By Mayank Bhardwaj
NEW DELHI (Reuters) – Abattoirs in India called off a four-day strike after the most populous state of Uttar Pradesh, ruled by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party, gave assurances that mainly Muslim-run, unlicensed slaughter houses would not be shut down or attacked.
Separately, in Modi’s western home state of Gujarat, lawmakers of his ruling party stiffened the punishment for cow slaughter to life imprisonment, the toughest such measure aimed at protecting cows, widely considered holy by Hindus.
Earlier, the maximum punishment had been a seven-year jail term.
State elections are due by year-end in Gujarat, where 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed in 2002 after a wave of Hindu-Muslim riots when Modi was chief minister. A Supreme Court investigation found no case against Modi, who denied wrongdoing.
Shrill demands by right-wing Hindu groups to stop the slaughter of cows threaten to stoke a fresh wave of communal tension, as Muslims, who make up 14 percent of India’s 1.3 billion people, dominate the meat trade.
After the appointment of Hindu hardliner Yogi Adityanath as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh following a landslide election victory for Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, slaughterhouses and meat shops suffered attacks by Hindu vigilante groups.
“We have decided to call off the strike after a meeting with the chief minister, who assured us that the state government will renew the licenses of slaughter houses,” Chaudhary Aley Ummar Qureshi, a general secretary of the Muslim All India Jamiatul Quresh, told Reuters from Lucknow, the state capital.
Traders will resume selling meat after the end on Wednesday of the nine-day Hindu festival of Navratra, during which participants fast and abstain from meat, Qureshi said.
“The government also assured us of protection from any arbitrary or unlawful crackdown,” Qureshi said.
The state government would not discriminate on religious grounds, said health minister Siddharth Nath Singh, who attended the traders’ meeting with Adityanath.
“Anyone creating trouble in the name of religion, from now on, will not be tolerated,” he told a TV network soon after.
Most of India’s beef comes from buffalo rather than cattle, and Uttar Pradesh is the country’s biggest producer of buffalo meat. Its recent crackdown spread to other states ruled by the BJP.
Despite the end to the strike, slaughterhouse owners remain insecure and nervous.
Muslim owners of meat shops still fear they could be targeted, said Iqbal Qureshi, president of the Meat Murga Vyapar Kalyan Samiti, a meat sellers’ group in Uttar Pradesh.
He urged the government to make its rules and regulations clear in order to eliminate harassment by authorities and vigilante groups.
Frequent attacks on trucks carrying cattle have severely crippled both local trade and exports, said a meat exporter based in India’s financial capital of Mumbai.
During its election campaign the BJP had promised to maintain communal harmony in Uttar Pradesh, said Randeep Surjewala, spokesman of the opposition Congress party.
“Everybody will have to wait and watch to see whether they fulfill these promises or pursue a divisive agenda,” he added.
(Reporting by Mayank Bhardwaj; Additional reporting by Rupam Jain, Krishna Das and; Rajendra Jadhav in MUMBAI; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)