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Halal Ban: A Look At Growing Polarising Food Politics In Uttar Pradesh

Food is a key part of communal and identity politics in Uttar Pradesh and over the past few years, state administration has taken several steps that target certain types of food.

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Kebabs at display at a shop in Uttar Pradesh's Lucknow. (Representative Image)
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In a move that has stirred controversy, the Yogi Adityanath government in Uttar Pradesh in November announced a complete ban on the production, storage, distribution, and sale of food products with halal certification. A day after the announcement, the Uttar Pradesh Food Safety and Drug Administration led raids across 75 districts including grocery shops, malls, markets and godowns. The UP government’s rationale behind the ban is in the interest of “public health” and meant to undo a “parallel system” of food certification “that created confusion about the quality of food items”. The ban does not extend to products specifically manufactured for export. 

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The ban came in the backdrop of an investigation of a case registered at a police station in Lucknow against three firms for allegedly providing “illegal halal certificates” to products. With the commencement of the ban, the case has now been handed over to the Special Task Force (STF) of the UP Police. The original FIR was filed by a resident and member of Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha (BJYM) who claimed that some persons were using the illegal halal certification of products to push their sales among “certain communities”. 

“These companies are preparing these certificates targeting one specific community, and the criminal act of reducing the sale of products without these certificates is being done. I suspect that unsuitable benefits from these actions are being handed out to anti-social and anti-national elements,” the FIR states, as per reports. 

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Since Halal food is directly related to the eating habits of Muslims across the world and is part of the community’s religious beliefs, the move to ban halal-certified products according to critics is likely to add to the disenfranchisement of Muslims in UP. This is not the first time that food and minority rights have become intertwined in the state in recent years. 

Food is a key part of communal and identity politics in Uttar Pradesh and since 2017, the state administration has taken several steps that target certain types of food. 

Cow Slaughter And Smuggling Ban

Soon after coming to power, one of the first moves announced by Yogi Adityanath was the closure of “illegal slaughterhouses” and a strict ban on cow slaughter and cow smuggling. Existing laws against the same were strengthened with persons found in violation of the provisions that have since been booked under strict laws like the National Security Act. In 2020, the Allahabad High Court raised concerns about the alleged misuse of anti-slaughter laws to target innocent people as in many cases, there is a lack of forensic evidence to prove that the recovered meat is beef. 

Nevertheless, by 2022, at least 150 abattoirs across UP deemed illegal were shut down, affecting thousands of livelihoods. The legislation had a severe economic impact on those dependent on the meat industry for livelihood (abattoir owners and workers and persons involved in subsidiary trades like sale/purchase of offal etc) or on the cheap availability of protein for sustenance. Much of this population includes Muslim and Dalit communities. 

Cow Vigilantism 

Strengthening of cow-protectionism at the state level coincided with a rise in “cow vigilantism”, often led by local communities, of fringe groups with an increasing volume of self-styled “gau rakshaks” leading attacks on minorities in the name of cow protectionism. In 2015, the lynching of Mohammad Aqlaq in Dadri on suspicion of storing beef was met with outrage but such incidents have since grown almost unchecked, not just in UP but across north and western India. 

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Between May 2015 and December 2018, at least 44 people –including 36 Muslims– were killed in such attacks, as per a report titled 'Violent Cow Protection in India: Vigilante Groups Attack Minorities'' released by Human Rights Watch. As per an analysis by IndiaSpend, about 51 per cent of violence centred on bovine issues from 2010 to 2017 was targeted against Muslims who comprised 86 per cent of 28 Indians killed in 63 such incidents.

Meat Sale Bans

Beyond the ban on slaughter and smuggling, the UP administration has also been coming up with new ways to regulate on sale of meat.

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This year, the Yogi government declared November 25 as “no non-veg day" across the state to mark the birth anniversary of Sadhu TL Vaswani. The sale of purchase of meat across the state is to henceforth be prohibited on this date. 

In 2021, the Adityanath government announced a ban on the sale and purchase of meat in a 10-square-kilometre radius around the Krishna Janmabhoomi area in Mathura. The government seems to have similar plans for Ayodhya where the Ram Temple is currently under construction. During a visit to the city earlier this year, the CM had said that the sale and purchase of meat should be prohibited in the city. Such a ban would leave thousands of meat sellers, mainly Muslims, unemployed. 

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The BJP has also been accused of promoting or supporting unofficial meat bans during Hindu festivals like Navratri or Kanwar Yatra (implemented by local or municipal bodies, RWAs etc) even though the UP government has clarified there are no official orders for a ban on meat sales during specific festivals. In 2018, for instance, the sale of meat was allegedly banned for 13 days during Kanwar Yatra, forcing many Muslim-owned non-vegetarian restaurants to become “veg only” and serve vegetarian food for pilgrims including dishes like “Veg Haleem” and meatless biriyani. While photos of the stores selling vegetarian fare went viral on social media, Meerut Police have denied any such ban orders being given officially. This year, meat sale was banned across the route taken by Kanwat Yaris.  “Respecting the belief of devotees, meat should not be allowed to be sold in the open on the Kanwar route. The route should remain clean and sanitised,” Yogi had said. 

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Veg-Non Veg Divide

The veg-non-veg divide has become a focal point of polarisation among communities at grassroots with several such incidents being reported from across the state. 

In September 2019, an FIR was registered against 43 persons in a village in the Charkari area when local Hindu residents alleged they had been fed non-vegetarian biriyani without their consent on the occasion of the ‘urs’ of Sheikh Peer Baba. While the FIR was lodged following intervention by a BJP leader who alleged that the act was intended to hut Hindu sentiment, authorities at the time said the biriyani was not fed to the people intentionally. 

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Such divides have also entered the educational space. In 2016, the administration of Baba Saheb Bhim Rao Ambedkar University (BBAU) banned non-vegetarian food from its mess in Lucknow. In 2017, a CBSE-affiliated school in Meerut reportedly banned the sale of non-vegetarian items in its canteens and allegedly asked students to get a haircut like Adityanath. 

In 2022, the administration of Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya (JNV) school, also in Meerut, decided to get non-vegetarian food cooked separately, outside the hostel mess in response to complaints raised by 19 mainly local students against the provision to provide some exchange students from the school’s Maharashtra branch with non-vegetarian food. 

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