How India’s leather tanners pay the price of Hindu nationalism
“Not long ago this whole compound used to buzz with people and activities,” says Hafiz, 71, known to everyone as Babu Bhai, who has run the tannery for nearly 50 years. “But in more than three months, we have not received any fresh supply of leather and I cannot afford to feed workers who are sitting idle.”
Like about 400 other tanneries in Kanpur, the largest city in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, Babu Bhai’s business is a victim of the Hindu nationalism stemming from the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and from his acolyte Yogi Adityanath, the firebrand anti-Muslim cleric who became chief minister of Uttar Pradesh in March.
In May, Modi’s government decreed that animal markets could trade cow and buffalo only for agricultural purposes such as ploughing and dairy production, and not for the leather industry.
Adityanath, a militant religious extremist who once described Muslims as “a crop of two-legged animals that has to be stopped,” went further. He ordered the closure of all slaughterhouses and butcher’s shops that he deemed illegal.
In Adityanath’s power base of Gorakhpur, 370 kilometers from Kanpur, vigilantes from the Hindu Yuva Vahini, the extremist militant youth organisation that Adityanath founded and which is notorious for communal violence, is taking action on his orders.
Ratnakar Chaturvedi and his men are busy raiding goods vehicles and checking whether any cattle are being transported. Anyone found doing so will be beaten up. “Those who live in India will have to follow Indian culture and civilization,” Chaturvedi says.
“From childhood we are taught that the cow is our mother and any harm to a cow is intolerable to us. The closure of slaughterhouses is good for society; it improves the environment.”
India is the world’s fifth-largest producer of leather, 1.5 million square feet a year, about a third of it from cows. Twenty of its 29 states, including Uttar Pradesh, now have laws banning cow slaughter. “Production is down by 52 per cent since the ban. The future of the tannery industry is dark now,” says Dr. Firoz Alam, general secretary of the Small Tanners Association in Kanpur.
More than 100,000 families are involved in the tannery industry, and 65 percent of them are directly affected by the ban on slaughterhouses and the decree on cattle trade, Alam says. “Most of the foreign buyers have transferred their orders to other countries. Ever since the new government has come they are inflicting mental torture on the Muslim minority.”
Babu Bhai, however, says it is wrong to say that Muslims are paying a higher price than anyone else. Seventy percent of the labourers in the leather industry are Dalit, the marginalized Hindu community. “Even people working at a higher level, the majority of them are Hindus. So the whole of society is affected.
“I have been working here since 1968, after my father bought the tannery. I have never faced this kind of crisis in the leather industry as it is today. The ban on slaughterhouses threatens our existence.
“These slaughterhouses have been in existence for centuries and supporting many families directly or indirectly, but the blanket ban has rendered many jobless.”
Babu Bhai is concerned not just for the future of his tannery, but of his family. It upsets him that he is not bequeathing a profitable industry to his two sons, as his father did for him in 1968.
“I don’t have any reason to be happy. My business is going down, I don’t see any future, I have lost sleep in the night. Instead of our trouble going down it’s going up, getting compounded, it’s not good for my sons.”