Why the Qureshi butchers of East Delhi’s Ghazipur will not vote in the Lok Sabha election

The indifference of political parties is just one part of the systemic marginalisation that the Qureshis have faced for decades. SARAVANA BHARATHI S B FOR THE CARAVAN
11 May, 2019

On 6 September 2018, Hanif Qureshi, a 38-year-old poultry butcher, was working in the Ghazipur Murga Mandi—chicken market—in East Delhi. At around 9 am that morning, about fifty police officers stormed into the market and started evicting the poultry butchers from the premises. “Unho ne kaha tha ki saari katai band kar do, warna hum tumhe kaat denge,”—The police said stop all slaughtering or we will slaughter you—Hanif told me. He was one of the thousands of people—butchers and labourers who transport livestock and chicket meat—who worked in the Murga Mandi. Most of these workers are from the Qureshi community, a backward Muslim group that is predominantly engaged in the meat trade. “We have been doing this work for generations now; this is all we can do. What do we do now that they have thrown us out?” Hanif said.

In February last year, Gauri Maulekhi, a member of the Animal Welfare Board of India, a statutory body advising the environment ministry, had filed a writ petition in the Delhi high court, demanding that all slaughtering at the Murga Mandi be stopped, as the market was operating illegally. The Delhi Pollution Control Board submitted a report two months later, which stated the various violations of rules of slaughtering in the market—for instance, the market did not have a treatment facility for waste management, and had not been granted permission to draw water from the nearby borewell. In August, the sub-divisional magistrate for the eastern region directed the Delhi Agricultural Marketing Board to stop illegal slaughtering in the area. Since then, the East Delhi Municipal Corporation and the Delhi Police have conducted various raids to stop poultry slaughtering. On 29 September, the Delhi high court said that some illegal slaughtering was still taking place in the area and ordered it to stop immediately.

While government authorities have consistently cracked down on slaughterhouses, few addressed the main concern of the Qureshis—their resulting loss of livelihood. Their plight does not seem to be an issue in the upcoming Lok Sabha election for the East Delhi constituency. The constituency has received high-decibel media coverage owing to its popular candidates—Atishi from the Aam Aadmi Party, who is often credited with reforming the education system in Delhi, and the former international cricketer Gautam Gambhir, from the Bharatiya Janata Party. Atishi, Gambhir and the Congress’s candidate, Arvinder Singh Lovely, have not raised the issue in their campaigns.

The indifference of political parties is just one part of the systemic marginalisation that the Qureshis have faced for decades. In 2009, the Supreme Court ordered that the Idgah abattoir in north Delhi—where thousands of Qureshi butchers worked—be shut down, rendering most of them unemployed. The closure of their trade in Ghazipur is the second blow to the community, many of whose members are disillusioned with government authorities, as well as the electoral process. “Vote deke kya hoga?” Hamza Qureshi, a 28-year-old butcher who used to work in Ghazipur, told me—what will change if we vote?

The present situation in Ghazipur bears a striking resemblance to the closure of the Idgah, which had been operational since the early 1900s. Towards the end of the century, various public interest litigations were filed against the Idgah, claiming that it was unhygienic and caused health hazards. The petitioners included the Shri Sanatan Dharm Sabha, a religious organisation; and Maneka Gandhi, who is now the minister of women and child development. Maulekhi, the petitioner who approached the court last year, is a close associate of Gandhi. The Idgah was shut down in 2009, and a new mechanised abattoir was set up in Ghazipur. Over time, a livestock market emerged in the region, around the abattoir.

The relocation and the shift from a labour-intensive process to a mechanised process of slaughtering left most of those who worked in the Idgah abattoir unemployed. Zarin Ahmad, a researcher, reported in the Economic and Political Weekly in August 2013, “Members of the Qureshi biradri say that just 25-30 boys from the biradri have been absorbed in the new set-up”—the mechanised slaughterhouse—“where 5,000 were earlier working.” Moreover, not all of them could afford to travel to Ghazipur—located approximately seventeen kilometres away from the Idgah—on a daily basis. The government did not provide viable exit options to those who were left out. “We do not get work anywhere else,” Atif, a 22-year-old, who was only skilled at butchery, told me. “Musalmaan ko kaun kaam deta hai”—who employs a Muslim?

Though the court accepted the petitioners’ contention on hygiene and moved the Idgah abattoir, the new location did not resolve this issue—in fact, it compounded it. The Ghazipur abattoir is used primarily for the slaughter of buffalo and lamb, not for chicken. Given the lack of an alternative, many of the poultry butchers resorted to slaughtering poultry in the Murga Mandi, on pavements, slabs and stalls. Moreover, the new abattoir and the Murga Mandi are less than four hundred metres away from a huge landfill site in Ghazipur.

Most of the butchers I spoke to said that the meat trade had become less and less stable in recent years. As most of them did not have any other skill but butchery, many have now resorted to working as labourers in the area. Moin Qureshi, a former butcher, told me in November that he comes to the Murga Mandi every day to scout for work, often related to transporting livestock to the butchers and then delivering the meat across the city. Many others I met repeated this. But Moin said that the work he found was not as profitable for him as butchering. “I used to be able to earn around 300–400 rupees a day for my work. Now, I earn around Rs 150 per day,” he said, adding, “I have two children to send to school and I have to feed my family. How am I supposed to do that now?”

The recent removal of the butchers from the premises has affected the entire Murga Mandi, which was earlier a one-stop shop for meat. For the first few months after the raids, the butchers used to take the livestock from the market, slaughter it elsewhere and come back to the market area to sell the meat. When I visited the market on 28 November, I saw around 25 of them selling chicken leg pieces outside the livestock market’s gate. Javed Qureshi, who left butchering to run a mobile shop in 2016, said, “Ye kaam toh khatam ho gaya hai. Sabko lagta hai ki ganda kaam hai”—This trade is over. Everyone thinks it is dirty work.

Aashqueen Qureshi, a 31-year-old butcher told me, “Ye pehle aisi market thi, ki jitna bhi maal aajaye, wo sab khatam ho jaye”—Earlier, this market was such that however much the livestock, it would get sold. But even the livestock market remains a shadow of its usual bustling self. “After the ban, people stopped coming here for meat. Since the livestock is still getting sold, they can find other butchers in the city,” Mohammed Hatim, a 22-year-old who started working in Ghazipur four years ago, told me when I visited the area last week. The traders in the livestock market have also taken a hit as earlier the butchers outside their gates were the market’s primary customers. Now, they have to manage delivery to different parts of the city.

The butchers I spoke to said that the government authorities have not helped them. But now, they told me, the EDMC has given around twenty licenses to set up shops that comply with hygiene standards in the Murga Mandi. The EDMC’s lawyer, Hemant Jain, said he cannot comment on the matter as it is sub judice. Complying with these standards is expensive, and so only around five of the wealthier butchers have set up their shops on the premises. Aashqueen, who was one of them, said that the butchers used to pay a one-percent “tax” to the EDMC when they were operating here before the raids. Despite paying the EDMC, Aashqueen said, they had to invest their own savings to set up their shops.

The Delhi Meat Merchants Association, or the DMMA, has been working to provide the butchers a sanitary place to carry on their trade. Sanjay Jha, the DMMA’s advocate, told me that in 2013, the DMMA filed a petition in the Delhi high court, asking for the New Delhi Municipal Council and South Delhi Municipal Corporation to construct a slaughterhouse in their jurisdiction. “Section 42k of the Municipal Corporation act says that each municipality needs to have a slaughter house, so why don’t they build one in South Delhi and North Delhi?”he said.

Most people I spoke to also indicated that transporting meat had become a risky task for them since the prime minister Narendra Modi’s government came to power at the centre. Atif’s brother, Asif Qureshi, a 26-year-old who transports meat and livestock, said that the police harasses him for bringing in livestock from Uttar Pradesh. Asif said that earlier, many of the transporters would bribe the police personnel, and would then be allowed to go. “Now they stop our cars and create a ruckus,” Asif said. Moin told me, “Modi rule is here, so we will be punished.”

Ahmad, the researcher, wrote in her book Delhi’s Meatscapes: Muslim Butchers in a Transforming Mega-City that “the hygiene discourse was in fact a cover-up for deep-rooted aversion and discrimination” against Muslims. That Gandhi, who was a petitioner in the case against the Idgah, shares such views is not impossible to believe. On 12 April this year, Gandhi said at an election rally, “I will become bitter if Muslims come to me for help in getting jobs without voting for me. Then I will think, ‘Let it be, how does it matter?’ After all, jobs are transactional.”

Maulekhi, also a trustee of Gandhi’s non-profit organisation, did not seem sympathetic to the butchers of Ghazipur. When I met her, she was quick to point out that all the slaughtering in the Murga Mandi was illegal. In November, she had told me, “70–80 log aate hain wahi se utkar, Ghazipur se, aur rona pitna karte hain.”—Now, 70–80 people come from Ghazipur and sob around. Maulekhi’s petition against the Ghazipur butchers and the livestock market is clubbed with a petition she has filed questioning the authority of the EDMC to give licenses to operate slaughterhouses, Priyanka Bangari, her lawyer told me.

While the people I spoke to attributed their plight to the ruling dispensation, they are also disillusioned with other political parties fighting for the East Delhi seat. None of the prominent candidates have addressed the issue during their campaigns or in their manifestos. Ved Vyas Mahajan, the BJP’s in charge of East Delhi for the upcoming election, subscribed to the same view as Maulekhi. “How can we allow people who do not follow the norms? We should take care of hygiene or not?” he said, before adding, “This is not about any caste or religion.” Atishi, the AAP’s candidate, has said that she has been meeting the constituents of East Delhi for over a year now. But the people I spoke to said that no one from a political party has reached out to them. Akshay Marathe, the national joint secretary of the AAP, and Dupanshu Bhardwaj, the media in-charge for the Congress’s campaign, said they did not know about the issue.

Most of the butchers in Ghazipur that I spoke to said that they will not vote this election, as they are disillusioned with the authorities. Mohammed Danish, a 34-year-old butcher, told me that he has not decided who he will vote for but “will definitely not vote for the BJP.” Wasim Qureshi, a 42-year-old butcher, was one of the few who said he would support a party. He said he has constantly been harassed since the Modi government came to power, and that he “would vote for the AAP.” Mohammed Zahir, a 28-year-old who used to work as a butcher, said, “Voting is futile, sir. We have seen four parties in power. Nobody works for us.”