Barely 500 m from the half-samadhi half-mazaar that is the monument to poet Kabir, Mohammad Asad tells a story about the growing number of abandoned cattle in the Maghar kasba of Sant Kabir Nagar in eastern Uttar Pradesh. “A truck comes here at night. They (Hindu farmers) keep the animals that still give milk and send the others to be let loose here in the dark”.
An hour away by road, the Hindu farmers of Nooruddin Chak village on the edge of UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s home turf in Gorakhpur are also agitated about the stray cattle. “Our crop has been damaged, 20 quintals have been reduced to five,” says Simrita Devi. Here, they have their own version of the truck-and-cattle story.
The villain is not the malevolent neighbour of another community but the Machiavellian municipality.
“The city administration and the dairies send trucks loaded with cattle into our villages in the night, to clear them from the city and release them into our fields,” says Pappu Yadav.
Ever since the Yogi government strictly enforced the ban on cow slaughter, the “awara bachcda (stray calf)”, abandoned and set loose by the farmer to wander the fields and streets, has become a “vikat samasya (formidable problem)”, taking its place in the list of threats to the crop, alongside the Nilgai and wild boar.
And for Muslims, calves, cows and buffalos are giving a new name to an old insecurity.
“A cow injured a girl but no one could say anything. But if we dare lead the cattle away from our neighbourhoods, we will be accused of slaughtering them, get beaten up”, says Asad. Muslims must be careful not to get into any controversy in these times, he says, they mustn’t talk freely in “mixed” gatherings.
Qutabbuddin Ansari, BSP’s zilla mahasachiv, says: “Declare the cow a national animal and hang those who do it harm. We will accept it. But at the same time, you must also ensure that those who rear cows look after them.”
In the village of Sanjhain, district Gorakhpur, Ramghulam Nishad, who sells milk, quotes the chief minister’s answer when asked about the growing problem: “Baba (Adityanath) says, you take its milk, so you must look after it.” But “how can we feed our cattle if we can’t make our own ends meet?” counters Dhruvachand, a student. “The animal will turn on the farmer — it is bound to happen if the Muslim does not slaughter it for beef”.
In Mangoorgarh village in Azamgarh, not far from Gorakhpur, Kalavati speaks for many: “If I had the money, I would collect all the cows and leave them at Yogiji’s doorstep.”
In the neighbouring village of Sukhipur, Ram Pratap Singh says he has the means but fears the police. “We will transport them at our own cost to Yogiji’s temple. But he must ensure we are not harassed by the police. We are Hindus, we are not against the cow”.
Raju Singh points to a grievously wounded bull walking by: “To save our crop, we are attacking our cattle. It’s a sin worse than slaughter.”
For many Muslims, apart from stoking the fear of vigilantism, the Yogi government’s strict enforcement of the cow slaughter ban and clampdown on slaughter houses and meat shops has meant a grievous loss of livelihood — the local business of meat employs mostly Muslims while Hindus are a more visible presence in the export industry.
On the face of it, the government has moved only against “illegal” and “unlicensed” establishments. But in a meat economy operating mainly in the grey zone, this has had a wider effect.
Over the years, a weak regulatory system and those wanting to make a fast buck have conspired with a “secular” politics to subvert the licensing requirements and norms. For politicians cultivating the “Muslim vote”, extending a protective umbrella to illicit slaughter houses and meat shops was a way of doing secularism on-the-cheap — requiring only the wink and a nudge, not delivery on the substantive promises of bijli-sadak-paani and padhai.
In Khalapar locality of Muzaffarnagar town, Gulzar Ahmed nurses a cup of tea as he sits outside a small provision store and watches others go about their business. He lost his job as a munshi (accountant) in a small leather business that could not survive the double blow of demonetisation and new restrictions on meat. Finding another job will not be easy in these times and he is too old for manual labour. “Unemployment here is now almost 90 per cent. The closing down of the meat business has also affected the sale of fruit, milk, tea — the entire economy has been hurt, not just the sale of meat”, he says.
Licensed meat shops account for a fraction of the total, one estimate is barely 10 per cent. Many meat-sellers admit that what was happening before the Yogi government cracked down was wrong too: meat being sold in unsanitary conditions, shops violating norms on pollution and medical clearances for slaughter houses, refrigerators, automatic door-closers and walls with tiles. “But how can there be compliance all of a sudden?,” asks Mohammad Yaqub Ansari, fruit seller, whose business has also taken a hit. “Surely, there were other ways of cleaning up, addressing the problem”.
“Dil hi nahi karta (I don’t feel like eating)”, says Zakia Khan, a young mother of three, whose husband runs an NGO for Hindu-Muslim unity in Khalapar. “We only get frozen meat now from outside, it goes from one freezer to another”.
In his home in Rampur, affluent businessman and president of the Veneer Association, Muslim Moin Qureshi, puts into words the fear that is straddling the class divide: “My son is a doctor in the Indian army. If I offer to pack kebab for him when he travels back to work after a vacation at home, he says, no daddy, I will not take meat. If something happens, who will prove whether the meat is of the cow or buffalo? No one controls the gau rakshak.”
Qureshi talks of inflammatory WhatsApp videos doing the rounds. And shows one on his phone — a string of grainy visuals suggesting the Rohingya Muslims are man-eaters. “I forward them to my children who tell me they are fake. But I receive several every day”.
Inside the Gorakhpur math, Dwarika Tiwari, Yogi’s senior aide, who has spent 46 years at the math, talks about the ban on cow slaughter: “Jaisa khaye ann, vaisa ho mann (you are what you eat)”. There are “achche Musalman (good Muslims)”, says Tiwari, who don’t eat meat.
He defends the vigilantism in the name of the cow: “If you are carrying meat, who knows what meat it is. If you are wearing a burqa, who knows what is inside the burqa”.
General secretary of the Hindu Yuva Vahini P K Mall, underlines the Yogi government’s commitment to the cow: “The title of the ‘Gorakhnath Peeth’ (the monastic establishment headed by Yogi) derives from the ‘Goraksh Peeth’, it is associated with gau raksha (cow protection)”. And Yogi’s stature as “Gorakh Peethadheeshwar”, head of the mutt, is much bigger than his position as “chief minister”, he says.
He says the Vahini is determined to take the state their “Maharajji” now rules back in time. “Gochar ki bhoomi kahan gayi (where has the village grazing land gone). We will make gau shalas, punish those who built on it and made multi-storeyed buildings.” Outside the spacious complex of the Gorakhnath Math, where Mall speaks, traffic crawls, the movement of vehicles, men and animals, a daily act of give and take.