An alleged assault by Bajrang Dal members on eight Dalit men suspected of stealing a cow, killing and eating it in a Karnataka village has led to two police complaints against both parties. The police first booked the Dalit men for displaying cruelty to animals, and registered a counter-complaint against the Bajrang Dal members a day later.

Though the incident took place on July 10, it has only surfaced now, against the backdrop of protests in other parts of the country against a brutal assault by cow protection vigilantes on Dalits found skinning a dead cow in Gujarat.

Police booked victims

The residents of Kundur village – a small Dalit colony of about 150 residents in Chikamagaluru district of Karnataka – alleged that around 30-40 Bajrang Dal men had descended on their village and brutally beat up their fellow villagers with sticks and iron rods after tying them up.

The villagers said that the attackers did not allow the assault to be filmed by ensuring no villager came close to the house in which the men were being thrashed. The villagers said that the assailants also ensured that none of the victims sustained open injuries.

The house belonged to a 56-year-old disabled man, Palraja, who now has a fractured arm. While three of the eight men managed to flee the assault after escaping their bonds, the remaining Dalit men have several bruises all over their bodies.

The police from the nearby Jayapura police station arrived at the spot on the day of the attack but arrested Palraja, Dhanu, Muttappa, Sandeep and Ramesh – all of whom had been attacked – on grounds of “cruelty towards animals” on the basis of a complaint filed by the Bajrang Dal activists. They were subsequently released on bail.

The following day, the Dalit men filed a counter-complaint after which seven of the alleged attackers were arrested under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.

‘Gift’ of cattle?

According to Palraja, an estate owner by the name of Nagappa Gowda had caught an old cow grazing on his crops and handed it over to the Dalit men after no one came forward to claim it.

Villagers said that this was not the first time that Dalits have slaughtered and consumed cattle handed over to them by owners of the region’s coffee and pepper estates.

Guru Rao, a native of the nearby Koppa village, said that in the absence of hattis (cattle sheds or areas to keep cattle in villages), cattle were left free to roam around and invariably entered the estates.

“They [cattle] trek for miles together and end up in the estates,” said Rao. “Owners of these estates watch for a week or two to see if the owner of the cow or buffalo comes to get them. When cattle owners fail to do so, estate owners hand over the animals either to butchers or Dalit youths.”

Police apathy

Palraja said that the police initially “failed to take note of injuries sustained by us on our body parts”.

He added that the police only did so when their lawyer, who came to jail to get signatures on their bail petitions, questioned the police.

“Our lawyer questioned the police asking why they failed to take cognisance of the injuries sustained by us,” said Palraja. “He asked them to book a case against Bajrang Dal activists.”

Palraja added that it was only after the lawyer’s complaint that they were treated at the government hospital in Koppa where doctors found that Palraja had sustained a fracture on his left elbow.

K Ashok, state convenor of Komu Souardha Vedike (Communal Amity Forum) blamed the growing influence of the Bajrang Dal in the region for the attack.

Ashok said that the Bajrang Dal had turned its ire upon Dalits after indulging in violence on churches and mosques in the past, as well as trying to impose their own code of conduct on women and youth in the area.

“Who are these people to question Dalits’ food culture?” asked Ashok. “Dalits in the country have historically consumed beef.”

Ashok blamed police inaction for the attack on Dalits at Kundur village.

Cattle thefts to blame?

Santosh Babu, the Chikamagaluru superintendent of police, defended his team. “The police have acted impartially,” he said. “It booked a case and arrested the Bajrang Dal activists on the basis of complaint filed by Palraja.”

Babu added that the tension over cattle in the area would end once organised cattle smugglers were stopped.

“My suggestion to the government is that it should repeal the 1964 cow slaughtering Act [Prevention of Cow Slaughter and Cattle Preservation Act] to end slaughtering of cows surreptitiously by anti-social elements,” said Babu.

According to this law, only infirm and aged animals can be slaughtered after a doctor's certification.

Babu added that the soaring price of beef had given thieves an incentive to steal cattle and smuggle them to slaughterhouses in other areas.

Cattle thieving was a matter of concern, admitted local Congress leader HM Satish. He added that every month, 10-15 cases of stolen cows were reported in and around the neighbouring villages of Kopa and Balehonnur Hobli.

Police records show that in June, 10 cases of stolen cows were reported in the Kopa taluk of which Kundur village is a part.

Local resident Guru Rao said that cow thieves usually hailed from neighbouring districts like Udupi as well as Dakshina Kannada, which borders Kerala – where there is no restriction on the slaughter of cattle and consumption of beef.

Babu said that he had visited Kundur village and instructed the local police to keep a vigil on anti-social elements in an effort to assure Dalits of their safety.

But Dalit activists do not think that’s enough. The Komu Souardha Vedike has planned a torchlight procession on July 28 to highlight alleged police lapses and what they call the “increased goondaism and moral policing by the Bajrang Dal.”

No minister or senior official from the Social Welfare Department of Karnataka has visited this Dalit hamlet so far. Home minister G Parmeshwara, a Dalit, has not spoken on the issue either.