It’s 11 a.m. on a holiday and Imranbhai’s shop is deserted. Racks of meat hang from hooks and a sharp cleaver likes on the counter. Around his shop are a few others, similarly without customers: “By now we should have sold out half our stock, but there have barely been any sales today. Our business is dying, maybe even dead. No one wants to eat buffalo meat,” Imranbhai says.
Imranbhai (not his real name) is one of the several thousand butchers in Mumbai who only sell beef, or more accurately, used to sell beef. He entered the third generation family business as a young man and is now around 60 years old. The cosmopolitan neighbourhood he operates in has a good mix of Muslims and Christians; “even many Hindus have been our customers,” he says. But those days of brisk business are gone.
In March 2015, however, things changed – drastically — for Imranbhai and his fellow butchers. The President signed the Maharashtra Animal Preservation (Amendment) Bill, nearly 19 years after the state Assembly had passed it during the BJP-Shiv Sena’s previous administration in 1995.
The state’s chief minister Devendra Fadnavis tweeted: “Thanks a lot Hon President Sir for the assent on Maharashtra Animal Preservation Bill. Our dream of ban on cow slaughter becomes a reality now.” This was somewhat misleading, since there was already a ban on cow slaughter in the state-the new law prohibited the slaughter of bulls and oxen, which was what butchers sold as “beef” in the state.
The punishment for any breach was severe-Rs 10000 as fine and five years in jail. The new law delighted the VHP but came as a huge shock to the butchers; they held processions, met officials and even filed a case, but the decision has stayed.
Overnight, the meat vanished from the shelves and since then is almost impossible to get. Only the meat of water buffaloes is allowed to be sold. At the same time, a new class of vigilantes has appeared, who prowl around to see if anyone – mainly butchers, all of whom happen to be Muslims from the Qureishi community – is selling it.
In May last year, a Mumbai resident, who claimed to be from the Bharti Gau Vansh Rakshan Samvardhan Parishad complained to the local police that a local butcher was selling beef; he was promptly arrested while the meat was sent to a government lab for testing. Three weeks later, the lab reported that it was buffalo meat after all.
“Those who have shops in Municipal markets don’t get harassed so much, because the inspectors are in charge and keep an eye on what is being sold. But those who are outside such markets are constantly troubled,” says Imranbhai. He has not personally faced any such trouble, but insisted that his real name not be used, his shop’s location not be identified and his face not be shown. The other butchers in the market joined in the conversation and said a few were facing a severe loss of income; none of them was ready to give their name. Soon after the beef ban was announced, the butchers had said they would be ruined; this seems to be coming true. Most are convinced they will not be able to last another year.
There are also complaints of such groups stopping trucks carrying bulls and oxen which may be headed to neighbouring Goa or Karnataka, both of which have no such ban in place.
Staple diet for poor
Beef – the meat of bulls and oxen – used to be a staple diets for many families, especially among minority communities and also the poor, for whom it was a cheap source of protein. The well off ate in restaurants and clubs; now none of them offer any beef dishes, not even made of buffalo meat. “No one wants to take a risk; who knows which department will come investigating,” says an hotelier.
Many legal challenges have been mounted. One of them was by a prominent city lawyer Harish Jagtiani who filed a suit against the law banning possession and consumption of beef. “It violates my fundamental rights of life, liberty and choice. Imagine, if I fly into Mumbai with a half-eaten sandwich from Bangalore, I can be arrested. How can that be allowed?” he told The Wire.
That is no consolation to Imranbhai and thousands of his fellow butchers, who have been hit badly. His sales have dipped by half and he has had to sack two of his workers. Some butchers have taken up other businesses and he is thinking along those lines—“my son has already said he doesn’t want to be a butcher any more. But what can I do at this age”.