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.

While the strike was over and work resumed for most people, this crisis was significant because of the plethora of actors who came to the fore. From the butchers’ side there were as many as eight such organisations. The Jain Commission report lists out the following: the Buffalo Traders’ association; Delhi Meat Merchants’ Association; Anjuman Vakil Qaum Qureshiyan, Delhi; Aalami Aman Committee, India; M/s Paramount Wholesale mutton suppliers; Delhi Skin and Wool Merchants’ Association; Prima Sheep Casing Manufacturers’ Association; and Sheep and Goats Commission Agents’ Association. They were all meat traders or merchants the only exception being the Alami Aman Trust, which from its name appears to be a human rights organisation. They all had one main concern, that is, livelihood—since the reduction in the number of animals was causing unemployment.

Anti-abattoir representations came from a motley group of local and national organisations ranging from temple trusts to vegetarian societies and environmental activists and cow-protection committees. Their interests were also disparate—trading interests, religious prejudices, aversion to meat, and the demand for sanitisation. The petitioners were: The Sanatan Dharma Sabha (registered); Metal Dealers’ Association Sadar Bazar, Delhi; Vegetarian Society of Delhi; Akhil Bharat Krishi Goseva Sangh, Bombay Shri Shwetambar Sthanak Jain Sangh; Basti Harpool Singh Sudhar Samiti; Vyapar Mandal Jhandewalan Road (registered); Janhit Sangharsh Parishad; Bharatiya Govansh Samvardhan Prathishthaan, etc and enviromental activist, Maneka Gandhi.

The petitioners wanted the abattoir to be shifted out because it was “a source of great environmental pollution and unhygienic conditions.” There was a tension within these diverse concerns, though most of them ensured the marginalisation of the meat industry. The fact that religious and cow protection, temple trusts, and other organisations came out in support of the closure, clearly point that hygiene was far from being the only concern in abattoir politics. Metal traders and Jhandewalan traders also petitioned against the abattoir, which indicates either local or spatial competition with butchers or communal feelings against butchers and Muslims or both.

Organisations from Bombay also petitioned which signals that it was not just a state-level issue, but had nation-wide implications as well. Buffaloes were slaughtered at the Idgah abattoir in the 1990s and not cows or bulls (which is part of cow progeny), so the participation of cow-protection organisations stemmed not from the love for the cow but from aversion to meat and butchers. Maneka Gandhi was famously quoted as saying that 13,000 litres of blood was discharged in the Yamuna from the Idgah slaughterhouse. She raised issues about “inhumane” treatment of animals. Apart from these organisations national-level leaders also engaged in the crisis. PM Sayeed, the minister of state for home affairs, and Sikandar Bakht, a BJP MP from Rajya Sabha, visited the abattoir on 29 June 1994. Sikandar Bakht also had a follow-up meeting with Justice Jain regarding the conditions in Idgah.

The Jain Commission also proposed the relocation of Idgah abattoir but this remained in abeyance. A few options were initiated. According to biradripeople, a technical team from Italy or Denmark had once visited Idgah and suggested extending the same space by building floors above as well as below (basement). Nothing came of it. There were also proposals to shift the abattoir to Dasna, Sikandarabad, and Khurja, but these were not taken up either due to resistance from the butchers or protests from local residents where it was proposed to be shifted or both. The plan to relocate Idgah abattoir remained on the back burner for the next seven years until the Master Plan Delhi 2001, which proposed to shift all noxious industries out of residential areas—the abattoir being one of them. On 14 July 2004, the Supreme Court of India passed an order directing the MCD to construct a modern abattoir in Ghazipur, east Delhi. The Idgah abattoir was finally shut and stopped functioning in December 2009 amidst protest and a strike by the butchers. The Idgah abattoir has since been razed. The space is still under the MCD—it is now broadly divided into two sections. One part is used as a parking lot and the other as a site for an MCD plant.

The entire build-up and final closure of the Idgah abattoir—the arguments and counter arguments—were mired in contradictions, and deeply contested from the 1990s itself. The Supreme Court appointed a seven-member expert commission headed by Justice JD Jain to look into the working of the Idgah abattoir. The committee consisted of Justice JD Jain, retired judge Delhi High Court, Dr AK Chatterjee, former joint commissioner, in the department of meat, and meat products and animal husbandry, government of India; Dr HAB Parpia, former director, Central Food Technological Research Institute, Mysore; Dr Chintaman, former executive engineer, Deonar abattoir, Bombay; Dr DK Biswas, chairman, Central Pollution Control Board; Dr SC Maudgal, advisor, Ministry of Forests; and the chief engineer SP Zone, Delhi.

Though the expert committee was selected “on the basis of a panel selected by both sides,” it did not have any representation from among the users of the abattoir. The formation of a committee to look into an abattoir and headed by a Jain (in all likelihood vegetarian), was considered a travesty of justice by most butchers. Their fear was not unfounded, there were ideological differences within the panel itself and consequently it split into two. Three of the expert members, Dr HAB Parpia, Dr AK Chatterjee and VC Behere had strong reservations about the report and its findings. They refused to sign the final report and instead wrote a note of dissension, which was also filed in the report citing Justice Jain’s biased views. Referring to the high court’s decision to relocate the abattoir from Idgah, the dissenting expert members of the Jain Commission on Idgah slaughterhouse reforms wrote:

At one point when the question was raised that a large number of poor people were being unemployed, the Chairman made a statement that Muslims created problems anyway as they were multiplying at a faster rate than others. He was immediately corrected by a member who pointed out that the non-Muslim population in the same income and literacy bracket was multiplying at the same rate or even perhaps faster as has been proven by the facts. This further reflected prejudiced thinking of the Chairman and his assumption that only people of one community were meat consumers and butchers. Therefore it was again pointed out to him that 70–80 per cent of meat consumers in Delhi were not Muslims and that a good number of butchers were also non-Muslims.

This place was out of Delhi city at one time, but now it has come in the middle of the city as unplanned growth has been permitted around it. Even a temple and two schools have been allowed to be constructed next to the abattoir subsequently. It may be pointed out that even in the case of preventing depletion of the ozone layer as a result of the use of chloro-fluro-carbons (CFC) adequate time has been given by the UN Conference on Environment to its users up to 2000 AD. Then why is the Delhi High Court in such an unreasonable hurry overlooking all human and consumer considerations in case of a slaughter house which has much less of the far-reaching consequences than CFC.

These instances from the report clearly indicate how the hygiene discourse was in fact a cover-up for deep-rooted aversion and discrimination demonstrating how even the state and its representatives could be deeply prejudiced.

This is an extract from Zarin Ahmad’s recent book, Delhi’s Meatscapes: Muslim Butchers in a Transforming Mega-City, published by Oxford University Press. It has been edited and condensed.