In 2010, soon after he retired from the Indian Army, Dawn Williams, 65, became a full-time animal rights activist, joining Blue Cross of India, a Chennai-based non-governmental organisation working for animal welfare. Almost immediately, the former soldier had his first challenge: fighting a cattle smuggling mafia transporting cows and buffaloes under “pathetic condition” to Kerala.

“We stopped trucks and informed the police on receiving tip-offs,” Williams recalled. “But never in my life have I worked with overenthusiastic and overreactive volunteers who would assault someone in the name of animal rights activism. To be an animal rights activist one also has to have compassion for the human.”

In the past two years, several states have witnessed attacks by members of cow vigilante groups, or gau rakshaks as they are commonly known, and on many occasions, the attackers have described themselves as animal rights activists. The latest such incident took place in southeast Delhi’s Kalkaji on April 23. Three Muslim men carrying buffaloes in a truck were stopped and assaulted. What set the Kalkaji attack apart from other such incidents was that the assailants claimed to be not gau rakshaks but members of People For Animals, an animal rights NGO headed by Union Minister for Women and Child Development Maneka Gandhi.

Blurring the line

While Gandhi denied the NGO’s involvement in the attack, People For Animals separately insisted that it could not be held responsible for the conduct of members in their individual capacity. Still, this incident reflected the growing convergence of animal rights activism and vigilantism. In fact, People For Animals itself had taken note of this disturbing trend and shut down several units after receiving multiple complaints of vigilantism against them.

Gauri Maulekhi, a trustee of People For Animals, said several city units of the NGO, including the one in Delhi, were closed down between 2014 and 2016. Specifically, she named the units in Dehradun and Haryana whose members had allegedly being involved in vigilantism and extortion. “While the Dehradun unit was indulging too much in vigilantism, the chief of the Haryana unit was found to be working in cahoots with some mafia groups,” Maulekhi said.

One of the suspected Kalkaji attackers in a videograb.
One of the suspected Kalkaji attackers in a videograb.

The Indian Express on Tuesday reported that two prime suspects in the Kalkaji attack case had been trained under the Haryana chief of People For Animals. The report went on to quote several people, purportedly heads of the NGO’s various city units, talking about raids being a part of People For Animals’ functioning.

Scroll.in spoke to animal rights activists from across the country, and some of them admitted to having intercepted vehicles transporting cattle. They, however, claimed to have refrained from ever participating in violence. They set themselves apart from vigilante groups and emphasised how the cause of cow protection, being narrow in scope and motivated by factors other than a genuine concern for animals, does not even qualify as full-fledged animal rights activism.

It’s anything but activism

“Gau rakshaks have an extremely narrow area of operation, insufficient to qualify as animal rights activism,” said Nikunj Sharma, head of Public Policy at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the largest animal rights organisation in the world. “For gau rakshaks to call themselves animal rights activists is sheer hypocrisy. How can someone have concern for only cows and be indifferent to others?”

Elaborating on how PETA deals with tip-offs about cases of cruelty towards animals, Sharma said, “The protocol that we follow involves first informing the police and district authorities. If we know about crime happening, we do intervene at times but any form of violence is unacceptable. We put pressure on relevant authorities to take appropriate action.”

But are the police and district authorities concerned enough about animal rights to take action? “They seldom are,” said Williams, now the general manager of Blue Cross of India, justifying intervention to restrain the movements of offenders before they are handed over to the authorities. “But that still does not entitle any activist to take the law in his own hands.”

Talking about the Kalkaji attack, Williams referred to guidelines from the Transport of Animals Rules:

“For transporting buffaloes, each of them should be allotted a space of two square metres. Even a big truck can accommodate a maximum of six buffaloes, each weighing 400 kg-500 kg.”

“So,” Williams added, “the transporter in the Delhi case was definitely violating the rules by stuffing 14 buffaloes into his vehicle. But by assaulting them, the men who claim to be animal rights activists violated the law too.”

Blowback

Varda Mehrotra, the director of Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organisations, complained that gau rakshaks have tainted the image of animal rights activists in the country. “Incidents like the one in Delhi cause immense damage,” she said. “Now, genuine initiatives against cruel treatment meted out to cows or buffaloes taken up by animal rights activists are likely to be referred to as acts of vigilantism.”

Asked about following up on tip-offs, Mehrotra said the protocol that her NGO follows involves informing the police and district authorities and then insisting they act immediately, instead of volunteers stopping vehicles or confronting offenders on their own.

As for cow vigilantes, she added, “Gau rakshaks have such narrow vision that they fail to serve even the cow protection cause in its entirety. What happens to the cows they rescue? They land in shelters that are equally pathetic for any animal and which do not have sufficient fodder and access to veterinary doctors. Eventually, most of the cows die a miserable death.”