Not many in Rajasthan had heard of Sadhvi Kamal Didi till June last year when she and a hundred supporters blocked the national highway in Pratapgarh district. They were protesting the arrest of five of her followers for assaulting a truck driver and his helper claiming that they were smuggling cows. Kamal Didi stood victorious that day – not only did she get the arrested men released, the station house officer was transferred.

“After that incident, over 780 volunteers joined the holy cause of gau raksha” or cow protection, the national president of the Rashtriya Gau Raksha Dal’s women’s wing said on Wednesday in Jaipur, while making a round of the city in her car with a few volunteers. “And after this Sunday’s incident, we have so far received over 1,000 calls from potential volunteers. We need to organise an orientation meeting at the earliest.”

The Sunday incident referred to the siege she and a crowd of about 50 supporters laid to a hotel in Jaipur’s Sindhi Camp area that they claimed was serving beef. They assaulted two employees of the Hayat Rabbani Hotel after Kamal Didi saw one of them throw some meat in a nearby dumpyard. The police backed Kamal Didi’s followers. The hotel was sealed, the two employees arrested and the meat sent for forensic testing.

The slaughter of cows, calves, bulls and bullocks, and possession and transport of their meat is banned in Rajasthan. But it is legal to kill and eat buffaloes.

Kamal Didi said was tending to some ailing cows when she saw the hotel employee, a 19-year-old boy, dump the meat. She said she recalled conversations with residents in the area that the hotel organised “beef parties”. She decided to summon her followers and take action against the hotel.

Love for the cow

Kamal Didi’s Rashtriya Gau Raksha Dal is no stranger to protest marches and recruitment drives. On February 14, it organised a march with around 1,000 volunteers in Jaipur. “We chose February 14 because we believe the youth is quite misguided,” Kamal Didi said. “This day, which the youth celebrate as Valentines Day, should rather be dedicated to the love for the holy cow.”

She admitted that these drives had so far failed to attract volunteers in large numbers. But incidents such as those in Pratapgarh and Sindhi Camp had proved to be big draws.

Twenty six-year-old Lucky Kumawat, a volunteer with the Rashtriya Gau Raksha Dal, agreed. “Such incidents actually generate awareness among the masses,” he said.

Kamal Didi’s may be a name people are only now hearing of, but the Rashtriya Gau Raksha Dal has been around for a while in Rajasthan (though unregistered till late 2014) and in neighbouring Punjab and Haryana. Its chief, Satish Kumar, was arrested in Vrindavan, Uttar Pradesh, in August on charges of criminal assault, extortion, robbery and sodomy among others. But Kamal Didi insisted his arrest was due to “political reasons”.

Early years of a gau rakshak

Kamal Didi was born Kamlesh Sharma in Haryana’s Jhajjar district in 1977. At age 12, she found a mentor in Acharya Yogendra Arya, president of the Haryana unit of the Rashtriya Gau Raksha Dal and a member of the state government’s Gau Sewa Aayog. By the time she turned 16, she had moved to Rajasthan with her parents and had become Sadhvi Kamal. She earned the title Didi (older sister) over 20 years of cow activism in both states.

Cow protection groups are especially notorious in Haryana, which despite having a police special task force for cow protection does not hesitate to seek the help of vigilante groups. had earlier reported on the Gau Sewa Aayog’s efforts to validate cow protection groups by issuing them government-approved identity cards.

Rajasthan is the first state in India to form a dedicated government department for cows – Gopalan. But no vigilante leader has found a place in the official hierarchy. “This is something the state should seriously consider at this stage,” said Kamal Didi, who has been active in Jaipur for nearly 12 years. She became president of the Rashtriya Gau Raksha Dal’s women’s wing only two and a half years ago.

Kamal Didi said one of the activities that keeps her group busy through the year is chasing a gang that inject drugs into cattle whose owners leave them out during the day to graze. She claimed that these drugs make the cows produce extra milk, which the gang then steals at night. The cow protection group is also caught in a tussle with factory owners who dump toxic waste in pond where many stray animals gather. This has caused the deaths of many cows, she claimed. In addition, they have taken up the deteriorating condition of the Hingonia cow shelter, considered one of the best in Asia, and are protesting against frequent cattle fairs organised in Bagru town in the outskirts of Jaipur.

“Didi, we have to go to the industrial area tomorrow,” Ram Saini, a 19-year-old volunteer, reminded Kamal Didi. The driver of the vehicle, Sandeep Dosaya, 20, was a volunteer as well.

A mob of cow vigilantes, led by Kamal Didi, lays siege to the Hotel Hayat Rabbani in Jaipur on Sunday. (Photo credit: Ravi Shankar Vyas / IANS)

Vigilante network

All three men accompanying Kamal Didi on Wednesday are residents of Bagru. Kumawat’s family owns an eatery in the neighbouring town while the other two are studying commerce for their graduation. Bagru alone has contributed 300 volunteers to the Rashtriya Gau Raksha Dal, they said. “We came to know about the group from seniors in the village and through friend circles,” said Saini, who joined the group some two years ago and has been with it longer than Kumawat and Dosaya.

The group claims to have 7,500 members in Rajasthan, 2,200 of them women. It has taken on an organised shape under Kamal Didi’s leadership; she had it registered as a non-governmental organisation in 2014. This financial year, it claims to have saved 583 cows across the state.

The members said they work like a widespread network and exchange information through a WhatsApp group. When they hear of suspected cattle smugglers, they apprehend them near highway toll plazas. They claimed they do not use barricades to stop the vehicles – a common practice in Haryana – as this could invite police action against them.

“Most suspects are detected through cow dung marks that they leave behind on the roads they take,” said Kamal Didi. “The protocol is to stop them and then call the police. But the police take time to reach the spot in remote areas and the smugglers are often armed. Occasionally, violence is witnessed, but in almost all cases, it is the villagers who thrash the smugglers and not the gau rakshaks. How can anyone control the devoted villagers’ emotions for the holy cow?”

She added, “I wish we had better police and gau rakshak coordination in Rajasthan like we have in Haryana.”

Next stop: Uttar Pradesh

Apart from these states, the Rashtriya Gau Raksha Dal also has a presence in Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. In fact, Uttar Pradesh, where the Bharatiya Janata Party has formed the government under the chief ministership of Adityanath in the last few days, is where Kamal Didi is headed next to recruit volunteers. The group has identified the state as a major destination of smuggled cattle and a team of gau rakshaks under the leadership of one Krishn Pal Singh is already active there.

“I shall be there by April 10,” Kamal Didi said. “Already, several zonal meetings have been planned. I had to postpone my visit because of the state elections. Now that Yogi Adityanath ji is in power, Ram raj [the rule of Ram] has to come and Gau Mata has to get justice.”