Muzaffarnagar/Sambhal: When restaurant manager Waseem Ahmed decided to launch his first restaurant to cater to travellers and truck drivers on National Highway 58 (NH-58), little did he anticipate the social churning that was to come.
Forty-three-year-old Waseem, along with his business partner, Pushpraj Singh, made a conscious choice to run two ‘pure vegetarian’ eateries, or dhabas, on the Delhi-Dehradun route in the outskirts of Muzaffarnagar in western Uttar Pradesh. But this year’s Kanwar Yatra (pilgrimage) resulted in their business taking a turn for the worse.
The Kanwar Yatra is held every year during the onset of monsoon or ‘saawan’ season, with lakhs of devotees of lord Shiva carrying holy water as offerings. Since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power with chief minister Yogi Adityanath leading the government in Uttar Pradesh, the pilgrimage has been marked by growing religious polarisation. This includes district administrations in the state ordering the closure of meat shops along the route undertaken by pilgrims.
Some of the earliest such diktats were issued in Ghaziabad in 2016, by the Samajwadi Party (SP) government, and later in Dadri – the site of the communal lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq – after the BJP was elected to power in 2017.
While Dadri’s far-right Hindu groups had been demanding a ban on the sale of meat during the yatra since 2016 itself, the shift in government from SP to the BJP reportedly saw the region’s police administration finally enforcing a closure on meat shops in July 2017.
Continuing this policy in 2023, the Adityanath administration ordered closure on the sale of meat starting July 4, with police officials citing the “maintenance of peace between communities” as reason for the same, even as several butchers, meat-sellers and restaurants claimed their livelihoods were impacted. In a first, as per locals, Muslim owners of even vegetarian restaurants and eateries across western UP now claim to be under threat since the yatra.
“The closure of meat shops has been happening for at least five or six years as far as I can recall. I understand it may hurt Hindu sentiments, but what have we done wrong when we only sell vegetarian items? The co-owner is a Thakur (Hindu), our staff is almost 90% Hindu. But they even told us to shut shop along with the non-vegetraian places this time. I’m convinced this is just because of my name,” said Waseem Ahmed, who runs the Sukhdev dhaba and ‘New Ganpati Tourist dhaba – Number One’ on Muzaffarnagar’s highway.
A communal campaign against Muslim restaurant owners using ‘Hindu names’
Waseem’s partner Pushpraj Singh pointed out how dozens of dhabas along NH-58 were targeted after a campaign was launched by one Swami Yashveer, whose ashram is located in Muzaffarnagar district’s Badhra block.
Yashveer, along with his followers, created a social media campaign and circulated a list of dhabas with their exact location. Former pradhan (head) of the nearby Bajhedi village, and local SP member Sabir Hassan, also confirmed that Yashveer’s campaign circulated videos and a message was spread across WhatsApp, reaching out to “tour operators, cab and truck drivers’ groups, so that they do not stop by these dhabas when they ferry passengers”.
Speaking to The Wire, Yashveer pointed out how the campaign “was not intended to close eateries run by any community”. “We have announced this on September 26 again, and in the past, before the Kanwar Yatra as well. We are only seeking transparency. If a restaurant’s owner is Muslim, keep a Muslim name for it. Our only demand is that they keep their real names, and do not fool innocent customers,” Yashveer said.
Yashveer and a number of right-wing Hindu outfits publicly issued a letter in July, a copy of which was accessed by The Wire, pointing out that many Muslim owners of “dhabas, mithai shops and tea stalls” were naming their establishments after Hindu gods and goddesses. The letter appealed to Adityanath to take legal action against this practice, and claimed that Muslims could “spit, urinate and mix cow meat into food items” without Hindu customers knowing about it. They hence demanded that Muslims stick to “Muslim names” for their establishments.
On being questioned by this reporter as to whether there was any law or social sanction forbidding any community from keeping names as per their choice, Yashveer brusquely pointed out that “Hindu customers also have a legal and constitutional right to know who is making their food”.
Meanwhile, sub-divisional magistrate (SDM) Parmanand Jha declined to comment on whether officials ordered the closure of dhabas on account of their names, but said that “the name can be anything, the work should not be wrong.”
On being asked what law or provision bars Muslims from naming their establishment as they wish, Jha added that the issue was one of maintaining law and order, and public peace. “If someone names their restaurant as ‘Shiv Shakti’ but serves biryani there, it’s important that the atmosphere doesn’t get vitiated and peace prevails”.
But others, such as Shameem (who only wished to go by his first name), co-owner of the Maharaja Bhoj dhaba, decried these claims and emphasised how even those selling “only vegetarian” items were forced to close down during the yatra. The campaign also targeted “religion neutral” names.
“They ordered the closure of my dhaba which has a name called Maharaja Bhoj. Is Maharaja the name of any Hindu deity? What about Chandigarh dhaba, New Punjab Hotel, and other such dhabas run by Muslims which they shut during Kanwar Yatra? They were all religion neutral names. And we serve only vegetarian food. This is not about Hindu sentiments or Kanwar Yatra, this was clearly to target our community,” Shameem said.
The 27-year-old restaurateur – who used to run a similar ‘pure vegetarian’ restaurant in Mussoorie earlier – said he had never experienced such treatment before this. “This dhaba was opened just recently, our operations here began in June. Before this, we ran a similar hotel in Mussoorie and have never faced such hostility. But this campaign has finished our business even before it could take off,” he said.
Shameem also spoke about how far-right groups circulated a WhatsApp message and Facebook videos that were later picked up by news media – including India TV, a national channel. He also stressed that “no law, nor any constitutional provision” prevented them or anyone else from keeping names as per their choice. “In fact, many Muslims actually keep such names because we know that discrimination exists. Would you go to an Abdullah dhaba, or a Ganpati dhaba if you want a simple vegetarian meal? Unfortunately, if people hear a name like Abdullah dhaba or Qadir tea stall, they immediately associate that with meat and non-vegetarian food, and so most people never go there. What is wrong in keeping any name, as long as what we serve respects persons of all faiths?” he added.
How Muslim restaurateurs across the state have been targeted repeatedly
The campaign to bar Muslim-owned restaurants from selling even vegetarian food isn’t limited to Muzaffarnagar alone. Across UP, reports highlight how Muslim restaurateurs have faced threats and intimidation, both for selling meat and even otherwise.
Over 180 kilometres away from Muzaffarnagar, in Sambhal, Tabish Hussain told The Wire how both he and his father had been “targeted” twice. Last year, Hussain’s father, 59-year-old Talib Hussain, spent close to two weeks in prison after he was arrested for allegedly hurting religious sentiments after they sold some chicken wrapped in a newspaper that had images of Hindu deities printed on it.
The First Information Report (FIR) registered against Talib also claimed that he tried to attack the police with a knife, and charged him with sections including 295A (deliberate and malicious acts, that are intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs), 153A (promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race place of birth, residence), as well as 307 (attempt to commit murder) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).
Although Talib is out on bail today, the family’s ordeal has not ended. Their restaurant ‘Mehak’ has taken a hit ever since. Tabish pointed out that “despite our decision to sell only vegetarian dishes this year as saawan (monsoons) began”, police officials ordered that he shut shop ahead of the Kanwar Yatra.
While Tabish said that his business has resumed, nearly 30 to 40 other such establishments in the area were forced to shut down during the two months of saawan when the Kanwar Yatra takes place. He also informed that “no official notice or order” was given to them when the police forced their establishments to close. The region’s district magistrate, Manish Bansal, even told the The Print that no official orders to shut non-vegetarian (let alone vegetarian) restaurants had been issued from his office.
Muslim-owned food establishments have been facing a similar plight in Mathura since 2021. The city’s association with the Hindu god Krishna’s birthplace led to chief minister Adityanath’s push to ban the sale of meat and liquor.
On August 31, 2021, authorities banned the sale of meat and liquor in 22 municipal wards which were within a 1.5 kilometre radius of the Shri Krishna Janmasthan Temple. Multiple reports noted how the move has impacted the livelihoods of Muslim meat sellers, restaurateurs and hotel owners. Even Muslims selling vegetarian items weren’t spared.
Irfan, a dosa vendor, said that in August 2021, “close to ten men” attacked his cart, despite him selling “pure vegetarian” food.
He claimed that they had an issue with the name ‘Shrinath Dosa Corner’, citing that it was a “Hindu god’s name” and that he ought to use a “Muslim name” to run his dosa joint. Under pressure, he changed the stall’s name to ‘American Dosa Corner’.
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Others such as Mohammad Zameel reportedly rechristened the ‘Taj Hotel’ running in Mathura’s Daresi road since 1974 to ‘Royal Family Restaurant’ in December 2021. Zameel’s establishment, which earlier sold meat dishes, now serves a vegetarian menu. He even replaced his Muslim cooking and catering staff with Hindus.
Meanwhile, many in Muzaffarnagar have removed their names from GST registration and other official paperwork. Nazim Tyagi, a 32-year-old restaurant owner said, “This year’s campaign targeting vegetarian restaurants feels inevitable because of our religious identity. It doesn’t matter whether we sell only vegetarian items and have an all-Hindu staff.”
Tyagi, who partnered with one Mohammad Yusuf, alias ‘Guddu’, to open the locally famous Punjabi New Star Shuddh Dhaba, found his establishment’s name in the list of dhabas run by Muslims.
Despite not using any Hindu deity’s name for their establishment, both Tyagi and Yusuf were subject to the communal campaign on account of their religious identity. Today, he rues having to change “all our paperwork” to add one Sonu Pal’s name on their establishment’s registration documents. “I am the owner, but this year I decided to put his name instead of mine on all our documents. Even the digital payments, phone number on the display board outside, GST registration, all of it are in his name now.” While Pal has taken ownership without any qualms, Tyagi feels defeated that it has come to this.
A cross-section of livelihoods destroyed
A* (who requested that his name be kept anonymous), the co-owner of Chandigarh dhaba on NH-58 is now struggling to pay his staff. “Before this hate campaign, our eatery would have sales of up to Rs 10,000 on a good day. Now, there are barely any customers. I had ten people employed, and only five remain now because I couldn’t afford to keep the rest,” he said.
A and his brother come from a Muslim family and said that they have been involved in the restaurant business for a while, but the recent move was “unprecedented”. He pointed out how “even Hindus, in fact, mostly working class Hindu staff in our dhabas” were also hit.
“When the national media and social media keep replaying the videos of Swami Yashveer and his followers saying that Muslims spit, urinate and mix cow meat into their food, then obviously it will affect our establishments. But they don’t realise it’s actually the Hindus who’ve suffered because most of those who work in these vegetarian dhabas are Hindus. They would earn Rs 200-300 a day, now many are completely destitute or jobless,” he said.
Waseem Ahmed, the co-owner of Sukhdev Dhaba and New Ganpati Tourist Dhaba, concurred. Running the New Ganpati hotel for over eight years, Ahmed feels that this time things were different. “We had some 15 or 16 men working with us in Ganpati dhaba until last year; most of them were Hindus. Now my staff is reduced to just six or seven men. In Sukhdev, we have reduced our staff from 30 to 35 employees to 15 or 16. Sales have also fallen by more than half of what they used to be,” he said.
Others such as Punjabi New Star dhaba’s Sonu Pal point out how their staff of nearly 35 men have suffered over the past two months. “We had made preparations in advance for the monsoon season but because of being shut this time, we lost at least Rs 3 to 4 lakhs worth of supplies.” Tyagi added that their dhaba was shut for “at least 20 days, from July 1 to 20”.
According to the restaurateurs, the damage caused to people’s reputation because of the forced closure has been the most unnerving. “Times Now ran a programme featuring our dhabas in the background, with the ticker saying – ‘Miyaanbhai Exposed’. Our businesses have been humiliated in front of people nationwide,” said Chandigarh dhaba’s owner.
Others like Waseem Ahmed are now looking to quietly exit from the business. “Our GST registration for the hotels, digital payment identity, rental documents, everything is now in my partner Pushpraj Singh’s name,” said Ahmed, who has been considering moving base to a foreign country like Thailand. “I entered this business after seeing the prospects. But I don’t want my children to suffer or be deprived of pursuing opportunities just because of their name. If a Muslim isn’t allowed to sell even vegetarian food in this environment, what should we do?” he asked.
*Name changed to maintain anonymity.
Sabah Gurmat is an independent journalist based in New Delhi. This story is part of an ongoing series on the socio-economic decline of industries and businesses led by Muslims.
Reporting for her article was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Howard G. Buffett Fund for Women Journalists.