On the night of October 3, Goru, a Banjara, was returning to his village Bamkheda from a cattle fair in the Rajsamand district of Rajasthan when he was attacked by 17 members who claimed to be “gau rakshaks” or self-styled cow protection vigilantes. The attackers, said to be from the local unit of the Bajrang Dal – a militant rightwing organisation – demanded Rs 5,000 from Goru and other Banjaras accompanying him, accusing them of taking the cattle for slaughter. When they refused to pay up, the men beat them up, vandalised their truck and confiscated the six bullocks they had bought from the fair, which had been organised by the district administration.

Historians describe the Banjaras as a diverse community with progressive views on religion, family and gender. Though earlier concentrated in Rajasthan and Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, they have now spread to all parts of the country. As transporters of goods and services, the Bamaniya Banjaras of Rajasthan have a close historical connection with oxen. With the advent of motorised vehicles, many of them have become a part of the large precariat workforce, though some, like Goru, have continued to maintain connections to their past trade by purchasing oxen and selling them to farmers.

While the violence of the kind faced by Goru and his Banjara companions is not new to the community, this particular attack galvanised a movement against gau rakhaks – not unlike the uprising by Dalits in Gujarat after four youth from the community were flogged by cow-protection vigilantes in Una on July 11. A police case was registered, some of the attackers were arrested and the community came together in protest.

At the forefront of these Banjara agitations were women, over 1,000 of whom took out a protest rally in Rajsamand and, along with other people’s movements and campaigns from Rajasthan, organised a jan sunwai, or public hearing.

Parash Ram, a Banjara activist from Rajasthan's Chittorgarh district, talks to Scroll.in about the unprecedented response of the community to the Bamkheda assault and how Dalits and Banjaras can come together against gau rakshaks.

Photo: Jayshankar Menon

What brought the Banjara community together in protest this time, unlike in earlier incidents?
Until now, such cases did not have the broad support that we have seen in this instance. We did not have a platform to fight for our issues, we also did not know how to take a stand on the Bajrang Dal and how to confront a formidable force like them.

Second, this time the attacks took place inside the village, unlike previous incidents where individuals were beaten up or harassed in isolation, and were unable to pursue legal recourse because of lack of evidence.

Finally, the Banjaras are also unaware of the legal avenues and channels, and had the impression that the gaurakshaks are the police and their actions were legal. This time the first information report filed in the case became a pathway of sorts, the Bajrang Dal members were caught making a mistake – they attacked a community that has an integral relationship with the ox. We had the evidence and we did not want to let go of the chance. So we decided to publicise and organise politically.

Has the Banjara community in Rajasthan been attacked like this before?
The Banjara livelihood and identity is tied to the oxen. We trade in oxen, therefore, we are sitting ducks for the Bajrang Dal, Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh...anyone who believes they are building a so-called Hindu Raj.

Nationally, this incident is representative of a trend – we all know what happened in Una, or in Dadri last year. There was no choice but to speak out against such attacks. If anyone is saving the ox, it is the Banjaras, by selling them to farmers. But the law is also on the side of gau rakshaks. The Rajasthan Bovine Animal (Protection of Slaughter and Regulation of Temporary) Migration or Export Act, 1995 and The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960 are systematically used to extort money from Banjaras.

Photo: Jayshankar Menon

Can you elaborate?
Banjaras are falsely persecuted under The Rajasthan Bovine Animal Act. I don’t have the exact numbers, but at least 500 individuals have been charged with transporting cows to the slaughter house under his act, even though there are no slaughter houses in Rajsamand district. We are also not a district that borders another state, yet there are cases where Banjaras have been charged with exporting cows outside Rajasthan.

What is really going on is a blatant form of economic coercion that is supported by the state government, through manipulation of law, and through fear. When a Banjara is charged under The Rajasthan Bovine Animal Act, an FIR is immediately lodged. The “cow” (actually an ox) that is confiscated is then sent to a “gaushala” (cow rest-house) until the fate of the Banjara is decided. He is eventually released on bail. When he goes to pick up the animal, the gaushala demands a well-being fee for taking care of the animal.

So, if a Banjara buys the animal for Rs 5,000 and is arrested, he then has to pay Rs 5,000 as bail and another 5,000 as a well-being fee at the gaushala. In all, he has thus spent more on the ox than he can sell it for. In most cases, the oxen are left in the gaushala.

How did the Banjara community respond to the Bamkheda assault?
I got a phone call within an hour of the incident and I urged other members of community who were closer than I was to rush to the village. Within two to three hours, at least 50-100 people had gathered from neighbouring villages.

Those who first arrived in Bamkheda along with local villagers, including non-Banjaras, thought it was best to have a negotiation. A few of them tried to call the former and current sarpanches, the MLA, and the parents of the gau rakshaks, who belonged to dominant-caste families from the neighbouring Fukiya village. Those calls were ignored. All elected representatives are from the BJP, and the gau rakshaks’ parents knew they had the support of local BJP leaders.

Within an hour, the police arrived and, surprisingly, their response was positive. The station head officer registered an FIR against the gau rakshaks and arrested two people.

The state home secretary, whom we were able to reach on the phone, also sent instructions to the police to "control the gaurakshaks". We are not used to this kind of positive response – usually perpetrators act with impunity and nobody gets arrested. These kinds of beating are normal for the Banjaras, but this time we felt we needed to look beyond this incident at the larger collective injustice we have experienced for the last 20 years. Dalit and human rights groups from across Rajasthan and the country also came to the jan sunwai and gave it a broad-based character.

Photo: Jayshankar Menon

How many people have been arrested so far?
Two of the 17 assaulters were arrested the same day and two more were arrested within a fortnight. The lodging of the FIR and the arrests are a huge victory for us, and the supportive role of the station head officer has rekindled our faith in law and the police. Unfortunately, immediately after we organised our jan sunwai on October 18, the station head officer was transferred.

What are your demands to the Vasundhara Raje government?
In addition to arresting the remaining 13 perpetrators, we have five key demands.

One, allow us to trade oxen, which is our main livelihood. Two, if the state government is going to ban sale of oxen, we should be given 15 bigha land or jobs. Three, having been forced into a life of near-destitution and faced with constant eviction without even a cremation ground to honour our dead, all Banjaras must be resettled and provided pattas (a legal document) for their land. Four, there should be suo moto inclusion into the National Food Security Act and five, the Banjara community must be considered eligible for the Below Poverty Line list.

How do you plan to take the struggle forward?
We are trying to build the initial movement into an organised force. In four districts, where we were able to mobilise Banjaras for our protest and for the jan sunwai, we have members who have taken charge of organising meetings.

On November 18, the divisional commissioner is organising a meeting where the animal welfare department, the Banjara community and other Dalit and human rights organisations will discuss a government protocol to prevent further attacks by gau rakshaks on the Banjaras.

We also met with the Dalit leader from Gujarat, Jignesh Mevani, and are inspired by the Dalit struggle there. We are working on how Dalits and Banjaras can come together against the gau rakshaks. The Banjaras are also a voice of secular struggles across the country. We need to build solidarity with other ongoing struggles where communities have been subjected to hate and violence in the name of religion and caste.

Suchi Pande is affiliated with the Suchna Evam Rozgar Adhikar Abhiyan, an advocacy network of grassroots organisations in Rajasthan that is working to ensure the Right to Information and MGNREGA.