There are many things Punjab is popular for, not least among them its breeds of dairy cows. Bred from imported semen from Holland and the United States, each cow demands up to Rs 80,000 in investment by the farmer and the state. And when sold in other parts of India, especially in Gujarat, its price goes up to twice as much.

Lately, however, this Rs 2,500 crore business has been choking, according to the Progressive Dairy Farmers Alliance, a national association agitating on behalf of Punjab’s dairy farmers.

Ever since the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power at the Centre and in several states last year, its rhetoric on cow protection and beef ban has emboldened a number of vigilante self-declared cow protectors. Over the past one year, these Hindu groups have brazenly attacked Punjab’s dairy farmers and prevented the transportation of cows from Punjab to other states in India.

Most prominent among these groups is the Gau Raksha Dal, a non-profit that claims to have no affiliations, though the Shiv Sena and the Hindu Parishad too have been accused of carrying out attacks.

Their vigilantism has taken strength from the stricter cattle trade rules introduced by the newly-formed Gau Raksha Commission in Punjab, which was given statutory powers by the government two months ago following another surge of opposition to cow slaughter. For the dairy farmers in the state, this has resulted in a 70% decline in business, claims Vishal Chopra, a Ludhiana-based dairy farmer.

Over the past year, Chopra alone has suffered multiple attacks. One time, he says, he was sending 20 cows from Ludhiana to Assam, but the trucks carrying them were attacked en route by the Gau Raksha Dal at Rajpura in Patiala district. “They kept the nine best cows, and returned 11,” said Chopra. “We had to give Rs 50,000 to the police and they kept Rs 50,000 for cow shelters.” Another time, he says, a delivery of 600 cows being shipped off to Mizoram was stopped in Ludhiana and half the cows were confiscated. Though the consignment was sent with the required documents, it took Chopra three months and more than Rs 3 lakh to get the cattle back.

The police in Ludhiana, Patiala, Rajpura and Khanouri, where many attacks have been reported, deny receiving any complaints.

Replying with violence

The Punjab Prohibition of Cow Slaughter Act, 1955, which also governs Haryana and Himachal Pradesh, imposed a complete ban on the slaughter of all cattle in the state as well as on their sale for slaughter outside the state. Consumption of beef is permitted by the law as long as there is proof that the beef came from outside the state.

Until a year ago, a certificate from a veterinarian was sufficient to establish that a cow was, in fact, being sent out of Punjab for dairy purposes and not for slaughter. But then the process was changed and a no-objection certificate from District Commissioner was made mandatory.

Dairy farmers complain that this process is tedious and time-consuming and has spurred the vigilantism. “Because of the new rules, thugs have emerged,” said Daljit Singh Gill, president of the Progressive Dairy Farmers Alliance. “They are beating up merchants and farmers, alleging that the cows they are transporting are for slaughter.” The association is agitating for criminal proceedings against the vigilantes and demanding their arrests. “If someone attacks the farmers, we will stop them now,” Gill said. “If something goes wrong, it is the government’s responsibility.”

Shortage in milk supply

Satish Kumar, national convenor of the Gau Raksha Dal, is unperturbed by the threat. “We protect cows from the butchers,“ he said. “We have made the police form cow protection cells to support us.”

According to Kumar, the Gau Raksha Dal is made of Hindu volunteers across India who are “willing to do whatever it takes” to prevent cow slaughter. He alleges that while the law requires dairy farmers to seek permission from the District Commissioner to send cows out of the state, no one abides by it. “But we know who the farmers are, and who the butchers are.”

Chopra disagreed with him: “If I load my truck with cows tomorrow morning, they will be confiscated by the afternoon.” He alleges that the Gau Raksha Dal routinely harasses all farmers who transport cows out of the state, extorting money or reporting violations of the rules against cow slaughter when a farmer cannot pay up. “We have to go to the court to get the cows released,” Chopra said. “Two of my cows died at one of their shelters, as no one feeds them or cares for them there.” Kumar denies all allegations of extortion and harassment.

“There are videos all over the internet,” said Gill. “[Kumar] is beating people like it is Afghanistan... No trader has 20 to 90 days to wait for a permit. Where are they expected to keep the cattle in the meantime?”

The Progressive Dairy Farmers Alliance successfully opposed a brief blanket ban on selling cattle outside Punjab that was called for by the chairperson of the Gau Raksha Commission, Kimti Lal Bhagat. It continues to push for a reversal of the tedious verification process currently in place. “We have written to the chief minister, we will appeal in the High Court,” said Gill. “There is already a gap between demand and supply, and if this goes on, there will be a milk shortage.”

This may be some truth to this. “We are telling our buyers in Gujarat that they do not need to pay us till the cattle reach them,” said Chopra “Yet they are not buying cows [from us] anymore.” According to Chopra, Amul, the largest dairy cooperative in the country, has been sourcing cows from Punjab since its inception in 1946. If the cooperative continue to miss out on the Punjab breeds, it may not be able to sustain its high milk production.

There are no signs of the Gau Raksha Dal backing down. “The police are employees of the state,” Kumar said. “They are not personally invested in protecting these cows, which is why they depend on us.” Kumar claims the situation warrants violence, and alleges that the Gau Raksha Dal and the police have also been shot at. “If injustice is happening, if a woman is being harassed, it is the duty of bystanders to intervene. If someone attacks my mother, I will risk my life to protect her.”

Also see Meet the people who torture and lynch in the name of protecting the cow.