Aggressive groups of vigilantes have taken upon themselves the task of saving ‘gau mata’, particularly in BJP-ruled States, and often at the receiving end are Dalits who make a living out of skinning dead cows. Naturally there has been a steep rise in crimes against Dalits, and the authorities show a marked unwillingness to act. A round-up of the situation in some key States.
THE ROAD TO UNA
THE July 11 stripping and thrashing of four Dalit boys at Una village in Saurashtra, Gujarat, by a bunch of self-styled cow protectors, or gau rakshaks, for skinning a dead cow has provoked a movement in Gujarat of a scale never before seen in the State. Dalits in Gujarat, who account for about 8 per cent of the State’s population, have been long used to discrimination, segregation and even violence. Observers say the Una incident served as a tipping point to bring out old resentments at routine injustices.
At least seven suicide attempts followed the Una beating, and one of these turned fatal. Strong statements of Dalit assertion were also made through the dumping of cow carcasses outside government offices.
The strongest statement has come in the form of a 350-kilometre, 10-day rally from Ahmedabad to Una. Called the Azadi Kooch (March for Freedom), the march has Dalit organisations united under the umbrella group Una Dalit Atyachar Ladit Samiti walking from Ahmedabad to Una. It started on August 5 and is moving through villages to end at Una on Independence Day. The message that it carries is this: Dalits should no longer take on work such as collecting and skinning cows for paltry sums, clean toilets or do manual scavenging. They should not any longer feel inferior to the so-called upper castes. The march, led by the committed duo Jignesh Mevani and Subodh Parmar, has been gaining hundreds of followers on its way.
On August 5, some 15,000 Dalits gathered in Ahmedabad to start the march. It was a significant turnout. Thousands are expected to reach Una on August 15. Mevani pointed out that the agitation was not backed by political groups or leaders.
“The current movement is being built by the youth of the community. The resentment and anger has been simmering for some time. It is time to release it and we will do it in a peaceful yet assertive way,” he said. “We want to reach the rural areas where the problems are harsh and where the most downtrodden live. We want to show them we are not doing this for political gains but for the community.”
The demands of the movement focus on alternative livelihood options, reservation for Dalits, allotment of land for Dalit families, and a strong legal framework to fight atrocities and increase the conviction rate in crimes against Dalits. It also demands a total end to manual scavenging.
Frontline found the rally gaining in momentum when it caught up with the protesters at Dhanduka village on the Ahmedabad-Rajkot highway. “Fundamentally wrong things are happening. We have to spread the message that Dalits are as much citizens of this country as the upper castes,” said Abhishek Parmar, a 20-year-old college student from Ahmedabad. “Unfortunately, Dalits have a weak political leadership. It is up to us to make fundamental changes that will take us out of this backwardness. We need social and economic improvement.”
Kamlesh Rashmiya is a daily wage earner from Dhanduka who has given up 10 days of work to join the rally. “We have no dignity. They keep trying to suppress us. This is no life,” he said. “We have to fight for our rights. It is up to us to help the community and I believe it is worth giving up work for this movement.”
According to activists involved in organising the rally, notwithstanding the massive turnout in Ahmedabad, the real show of strength has come from the villages, where there are always between 70 and 100 people attending the meetings. “The Dalit population averages 7 to 8 per cent in Gujarat. Which means if there are 1,000 people in a village and 70-80 Dalits show up, it is a good representation,” said Subodh Parmar. “We have realised it is critical to work at the rural level, as it is here that we are stuck. It is the 21st century. People are going to the moon, but we are still fighting battles over drawing water from someone else’s well.”
The slogans at the march are simple and powerful. Mevani has coined a phrase that particularly stands out and seems to have grabbed the media’s attention: “Gai ki loom aap rakho; hume humari zameen do” (You may keep the cow’s tail; give us our land).
Among other slogans are “Hame chahiya azadi, hame chahiya zameen” (Give us our freedom, give us our land) and “Aadi roti khao, lekhen Una jayenge hum” (We will eat half a roti but we will go to Una). The gatherings are not large, but they are not small either. It is obvious that the participants have made an effort to make it to the meeting. Many of them said that it was hard to give up precious time from daily wage jobs but they knew it was important. Bipin Solanki, an elderly farm labourer from Dhanduka, said: “The time has come to make changes. The politicians will not do anything. Hopefully, Jignesh and his team can do it.”
Two notable things emerged in the weeks following the Una incident. Young Dalit people have displayed remarkable solidarity and a degree of assertion not seen before in Gujarat. The other thing is the use of social media. Distrustful of the mainstream media, Dalit protesters have taken to social media to spread word about their movement. Much of the anger on display now is the result of simmering resentments at the upsurge in atrocities against Dalits and the impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators. The conviction rate is as low as 3 per cent in Gujarat in cases of atrocities against Dalits. In 2015, Gujarat reported the highest crime rate against Dalits (6,655 cases), followed by Chhattisgarh (3,008 cases) and Rajasthan (7,144 cases). The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) reports that there were 1,130 cases of crimes against the Scheduled Castes (S.Cs) in 2014 in Gujarat. Activists point out that this means at least three cases of atrocities a day.
Mevani said: “I think something just snapped post-Una. We had had enough. Our young Dalit boys are not willing to be put down by caste and be oppressed any longer.” Speaking to Frontline about the need for an uprising, he said: “We have to go beyond Una. We have to demand social and economic justice. Land is critical to our emancipation. When one reads Ambedkar and Marx in the context of atrocities, land reforms emerge as the key issue. In India, land determines the caste.”
He believes that lower caste men like the ones assaulted at Una would not have had to skin dead cows for a living if they had their rightful land. “This campaign is not made up of rhetoric. It has to be about the current problems and solutions. We have to break the caste system and the Brahminical hold,” he said. Recalling how the demands of the Patels had been accommodated, he said that the Dalit movement would be taken to a more advanced stage if its demands were not heeded. “We plan to stage rail rokos and other non-violent means of protest,” he said.
The Patels had benefited from land reforms in the pre-Independence period and evolved into a highly successful farming community and, later, also an entrepreneurial one. Dalits might have gone the same way. Mevani said that the caste system was so deep-rooted in Gujarat that nothing was done for Dalits even if they were a potential vote bank.
Mevani, who owes allegiance to the Aam Aadmi Party, is a 35-year-old law graduate who worked as a journalist and later with the Jan Sangh Manch under the late lawyer and activist Mukul Sinha. As a Dalit, he has been exposed to the community’s problems. It was after he toured Saurashtra with the activist Bharat Zala in 2013, when the region was witnessing a spurt of farmers’ suicides, that he realised that it was time to act. Ever since, he has been fighting for Dalit land rights.
“BELTS, bags, and leather products, we introduced them to the world. The leather industry of this country runs because of us, Dalits. We put India’s leather industry on the world map. And yet, we have suffered immense violence. This has to end now. This injustice has to stop,” said an angry and distraught Chittibabu Mokati after his father and uncle were beaten to pulp by a higher-caste mob on the intervening night of August 8 and 9 at Amalapuram in Andhra Pradesh’s East Godavari district. The mob falsely accused Elisha Mokati, 57, and his cousin, Venkateshwar Rao, 52, of killing a cow owned by one of the villagers.
A crowd of about 100 villagers cornered Elisha and Venkateshwar at 11:30 p.m. on August 8 while they were skinning a dead cow at a cremation ground at the edge of Sudapalem. Sudapalem is the upper-caste Kapu settlement of Amalapuram, which is the largest village in the mandal by the same name. Men and women used derogatory caste slurs and taunted the two men and beat them until Elisha’s right eyebrow tore and Venkateshwar lost hearing in his left ear. They beat them with sticks, pelted them with stones, and threw garbage at them. Then they tied them to a “coconut tree and beat them indiscriminately with stones and sticks and humiliated them in public view by abusing them by their caste name”, said the first information report that was filed after Elisha managed to give a police complaint in his battered state around 1 a.m. on August 9.
At 5 p.m. earlier that day, Elisha had received a call from Aravind Boragaiala, who owns a sawmill at Amalapuram. One of his cows was electrocuted that afternoon by a live power line lying in his fields. He wanted Elisha to remove the carcass. Aravind and Elisha have known each other from childhood. While Aravind belongs to the landed Kapu caste, Elisha is a Madiga Dalit. Elisha performs a range of services, as his community has done for generations, which include removing carcasses, skinning them for their hide and selling the meat. Elisha could not do the job immediately as he had to arrange for transport, and because, when he received the call, he was attending a family function of an acquaintance near Janakipeta Colony, the Dalit neighbourhood of Amalapuram.
It was 8:30 p.m. when Elisha could arrange for an autorickshaw. He and three of his family bundled the carcass into the auto and drove to the cremation ground. Chittibabu, who helped load the carcass, did not accompany his father to the cremation ground. He went there, however, when his father was not home past midnight and found that his father and relative had been beaten up. According to Chittibabu, the only reason the mob did not beat the two men to death was that the police arrived an hour into the violence. The auto driver who helped them to transport the carcass called the police after failing to placate the mob. The police, initially hostile towards the Dalit men, confiscated their phones. They confiscated Chittibabu’s phone as well and did not return it until local Madiga political leaders intervened later in the night.
Violence against Dalits is not uncommon in Andhra Pradesh. Most often it goes unreported out of fear of reprisals and because the police rarely book cases under the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. But such incidents have become far more frequent since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in New Delhi.
Amalapuram happens to be a reserved Assembly constituency and is represented by the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), which wrested the seat from the Congress in the 2014 Assembly election. Over one-third of the mandal’s population is Dalit. But this did not deter the higher castes, mainly led by Kapus, from beating up Elisha and Venkateshwar.
The police denied any political involvement in the incident and called it a “misunderstanding”. But why did Sudapalem’s residents suddenly attack Dalits who have been skinning cows at the neighbourhood cremation ground for several generations? Why did anyone in the crowd not just dial Elisha’s Kapu acquaintance from whom he had procured the carcass, despite his repeated offer of his phone number? Why would the villagers not look into their own backyards first to see if any one of their cows was missing?
Recent developments in the State’s caste politics could hold the answer. Kapus form 27 per cent of its population, thus forming a vote bank that the ruling TDP can ill afford to overlook. They also have prominent leaders across party lines, such as the Congress Member of Parliament and former Union Human Resource Development Minister Pallam Raju, and actor Chiranjeevi, whose foray into politics was accompanied with his own short-lived political outfit, the Praja Rajyam Party. Kapus are particularly dominant in East and West Godavari districts, but they have not been the traditional vote base of the TDP. This is because of their long-standing rivalry with Kammas, the caste to which Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu belongs. They have largely voted for the Congress in the past, but in 2014 they overwhelmingly voted for the TDP. They blamed the Congress for the creation of Telangana and saw it as a betrayal.
Chandrababu Naidu made an election promise to include the community in the Other Backward Classes list. Telangana has included Munnuru Kapus, a sub-caste which a sizeable population in the State in the OBC list, but Chandrababu Naidu has not delivered on his promise. This led to massive protests in January this year and it has considerably eroded Chandrababu Naidu’s base among Kapus. Sensing a political opportunity, almost all opposition parties have been fervently courting Kapu support. Both the YSR Congress Party and the Congress have backed the Kapus’ reservation demand.
Both Elisha and Venkateshwar were admitted to Amalapuram’s government hospital soon after their August 9 police complaint. Leaders of the entire political opposition of the State visited them and offered support within 24 hours, but the TDP and its ally, the BJP, stayed away. There was no word from the Chief Minister on the incident for over 48 hours. Speaking to Frontline, the MLA of Amalapuram, Aithabathula Anand Rao, a Dalit from the ruling party, said Chandrababu Naidu was aware of the situation but wished to gather more information before making a statement.
The police have named eight people as accused on the basis of information given by a resident of Sudapalem village, Srinivasa Rao, who had been urged to file a complaint of missing cows. All have been booked under various sections of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. Some have been apprehended.
TOO FAR GONE TO HEED ADVICE
Venkitesh Ramakrishnan & Divya Trivedi
SUNIL SINGH, 37, the Uttar Pradesh president of the Hindu Yuva Vahini (HYV), the cow vigilante group with the proclaimed objective of “rashtra raksha, Hindu raksha and gau raksha” (save the state, save Hindus and save the cow”), is unfazed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s statements against gau rakshaks and their assaults on Dalits. A close associate of Yogi Adityanath, the BJP MP from Gorakhpur and founder of the HYV, Sunil told Frontline that such comments would not make any difference for organisations like the HYV and committed gau rakshaks like himself who would continue their campaign as vigorously as ever.
Sunil Singh’s operational headquarters is at Gorakhpur in eastern Uttar Pradesh. The HYV has been pursuing its stated objectives aggressively over the past 14 years and its activists, including Sunil Singh, are accused in close to 200 cases involving rioting, premeditated assaults and the spread of communal disharmony. Sunil Singh, who is booked in 76 cases that are at various levels of investigation and judicial scrutiny, says proudly that some 20 cases were caused by the HYV’s aggressive action against “cow traffickers”. The Prime Minister’s statements were targeted only at criminals masquerading as gau rakshaks and not at all gau rakshaks, he said.
Developments in Uttar Pradesh in the first two weeks of August 2016 made it clear that there were scores of Hindutva outfits like the HYV and hundreds of activists like Sunil Singh who were interpreting Modi’s comments in this way. Field reports of the State Home Department between August 6 and 9 show as many as 12 “gau raksha” attacks in four days. A senior official observed that assaults on people and vehicles transporting cows had been reported in recent times even from places that had never before witnessed incidents of this type. Among the areas in which cow vigilantism has intensified recently is Kannauj, represented by the Samajwadi Party’s Dimple Yadav, who is Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav’s wife. Cow vigilante attacks are common in parts of western Uttar Pradesh, particularly in areas like Muzaffarnagar and Shamli, which saw much communal violence in the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Government field reports of early August, however, recorded attacks even from Basti and Ballia in eastern Uttar Pradesh and Mainpuri in central Uttar Pradesh and Jalaun in Bundelkhand.
Intimidation of and attacks on Dalits who dispose of and clean cow carcasses were reported from the outskirts of Lucknow. According to these reports, gau rakshaks thrashed two Dalits in Lucknow’s Takrohi area in the last week of July, accusing them of cow slaughter. Dalits who traditionally dispose of and clean cattle carcasses then complained to their employers and also to the Lucknow Municipal Corporation (LMC). The LMC and the State government promptly arranged for security for staff involved in lifting and skinning carcasses. Steps to issue photo identity cards to contractual workers engaged in these duties have also been initiated, said an LMC official.
Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav pointed out that the BJP and its associates in the Sangh Parivar pursued a special brand of “cow politics” aimed at creating differences and communal polarisation in society. Talking to Frontline, he added that at present such machinations were intensified in Uttar Pradesh for obvious political reasons. “These so-called gau rakshaks have no real interest in cows. The State government is determined to take on the perpetrators sternly,” he said.
Sunil Singh told Frontline that the work of the gau rakshaks had created a social climate in which cow traffickers and other anti-Hindu forces were scared. “The HYV’s activities have been so effective in Gorakhpur and adjoining areas that the organisation did not have to launch any major operation in the last three months,” he said.
Indeed, it is a sense of fear that such outfits and their political mentors wish to create, especially among minority communities. It emerged from discussions with several Sangh Parivar activists that Hindutva forces expected such activities to provide a suitable launch pad for the BJP in the forthcoming Assembly election in Uttar Pradesh. The symbolism of the cow is useful in building up a Hindutva plank, especially after the electoral drubbing that the BJP got in 2015 in Bihar, where the cow issue was forcefully taken up only in the last phase of polling.
The campaign did not result in political gains for the BJP in Bihar. There seems to be a feeling in the Sangh Parivar that not foregrounding the cow as a political symbol was an important factor in the BJP’s rout by the Grand Alliance in Bihar. There is also obviously a resolve not to make the same mistake in Uttar Pradesh.
At Shamli in western Uttar Pradesh, the construction of a swanky new gaushala, to be fitted with air-conditioners, is in full swing. With a capacity of 450 cows, and an approximate investment of Rs.4.5 crore, it is spread over four acres (1 acre=0.4 hectare). “When gau rakshaks catch vans transporting cows, there is no place to take them. The new gaushala is expected to fill that gap,” said Ajay Sandal, patron and district coordinator for the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) in Shamli. The huge sum of money is all through donations by local people, according to Sandal. Shree Gaushala Sabha, Shamli, established in 1904, is overburdened with 388 cows (native and foreign breed). Capacity building is on in all three gaushalas of the district, in Shamli, Kairana and Jalalabad, to house more strays since the Gau Raksha Andolan of the Sangh began. There are an estimated 500 strays in the district, according to Sandal, and through distribution of pamphlets and use of informal networks, information is being sought on stray cows that can be brought to the gaushalas.
Sandal hopes to emulate the Haryana model of gaushalas that have expanded under the Manohar Lal Khattar government. “I visited more than 10 gaushalas there in Karnal and Panipat. The State government is supporting and funding the initiative unlike the pro-Muslim Samajwadi Party government here. Ramdev has a 1,000-acre gaushala some 20 kilometres from his Patanjali ashram. It was all very impressive,” he told Frontline.
As compared to the desi cow, which yields six or seven kg of milk a day for six to seven years in a lifespan of close to 14 years, the foreign breeds HF (Holstein Friesian) and Jersey produce three times the milk for at least 15 years. For the past two years, the National Dairy Research Institute, Karnal, has been trying to increase the yield of milch cows and also their productive years. The RSS’ Gau Seva wing is trying to dissuade people from consuming milk produced by foreign breeds by stating that milk from foreign cows leads to illnesses like cancer. (Experts in the field say this belief is shaky at best.) The Sanghis, therefore, term only a desi cow as gau dhan or cow wealth. “While the desi cow’s calf takes 2.5 years before it is ready to yield milk, the foreign calf is ready in less than 12 months. This high level of hormonal growth is the reason Indian children are growing up too fast nowadays,” said Sandal.
Efforts are on to cross-breed the foreign-breed cows and convert them to desi in three years’ time. Seeds for the purpose are now available in Meerut and Karnal. But will farmers agree to switch from foreign to desi breeds, given the difference in milk yield? “We will tell them how illness spreads from foreign cows. Simple,” said Sandal. He said the Kamdhenu Yojana of the Akhilesh Yadav government was a failure as it used foreign cows. “He tried to copy the Haryana model, but it does not work as it is not for desi cows. He did it only with the aim of employment generation.”
The overwhelming stereotype of the Muslim Qureshi community in the region is that they all butcher cows. Frontline sat down with 10-15 community members in Shamli to further understand the chain. They did not want their names to be mentioned. According to them, people from all castes and religions form some part of the chain. The farmers hail from all castes (Jat, Kashyap, Harijan, Sharma, Brahmin, and so on), and they sell cattle to suppliers or buyers who also hail from all religions (Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, and so on) and transport them to the Wednesday mela held in three places in Shamli: Dabedi near Budhana for cows, Shamli and Banat for buffaloes. Buyers from as far as Haryana, Punjab and Rajasthan visit the melas to make purchases. From the mela, the cattle are taken to slaughterhouses or for farming or for other uses, depending on their condition.
Instances of violence relating to cow vigilantism have become a regular affair in western Uttar Pradesh. When the Muslims of Shamli heard that a journalist had come, several of them arrived to give their testimonies, expressing a fervent hope that it would help stop the harassment.
Trucks with any form of cattle, be it milch cows, buffaloes, calves or oxen, are stopped randomly by gau rakshaks and money is extorted in lieu of safe passage. If money is not given, violence takes place. As recently as August 2, several trucks of buffaloes were stopped at Bijli Bamba Chowk on Hapur Road in Meerut by a crowd of 40 or 50 vigilantes. Ten days earlier, the same vigilantes took more than Rs.20,000 from a group of trucks.
DEATHS IN GAUSHALA
IN December 2013, the BJP formed the government in Rajasthan with a whopping majority, reducing the Congress tally to below 50 in the 200-strong Assembly. As committed in its manifesto, it amended its cow protection and anti-cow slaughter Act in September 2015 to allow the seizure of vehicles transporting cows and arrest of people suspected of smuggling cows for slaughter. It also created a dedicated Ministry for the cow and its progeny, the only one of its kind in the entire country. The amended Act replaced the Rajasthan Bovine Animal Act (Prohibition of Slaughter and Regulation of Temporary Migration or Export), 1995.
A year earlier, in June 2014, it declared the camel as the State animal owing to the dwindling numbers. In March 2015, the State Assembly passed the Rajasthan Camel (Prohibition of Slaughter and Regulation of Temporary Migration of Export) Bill, making even causing injury to a camel punishable. The two laws appeared to exemplify the State government’s commitment to animals.
They were broadly in keeping with the BJP and the Sangh Parivar’s projected affinity to the cow as opposed to the attitudes of “other” communities and political parties that did not consider the animal and its progeny as sacred in equal measure. So when over close to a thousand cows were reported to have died at the gaushala in Hingonia, run by the government and managed by the Jaipur Corporation since July, the gap between the projected commitment and the ground realities became much too evident.
The gaushala at Hingonia, located some 25 km from Jaipur, drew headlines as reports poured in of bovine deaths by the thousands. The exact toll is still unknown, and the matter came to light quite accidentally. A workers’ strike since July 21 for non-payment of wages had apparently led to the neglect of the animals, causing their deaths. But the 266 workers, who were mostly engaged in menial jobs of cleaning the area and feeding the animals at very low wages, were not the only people responsible for the deaths. The Jaipur Municipal Corporation had outsourced the work to a contractor and he failed to pay the workers. As the majority of the councillors belonged to the BJP, it was difficult to pin the responsibility on the opposition.
The Mayor, too, was a political nominee of the ruling party. The BJP, it was clear, had no one to blame but itself for the cattle deaths. It was said that privately run gaushalas were far better off than the State-run one at Hingonia. As pictures and videos of the dead animals began piling up, no one seemed interested in fixing accountability. Two officials were suspended while the Minister in charge of cow welfare, Otaram Devasi, claimed that it was the local urban body’s concern and not his Ministry’s. The BJP did not set up an inquiry into the reported deaths. The neglect was all the more surprising as the matter pertaining to the gaushala was being heard at the High Court since 2010. The Congress, meanwhile, organised a protest from a popular Hindu shrine, the symbolism of which did not go unnoticed. Pradesh Congress Committee president Sachin Pilot told Frontline that the Prime Minister’s statements pulling up gau rakshaks had come a little too late. “He is saying that to undo the damage. Why are all these incidents happening in BJP-ruled States? Clearly, there is silent approval from the top. From chai pe charcha, it has become a case of gai pe charcha,” he told Frontline.
The cow and the keeper
The cattle deaths exposed another little known fact about the gaushala. Workers who lived in the sprawling gaushala complex told Frontline that irregular wage payment was a regular feature. They added that women were beaten up when they struck work in protest against the labour contractor’s move to replace them with labour from “outside”. There were some who had worked there for as long as 15 years. Of the 266 workers, 166 were women; some of them stayed with their families inside the complex and the rest came from neighbouring villages. “We have children to feed. How do we do that with no money? We work from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.,” said Draupadi, who had worked for six years at the gaushala. Not too surprising in a State where the government that has changed labour laws for the “ease of doing business”.
Mayor Nirmal Nahata claimed ignorance about the workers’ strike when questioned and said that he would look into the matter. “The barns are in a low-lying area and water accumulated as a result, leading to the cattle deaths. We are looking into it. The cow is our mother, and it is a sensitive issue,” he said.
The workers told Frontline that the cattle had died because they were trapped in the slush caused by excessive rainfall. They said that had the area and the barns been cemented, there would not have been so many deaths. There were some 8,000 cows in the beginning, they said. One cow protection activist was bitterly complaining that no BJP or RSS worker was seen at Hingonia.
“We are doing the dirty work, picking up the cows from the slush and tending to the injured ones. Where are all the Gau Raksha Dal activists of the BJP and the RSS? No Bajrang Dal or VHP [Vishwa Hindu Parishad] functionary has visited this place. Some of them come to get their photographs clicked and then they leave,” said an activist from Jaipur. Another worker who had come from Sri Ganganagar district said that he was a management graduate and was appalled at the lack of local volunteers.
The bovine deaths in Hingonia would not have taken place had the government heeded the recommendations of the High Court of Rajasthan, which has been hearing a petition in the matter since 2010. Poonam Chand Bhandari, who has a record of sorts in filing public interest petitions, and who was the advocate in the 2010 petition seeking the court’s intervention in the upkeep of Hingonia, told Frontline that the staff had a habit of fudging the number of livestock. “They need at least 400 employees but have half of that, and that too on contract. All these things were brought to the notice of the court and notices have been repeatedly issued to the corporation,” he said.
D.S. Bhandari, a former director of the State Department of Animal Husbandry and the president of the Rajasthan Gow Sewa Sangh, an organisation based on Gandhian ideals, said that the cow getting a religious status was relatively new. It was in the late 1990s, he said, that the BJP used the slogan “Gai bachao, desh bachao” (save the cow, save the country) and henceforth the cow became a politico-religious animal. He believed that the government had no business running gaushalas. “You won’t find a single example in the entire country where the government is running a gaushala,” he said. There were around 1,600-odd gaushalas in the State, housing a cattle population of nearly six lakh. The majority were run by private individuals, he said.
BEFORE Una, there was Dulina. It happened in Haryana, almost 14 years ago—a lynching that has got all but erased from public memory. In October 2002, five young Dalit men were lynched in front of the Dulina police post in Jhajjar district. The men had picked up carcasses from a contractor, to skin them for the hide. It was late evening on Dasara, and they were in a hurry to join their families at home. None of them made it home as a mob, said to be 5,000-strong, attacked them on the suspicion that they had slaughtered a cow. It happened in the presence of a strong police contingent near by, but the police did not fire a single shot to save the young men.
The State government at that time was led by the Indian National Lok Dal, which was a constituent of the National Democratic Alliance ruling the Centre. A local gurukul had reportedly played a role in mobilising and inciting the mob, which was apparently heard shouting slogans like “Gau mata ki jai”.
Dulina did not make national headlines; it got silently buried in the debris of history. After Dulina, no major incident involving Dalits and cow vigilantes was heard of in Haryana. In the news now is Mewat, a region dominated by Meo Muslims and marked by unemployment and a lack of civic amenities including public utilities such as schools and hospitals. The only positive in the region is its favourable sex ratio. Cattle smuggling and Mewat have now become synonymous, thanks to a combination of the local media and the police that have stereotyped and caricatured the people living here.
On June 11, exactly a month before the incident at Una, two men from Mewat in their twenties were accosted and beaten by cow protection vigilantes at a toll booth and then taken to a lonely stretch where they were forced to eat cow dung and drink urine. Two weeks later, a shocking video of the incident was released. The two men were arrested by the police while not a single case was made out against the cow vigilantes.
One of the victims, Mukhtiyar, narrated his trauma sitting in his one-room brick home. On June 11, a few days before Eid, Mukhtiyar and his cousin Rizwan from Rehna village in Nuh district in the Mewat region, were given a job to deliver a consignment in Delhi. Both are unemployed and landless. They picked up the wares early in the morning and got on their way.
“My father died when I was very small. My mother brought me up. I have not studied beyond Class 2. My only earning is from doing odd jobs in and around the village. Our festival was approaching, and to meet the expenses, we thought we could earn a little money by doing the delivery,” he told Frontline.
At the toll post at Faridabad, he noticed an unusual crowd. It turned out they were gau rakshaks. Within seconds, Mukhtiyar and Rizwan were pulled out of the car in which they were travelling by a gang of 11 men and accused of ferrying beef. There was meat in the car to be delivered in Delhi, and the cow vigilantes insisted it was beef. In full view of the toll officials and a CCTV at the post, the two were beaten black and blue. “I think some kind soul called the police who arrived only to turn us over in the custody of the gau rakshaks. We beseeched the police to save us. The gau rakshaks told the police that they had information that more cow meat smugglers were on their way and that they should keep a watch on them,” said Mukhtiyar.
The police watched as the gau rakshaks bundled the two men in their vehicle and sped off towards Gurgaon. The men were beaten up again on a lonely stretch on the Kondli-Manesar-Palwal highway and made to eat cow dung and drink urine. Then the Gurgaon police was informed. “When we were being taken to Gurgaon, one of them put a pistol to my head and said that if we paid up Rs.15 lakh, they would let us go. We said we had no money. You have seen my house. Do I even look like the kind who would have one lakh rupees? The vehicle [we were using] was hired and we were just the delivery boys. I swear on my daughter’s head that they asked for a bribe,” Mukhtiyar said.
But the trauma for the two had not ended. Bleeding and bruised, they lay on the road as the Gurgaon police refused to take custody of the two, saying the case was not in their jurisdiction. They told the vigilantes to “take them back from where they had picked them up”. The two were again brought back to Faridabad and taken to the police station.
They were kept in police remand, judicial custody and then released on bail. The forensic report attesting that the material in their vehicle was cow meat was yet to be ascertained. “What do you think will happen to us? They made us shout slogans in praise of the cow. They might even kill us. They injured my eye. I don’t feel well at all. The police could have saved us,” said Rizwan, 22, whose father was a labourer.
Extortion by cow vigilantes is reportedly a big racket in the area. The vigilantes stop vehicles ferrying buffaloes and buffalo calves even when there is no ban on buffalo meat. “Even if a person has a milch cow, they stop the vehicle and ask all kinds of questions,” said Akhtar Hussain, a tea shop owner, adding that harassment had gone up manifold times during the BJP’s tenure.
Shameem Ur Rehman, lawyer for Mukhtiyar and Rizwan, told Frontline that he was fighting several cases in which innocent people had been framed under the Haryana Gauvansh Sanrakshan and Gausamvardhan Act, 2015, which provided for incarceration for up to 10 years for cow slaughter. He added that cow vigilantism had seen a spurt in recent years. Yet law empowered the police and not cow vigilantes to take action against alleged beef smugglers. The police, however, though slow to act against cow vigilantes for taking the law into their own hands, can be prompt and drastic in taking action against alleged cow smugglers.
On August 10, a police team shot dead an alleged cow smuggler near Narnaul in Mahendargarh district. All they seized was one cow and one bull. None other than the Superintendent of Police was reported to be on a night vigil to nab cattle smugglers. Remarkable, in the light of how ineffective the police are perceived to be in checking petty and heinous crimes and crimes against women.
Both Haryana and Punjab have a Cow Welfare or Gau Sewa Commission. In Haryana, it is headed by a known cow “activist”, Bhani Ram Mangla, who was earlier the district BJP president in Gurgaon and Mewat. The commission, which has a dozen unofficial members owing allegiance to the RSS and allied outfits like the VHP and the Bajrang Dal, was planning to issue identity cards to genuine “Gau Raksha Dals” following the Una incident. The commission has a special police task force to monitor the smuggling and slaughter of cows.
How gau rakshaks operate
Amit, associated with the Radha Krishna Gaushala, the biggest gaushala in Gurgaon, is a cow vigilante. He said he had been actively involved in at least 60 to 70 “cow rescue” operations so far. The founder of the gaushala in Basai village, Sandeep Kataria, an avowed gau rakshak himself, was murdered by his own relatives. His name is revered in the region even though the gaushala squats on two and a half acres of government land.
Amit said information about cow smugglers was given to him by toll tax officials and local people. A card with the phone number of the gaushala had been distributed widely. One of his fingers has been amputated, allegedly after cow smugglers fired at him. “It happened a month ago. We got information and then we pursued the lead. One of the smugglers shot at us,” he said, proudly displaying his injured hand. Earlier, the cow vigilantes use to put up road barriers. Now, the police were doing it, he said, adding that he was involved in another raid on August 5.
The manager of the gaushala, R.K. Chauhan, said that Amit was a “hero”. He said that 80 per cent of the cattle in the gaushala had been “rescued” from cattle smugglers. He was aware that the land was illegally occupied. “You can say that mother cow has encroached on government land,” he said.