, 40, voted for the BJP. To celebrate the party’s win he bought motichoor laddoos for family and neighbours on the day of the result. Now he may lose his job because of them.
Upadhyay, a vegetarian, has worked at the Allanasons meat export factory for the last six years. He is in charge of the deboning process on the factory floor. “All kinds of speeches are made during the election but we didn’t think that the industry would come to the brink of closure.”
Uncertainty and disruption in the supply chain has reduced the factory’s production to just 20 percent. They have not fired any of the 2100 workers yet but may have to do so if the production remains low. To keep the morale going, the workers are called in daily even in departments which have no work. About 50 workers stood idly infront of empty assembly lines at the packaging unit, when we visited.
Upadhyay, the sole earning member of a family of eight says, “I regret voting for a party that is taking away our livelihood. Even during the Parliamentary election, we voted for the BJP thinking that ache din will come. Par ache din ki jagah bure din aa gaye”. (Instead of good days, only troubled days have arrived).