“Remove the biryani vessel, take it inside.”
The panic is clear on the face of a middle-aged man standing near a makeshift biryani stall on the Delhi-Alwar road at Ferozepur Jhirka in Haryana’s Mewat district on Friday. Shaukat Ahmed Qureshi, 17, the stall owner, responds in a flash. He calls out to a friend for help and both hurriedly carry away the large, blackened aluminium vessel to a dhaba across the street.
Hiding, moving, and at times even throwing away the biryani, has become a daily ritual for the six remaining food-stall owners on this stretch. Until a month ago, there were 20 of them but things have changed since 25 samples of biryani from these stalls were taken away by local police, based on “complaints” that cow meat was being used in the preparation.
Who complained isn’t quite clear.
Kuldeep Singh, SP, Mewat, says some called the police station, some walked in. “No FIR has been filed in the case,” he admits. Still, seven samples of biryani were collected and sent for tests.
The reports are yet to come.
But fear has clearly gripped the biryani stalls here.
In one of the poorest districts in Haryana — with also one of the lowest share of cows in the state — the new law making cow slaughter punishable with jail-terms of up to 10 years and fines of up to Rs 1 lakh this year has hardened the fault-lines and sharpened local rivalries.
Over the last month, says Shaukat, “at least three vehicles full of policemen from the Ferozepur Jhirka and Nuh thanas have been coming here every day”.
”They throw away our biryani and confiscate our vessels. We have told them several times that we use only buffalo meat, but they are not ready to listen. The last time the team came, they picked out meat pieces from my biryani, packed them in plastic bags and took them away. They haven’t come back since… I am scared,” says Shaukat, who has been selling biryani on this road, mostly frequented by truck drivers, since 2002.
“If we see any vehicle other than a truck, we shut shop and hide,” he says.
Shaukat and 15 other members of his family depend on the biryani stall for their livelihoods. Like the other vendors, he charges Rs 30 for a plate, and says daily profit is not more than Rs 200-250. “Last month, we couldn’t sell out our stock for several days. We don’t have refrigerators, so we ended up throwing the biryani away. We borrow rice from general stores every week and only have money to pay them after selling for six-seven days. Because of these raids, we have debts to take care of, too,” says Shaukat.
Like the other biryani vendors, Shaukat belongs to the Qureshi community and hails from Doha village nearby, where at least 50 families have engaged in this trade since 2000. “Earlier, there was a factory in the area and all members of our community worked there. But it shut down in 1999 and we switched to the biryani business. Now the government wants to snatch this away, too,” says Irfan Qureshi, 22, whose biryani has also been taken in for testing.
“Most of the vendors have already left, they fear getting arrested. Look around, there is no one,” says Irfan, pointing to the empty stalls on the road.
This March, the Haryana government enforced the Haryana Gauvansh Sanrakshan and Gau Samvardhan Act 2015. In July, there was a panchayat meeting held in Doha, where all members of the Qureshi community were asked to give up the biryani business.
“The sarpanch, local police, Meo-Muslims and Hindus from the village attended the meeting. We pleaded… told them we have no land, but they insisted we drop the job. This was during Ramzan. Now just before Eid, the chaos has begun again,” says Nawab Qureshi, 50, whose family is in the biryani business.
“We are the poorest community in the village, so it is easy to trample us. Now, our boys are running and hiding from police, the business has taken a huge hit,” says Nawab.
As per the 2011 Census, Doha has a population of 7,642, of which the majority belong to the Meo-Muslim community. The remaining are Qureshi-Muslims and Hindus.
“Why can’t they do some other job? It is an open secret that they use cow meat in their biryanis. They can’t afford chicken or lamb. I am tired of telling them to end this nonsense,” says Haji Shah, a Meo-Muslim and one of the complainants, speaking on behalf of his daughter-in-law and sarpanch Rubiya.
The Qureshis believe that Shah and members of the Meo-Muslim and Hindu communities in the village have been complaining to police. “There are two groups in the village. It is the Qureshis versus the rest, and the sarpanch (referring to Shah) and his men are the masterminds behind this drama. We have been selling biryani for 16 years… In the last three months, we have been harassed every day,” alleges Nawab.
Says Lakshmi Narayan, a resident of Doha, “The meat could be either cow’s or buffalo’s, we are not sure, but why kill any of them? The Qureshis have been warned time and again, they should have changed their profession by now. Ab jhelo (Suffer now).”
“We only respond to complaints, and the samples from Ferozepur Jhirka were collected based on that. We are yet to receive the report of the tests on the meat, and only after that can we decide on any action. As far as collecting samples from other villages in the area is concerned, we will do so only if someone raises an objection,” says Bharti Arora, DIG, who is also the nodal officer of Haryana Police’s Cow Protection Task Force.
The samples of meat picked up from stalls on the Delhi-Alwar road have been sent to the Lala Lajpat Rai University of Veterinary and Animal Sciences in Hisar. “We have received the samples from Ferozepur Jhirka, but the results have not come out yet,” says Dr Ashok Malik, PRO at the university.
Back on Delhi-Alwar road, while playing hide-and-seek with approaching vehicles, four out of the six stalls have managed to sell their biryani stock by lunch. Though relieved that there were no raids today, the vendors have another complaint: “Police seized 22 of our aluminium vessels this month. They should at least return those to us,” says Irfan, packing up for the day.