How religious politics masked as issues of sanitation led to the shutdown of Delhi’s Idgah slaughterhouse in 2009

14 August 2018

In her recent book, Delhi’s Meatscapes: Muslim Butchers in a Transforming Mega-City, the researcher Zarin Ahmad traces the journey of meat from the farm to the margins of Delhi, where butchers are able to work and sell their meat. Ahmad follows the lives of the Qureshi community in Delhi, and the challenges they have faced in their traditional occupation as butchers, in an environment that is increasingly hostile towards the consumption of cow meat. In the following extract, she chronicles the history of an abattoir in Delhi’s Idgah locality, how in the early 1990s a “plethora of” organisations joined the movement against cow slaughter, and how arguments that it was a “health hazard” eventually led to the slaughterhouse to be shut down in 2009. Taking note of the recommendation of a court-appointed commission—to relocate the Idgah abattoir—and the observations of its dissenting members, Ahmad writes that “the hygiene discourse was in fact a cover-up for deep-rooted aversion and discrimination.”

While the issue of renovation and relocation of the Idgah abattoir was on the agenda since 1939 and various plans and proposal were being made and unmade, the period between 1990 and 1994 was a turning point in abattoir politics. What started as a simple writ petition to bring the Municipal Corporation of Delhi to perform its duty turned out to be a much larger and complex issue. This phase was critical due to three reasons. One, the butchers’ strike—this was the first time that the Qureshi butchers went on strike in post-colonial India. Since the partition violence and closure of the Idgah abattoir, Muslim butchers were always on the back foot, this was the first time they came out, protested, and mobilised. Two, the phase 1990–4 was also significant because of the plethora of actors who emerged and filed litigations both for and against relocation. Last but, certainly, not the least, meat was coming out of its hygiene moorings.

The crisis dates back to 1990 when a member of the community, Md Iqbal Qureshi, filed a civil writ petition by way of public interest litigation in the High Court of Delhi for issuing mandamus to the MCD to make the functioning of the slaughter-house more hygienic. In the meantime, another writ petition was filed by some private citizens, educational institutions and socio-religious organisations including Shri Sanatan Dharma Sabha (Hari Mandir) situated in Nabi Karim area close to the abattoir asking for “closure and removal” of the slaughterhouse because it was a “health hazard” and “nuisance.” A number of litigations were filed both for and against the abattoir.

The high court, in its judgment dated 18 March 1994, directed the MCD to close the slaughterhouse with effect from 31 December 1993. The court observed that, “the existence of the slaughter-house in the congested locality was proving to be hazardous to the health of the people residing in the vicinity and the conditions prevailing there were appalling.” But if it functioned, there should be substantial reduction in the number of animals slaughtered. This was reduced to a total of 2,000 sheep and goat and 500 buffaloes only, which was way below the requirement in Delhi.

As a response to the court’s order, the butchers went on strike for three months. The High Court of Delhi ordered the formation of a special committee headed by Justice JD Jain to look into the unsanitary conditions in Idgah abattoir in 1994. The most significant changes after 1994 which shaped the way of work in Idgah were: separate time slots were allocated for the domestic and export sectors; night slaughtering for the domestic market was stopped; and the number of animals was reduced to one buffalo or two small animals per merchant.

Zarin Ahmad is an Affiliated Research Fellow at the Centre de Sciences Humaines, New Delhi. She is a New India Foundation Fellow and received her doctorate in South Asian Studies from the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Keywords: cattle slaughter beef Cow politics Delhi cow slaughter