In India's holy city Mathura, BJP-sponsored meat ban targets Muslims

In India's holy city, Muslim lives are bound by Hindutva
6 min read
29 September, 2023

In India’s Mathura, regarded as the birthplace of the Hindu deity Krishna, yellow and orange skies accompanied by Hindu hymns mark sunrise.

But for its Muslims, ever since the Bharatiya Janata Party in India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, shut the only slaughterhouse in the city, life has been dark and still.

Aahil Qureshi has been unemployed for two years since the BJP government banned the slaughter and sale of meat in 22 municipal wards in Mathura — a city considered holy territory in Hinduism.

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Like Qureshi and many others who were rendered unemployed since the ban on the sale of meat and liquor in Mathura in 2021, the Muslim community is especially suffering since they claim that their traditionally acquired skill of slaughtering animals has been put down by the government.

Since the ban, local workers claim hundreds of Muslims have left Mathura for nearby cities like Agra and Kanpur to earn from the only skill they know.

"The meat slaughter ban is meant to make Mathura a Muslim-free zone. Thousands have been impacted or rendered unemployed, it is the BJP’s goal to target Muslims"

Such ban orders already exist in areas holy to Hinduism like Ayodhya, Barsana, Chitrakoot, Deoband, Dewa Sharif, Haridwar, Rishikesh, Vrindavan and Misrikh-Naimisharanya.

In India, while such orders differ from state to state according to their Meat Shop Licensing Policy, meat shops are not allowed within 100 metres from the main gate of any religious place and 50 metres from its perimeter, for temples in Varanasi – another city of religious reverence for Hindus - the distance is 250 metres.

Amid this ban, local Muslims have also claimed to be facing harassment, arrests and intimidation by the Mathura Police based on suspicions raised by informers. This has made many Muslims live in fear and censor their consumption of meat in the holy Hindu city.

In India's holy city, Muslim meat ban bounded by Hindutva
Mathura's meat ban is viewed as a targeted campaign against Muslim businesses and their faith [Tarushi Aswani]

Speaking to The New Arab about the impact of the ban, Mehraj Alam, a BAMCEF (Backward and Minority Communities Employees Federation) worker, said that the ban has not only affected the butchers or the sellers or the restaurant owners, but it has also had an impact on a whole chain of people employed with these people. Even carcass and bone dealers’ livelihoods have been impacted.

Alam views this ban as the Hindu Nationalist BJP’s tactic to ‘cleanse’ Mathura of Muslims. “The meat slaughter ban is meant to make Mathura a Muslim-free zone. Thousands have been impacted or rendered unemployed, it is the BJP’s goal to target Muslims,” Alam explains.

He adds, “The BJP arbitrarily declared Mathura as a ‘pilgrimage zone’ and banned meat. This was only to get rid of Muslims.”

Alam also claims that at least 10,000 people have been affected by the ban.

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Gabbar Qureshi, a trader of animal bones, says he was also impacted when the meat business and the slaughterhouse were shut down by the state’s Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, who is a firebrand Hindu monk known for his anti-Muslim policies. “It's not just Muslims who eat meat, many Hindus eat meat too, but just because Muslims are traditionally equipped with meat slaughtering skills, the government targeted us, so that we leave Mathura forever,” Qureshi laments.

Qureshi also asks the government an important question: “Even if this ban is necessary according to them, why didn’t they give us an alternative market outside of selling meat? They have uprooted us from our livelihood, it is their duty to re-establish us, but they will not do it, because they want Muslims to suffer, at any cost.”

Families of those left unemployed by the ban have had it the worst of all. Rihana Bano, wife of a former butcher said she had to stop schooling her children and make them sit at home since her husband stopped earning.

“The timing of the ban was also such that it made it seem like an economic boycott. It was at the peak of COVID-19 in the country, accompanied by intensified online and offline economic boycott of Muslim-owned businesses,” Bano said.

In India's holy city, Muslim meat ban bounded by Hindutva
Since the BJP came to power, anti-Muslim attacks have risen dramatically in Uttar Pradesh
[Tarushi Aswani]

Jitender Singh, a Mathura-based social worker, also condemns the targeted harassment against the community. “Only 15 days ago, a Muslim man was falsely accused of cow slaughter. Then the police forced him to pay a fine for a crime he never did and let him go. This is the level of harassment Muslims face,” says Singh, who belongs to the Hindu community.

The New Arab also spoke to local Muslims arrested on charges of ‘cow slaughter’ – a crime punishable in Uttar Pradesh with imprisonment of up to 10 years and a fine of up to $6000. Victims of the false charges and arrests said that often they were either caught with meat that wasn’t of the cow or with no meat at all – yet they say, they were jailed.

But police officers in Mathura justify these arrests; according to them, all actions taken by the Uttar Pradesh police adhere to the law. They said there is no activity that transcends the limits of law.

Mohammed Burhanuddin, a local Muslim is appalled at the situation in the city where Hindus come to dip their souls in spirituality. Burhanuddin, a former meat trader says that there is a two-pronged attack on Muslims.

“Our livelihoods are under attack and we are being wrongly arrested on cow slaughter charges, step into any police station in Mathura and you will definitely find wrongly charged Muslims there,” he said.

While Muslims have shared their lived experience of unemployment and harassment at the hands of the state, local Hindus in the city are split when it comes to who and what to side with.

Bhure Nath Lal, a Hindu fruit seller in Mathura earns a mere $6-8 on good days. Lal, who is a devout devotee of the deity Krishna feels that Mathura is not for Muslims.

While he himself previously worked at a restaurant serving non-vegetarian food and the ban made him start his financial journey from scratch, he believes that meat and Mathura do not need to sit together.

“Do they allow Hindus to go to Mecca? Then why should we allow them in Mathura? BJP is doing the right thing by banning their traditional occupations," Lal said.

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Lalit Chauhan, a Mathura-based leader from the Indian National Congress views the attack on Muslims as a community and the ban on their occupations as illogical yet skilfully planned by the BJP. Chauhan also said that the law is purely being implemented to further the harassment and arrests of Muslims to the extent of erasing their community from Mathura.

Questioning the complaints lodged by the Police, he said that the administration was misusing this ban against Muslims and other meat-eating communities across Uttar Pradesh, not just Mathura.

While Mathura’s Muslims battle state-sanctioned unemployment, they are also left on their own to combat a system that is continuously developing policies to axe the community out of a city they have called home for centuries.

Tarushi Aswani is a freelance writer based in India

Follow her on Twitter: @tarushi_aswani