Haryana's cows aren't the only ones who will be getting identity cards. The state also seems all set to give IDs to cow protection groups of the kind Prime Minister Narendra Modi condemned last week. The Haryana Cow Commission is considering a proposal to give police accreditation to the Haryana Gau Raksha Dal, a group that has connections to vigilante groups accused of taking the law into their own hands.
Cow protection vigilante groups have been in the news recently after a shocking video emerged of Dalits being stripped and beaten by such vigilantes in Gujarat, prompting outrage from all over, and the biggest Dalit movement in the state in 30 years.
But the Gujarat incident wasn't isolated. Similar groups have been active across North Indian states, including Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh in the past few years, and have become notorious for attacking those transporting cow carcasses. Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje even complained that these groups had turned to extortion.
Last week, Modi said that 70%-80% of these cow protection activists are "fake".
So Haryana's Cow Commission, also known as the Gau Seva Ayog, has decided to regulate them, by issuing them with identity cards. “The Gau Raksha Dal has issued identity cards to its members on its own,” said acharya Yogendra Arya, president of the Haryana Gau Raksha Dal, the outfit that the state is set to give accreditation to. “But one issued by the Ayog would mean that we are considered as the genuine cow protectors working on behalf of the state.”
Arya added: “Many a times, our volunteers get into trouble while chasing smugglers’ vehicles carrying cows for slaughter. They either end up getting probed by police officials or agitated villagers. An identity card issued by the Ayog would reduce all the confusion.”
Arya refused to answer a question on whether the chase would be better left to the police, particularly when Haryana has a Cow Protection Task Force, headed by an Inspector General rank police officer. Instead, he insisted that the state required their help.
“The Ayog does not have any personnel of its own,” said Arya. “We act as its agents. So far, over a hundred volunteers have forwarded their names to the Ayog for identity cards.”
Arya added that the matter was a few months old and was not a response to Modi's comments.
Haryana passed the Gau Seva Ayog Act in 2010 when the Congress was in power. The Act says that the Ayog must work to implement laws with respect to prohibition of cow slaughter as well as supervise and assist in the working and functioning of institutions engaged in cow welfare.
The Act states that the Ayog will include official and non-official members, including top representatives from the Haryana government and police, as well as those nominated from the government from among those engaged in cow welfare. The chairman and the vice-chairman are both non-official members nominated to the post, which is how Bani Ram Mangla – an old Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh ideologue – ended up being named chief of the Ayog.
Yet, despite the inclusion of outside hands in its functioning, the Haryana Gau Seva Ayog Act does not include any provisions that give cow protectors or volunteers of any vigilante group the right to execute any function on its behalf.
When asked about the authority of the Ayog with respect to issuing identity cards, and what would be the legal validity of such document, Ram Mangla, the Ayog’s chief, said: “No final decision has been taken on the matter.”
Haryana is not alone in including volunteers in its cow protection efforts. The Indian Express reported in July that more than 1,900 people in Maharashtra had enrolled as volunteers to “monitor the beef ban” in a special drive conducted by the state's animal husbandry department.
These so-called monitors have been doing much more than simply alerting the police. An NDTV report found that a group of 20 men violently apprehended a truck driver, seized his phone and forced him to a police station simply because one of them had been certified as an Animal Welfare Officer.
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Cow protection groups are unabashed when it comes to admitting that the IDs will give them impunity.
“The Gau Raksha Dal was formed in 2011 and till date we have often landed in dangerous confrontations with several type of cow smugglers,” said Sarvamitra Arya, general secretary, of the Haryana Gau Raksha Dal. “Five of our volunteers have lost their lives in such confrontations.”
He added: “Often we receive a tip-off before the police and chase the smugglers on our own. But at times in the process of helping the police, we end up getting probed by the police. An identity card issued by the Ayog is likely to reduce the confusion.”
Arya said that the group was not concerned about getting police verification for its activists since “all genuine cow protectors are known to the village authorities and district administration.”
Arya took issue with Modi's estimation that 80% of the groups were fake, saying that the number was more likely to be less than 10%.
He admitted that volunteers of cow protection groups, including the Haryana Gau Raksha Dal, have at times indulged in violence but justified it, claiming that violence could turn out to be a necessity in cases of delayed police action.
“In fact,” said Arya, “the talks regarding the Ayog issuing us identity cards gained prominence after an incident in Kurukshetra in which a group claiming to be Haryana Gau Raksha Dal had indulged in violence.”
When confronted with examples of volunteers of the Haryana Gau Raksha Dal having indulged in violence (for instance, a recent case on the Delhi-Faridabad border when volunteers from the Dal allegedly held a trucker and his helper on suspicion of being cow traffickers and forced them to consume a mixture of cow dung, cow urine, milk, curd and ghee for purification) Arya disowned them.
“In every such case, we have conducted an internal inquiry and found none of our volunteers involved in any of them,” he said.
Inspector General of Police, Bharti Arora, who heads the Haryana Cow Protection Task Force, said there are some genuine cow protectors who have acted as the eyes and ears of the police, but agreed that many of them are “over-enthusiastic” and “emotionally surcharged” for which they end up on the other side of law.
Arora said: “There is a history of police inaction with regard to incidents of cattle smuggling, following which groups of cow protectors have taken the responsibility upon themselves. While some of them are genuine, some have turned into extortionists who do not even spare trucks carrying buffaloes, which does not come under the ambit of the Prevention of Cow Slaughter Act in the state."
Arora added that genuine cow protectors worked with the police and helped it arrest cow smugglers. “There are times when even police officials have to tip-off genuine cow protectors to help chase vehicles that break past police barricades,” said Arora. “This is one form of community policing and the Code of Criminal Procedure has a provision for that.”
The police officer insisted that members of the groups have been told that they cannot work on their own and have to inform the police about every incident. “They cannot put up barricades to stop vehicles or interrogate truckers,” said Arora. “That would amount to wrongful restraint, which is an offence punishable by law.”
When asked about the Gau Seva Ayog’s pending decision on issuing identity cards to members of the state Gau Raksha Dal, Arora indicated that ID cards issued by the commission would be considered legitimate.
“We have clearly mentioned that if they decide to go ahead with the plan, police verification of every member has to be a part of the process,” said Arora. “There are several cow protection groups in the state – some genuine but most of them not – which issue identity cards to their members. But we do not consider that valid. However, the cards proposed to be issued by the commission will be considered valid.”
Arora dismissed the idea that the IDs will act like a vigilante licence. “Certainly not,” she said. “Possessing the card would mean that only those with a valid one can be a volunteer in the community policing scheme…nobody is allowed to take the law in their hands.”
But Jagmati Sangwan, a former Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader from Haryana, strongly protested against the idea.
“By issuing identity cards to the cow protectors,” said Sangwan, “the state is creating a parallel administrative structure, giving a license to vigilante groups which commit atrocities on Dalits and minorities in the name of cow protection.”
Sangwan added: “Identity cards will only support these audacious cow protectors and shall ultimately cause extreme tension to the poor ones who are already terrorised by such vigilante groups. The cow protectors accuse all their victims of being cow smugglers only to legitimise their parallel law and order system. Even the police does not intervene in such cases.”
She added that the Prime Minister’s comments seem to have got self-styled cow protectors to initiate a drive to legitimise their actions. “The idea of issuing identity card seems like one such initiative,” said Sangwan. “Even the cow commission is filled with faces from the RSS and VHP. This is nothing but propaganda at the state’s expense.”