The first fortnight of the month of Sawan is over. It will be followed by a month-long Malmaas (Adhikmaas) after which, Sawan will continue for another 15 days. This means that Kanwar Yatra will last for another one and a half months. Before the commencement of the Kanwar Yatra, the Uttar Pradesh government had issued an order saying that meat shops and restaurants serving non-vegetarian food along the Kanwar Yatra route would remain closed during Sawan. This has created a livelihood crisis for small meat-sellers who used to vend meat from pavements. The meat-sellers of Noida say that the government order was an attack on their right to livelihood.
Roadside weekly markets are held at Babuganj Bazar, Sahson Bazar and Chiloda Bazar in the Phulpur tehsil on the Prayagraj-Jaunpur-Azamgarh-Gorakhpur National Highway. On a normal market day, stalls selling fish, chicken and mutton and stalls selling vegetables are set up side by side. Now as this stretch of the highway falls on the Kanwar Yatra route, meat sellers are not being allowed to set up their stalls. I sought comments from some of the affected sellers, but most of them didn’t utter a word. Some sellers from the rural areas who used to sell meat from the pavements in the weekly markets are now trying to operate from fields and orchards.
As I began taking photos, a shopkeeper, who saw me aiming the camera at him, came running to me. He pleaded with me in a fearful voice, “Saheb, I am a poor man. Let us live. I have no other source of income. There are small kids at my home.”
I tried to convince him that we were not from “that group”. “We are journalists and we assure you that we will not use these photographs to harm your livelihood,” I told him. But he remained unconvinced. Soon, others joined him and at their insistence, I had to delete the photos I had taken.
“You are selling meat during Sawan! Aren’t you afraid? There might be a hidden path passing through the field or an orchard. A mob of lathi-wielding, saffron-scarf-wearing men shouting ‘Jai Shri Ram’ may emerge anytime from nowhere and surround you.” Replying to my poser, a young meat-seller said, “Yes, that fear is there. But pangs of hunger can overcome any fear.” An elderly seller jumped into the conversation saying that the atmosphere was still not that toxic in the villages.
Another seller said that they and their families were in dire straits and that the government should make some alternative arrangement to ensure that they were not deprived of their means of livelihood. It is the general perception in Uttar Pradesh that only Muslims are involved in the business of slaughtering goats and selling their meat. Muslim meat-sellers come from the Kasai and Chikwa communities. But a Hindu caste called Chakwa are also in the business. Chaks are known as Chakwa in Bundelkhand and Prayagraj divisions and as Chik in Kanpur, Bareilly and Agra divisions. There is a caste called Chik among Muslims, too, who rear and sell goats and also sell goat meat. The Khatik caste is also traditionally engaged in slaughtering goats and selling their meat.
In 2003-04, the Uttar Pradesh government commissioned a survey-based study in the Hardoi, Badaun, Agra, Firozabad, Etah, Farrukhabad, Mainpuri, Etawah, Chitrakoot and Banda districts to ascertain whether Chak, Chik and Hindu Chikwas are different names for the same caste and whether they are a sub-caste of the Khatik caste. The study found that this is indeed the case.
In Uttar Pradesh, Khatiks are a Scheduled Caste while their sub-castes, Chak (Chik, Chikwa) are included among the OBCs. In 1995, the government led by Mayawati included Chak among the OBCs. The list of OBCs comprises 76 castes, and Chikwa, Kasab (Qureshi), Kasai and Chak are No 17 on the list. Chikwas and Qureshi-Kasabs are Muslims while Chaks are Hindus. In olden times, Khatiks used to perform animal sacrifice in yagnas. There is a word for them in the Sanskrit language – Khattik. They were engaged in performing animal sacrifices in Vammargi temples. The Puranas also refer to Khatak Brahmins, who performed animal sacrifice, and it was believed that only sacrifice done by them was accepted by the gods. The word Khatik has originated from the word “Khatak”, that is one who slaughters animals with “a khatka” (in one go). The Kasai (Muslim) slaughters animals using a method called “zaba” (moving the knife slowly to sever the neck of the animal) while the Khatiks do it with one swing of the knife.
According to social worker Bheemlal, meat, chicken and fish shops at Ghoorpur Bazar (on the Mirzapur-Prayagraj road) are functional. All the shop owners are Hindus and that is probably the reason they have been spared by the administration. However, goats are not slaughtered in the market. Bheemlal says that the Uttar Pradesh government has been clamping down on meat-sellers during the Kanwar Yatra since 2016. The government knows the route the Kanwar Yatras take and makes security and traffic arrangements for their smooth passage. It can easily compile the list of meat-sellers that have their shops on the route and ensure that a reasonable amount, enough to meet the basic needs, is transferred into their accounts for two months during which they are supposed to keep their shops closed. This will alleviate the suffering of the affected families.
On 1 July 2023, a meeting was held at the Police Lines Auditorium in Prayagraj, after which the Director General of Police Vijay Kumar and Principal Secretary (Home) Sanjay Prasad announced that like in the past, meat and liquor shops on the Kanwar Yatra route would remain closed for two months. Divisional commissioners, police commissioners, district collectors and superintendents of police of Prayagraj, Kanpur, Jhansi and Chitrakoot divisions attended the meeting.
The veterinary officer of the Varanasi Municipal Corporation Dr Ajay Pratap had told media that meat-sellers had been asked to keep their outlets closed during the month of Sawan and that if they did not follow the order, they would face prosecution. Going a step further, the Railways have even banned the use of onion and garlic in the food prepared and sold on the premises of the railway stations in Varanasi. The station manager of Varanasi Cantonment Railway Station Gaurav Dixit told the media at the beginning of the month of Sawan that the railway control room had been directed to mount a 24-year surveillance of the station premises. The food plazas and refreshment stalls on platforms have been ordered to serve food without onion and garlic. On 7 July, the district administrations of Ghaziabad and Noida, too, ordered meat shops shut.
Over the past 15 days, several videos have gone viral on social media, showing workers of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal threatening and beating up owners of mutton and chicken shops found open during Sawan and forcing them to shut their outlets.
(Translated from the Hindi original by Amrish Herdenia)
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