cow politics

The story of a lynching: Why a mob killed two suspected cattle thieves in cold blood in Assam

The police say it was not another case of cow vigilantism. But activists blame the extreme brutality on a new culture of impunity.

Naramari is a densely-populated Muslim-dominated village on the outskirts of Nagaon town, the administrative headquarters of Nagaon district in Assam. Hardly anyone here owns any farming land. The village is so chock-a-block with grim-looking mud and bamboo houses that there is hardly any land left for cultivation. Most people work as daily wage labourers in Nagaon town, or in the rice fields of other nearby villages.

Many of its younger residents have picked up a new skill: driving. Twenty-year-old Riyazuddin Ali was one of them. He used to drive a shared tempo taxi on the Nagaon-Juria route – an approximately 16-km stretch. Ali had got married in 2015, and had a daughter who turned one earlier this year.

On the morning of April 30, Ali did not go to town to ply his taxi. Instead, he went to the house of Abu Hanifa, his next-door neighbour and childhood friend.

Hanifa lived with his parents and four siblings in a two-room, mud-plastered house with a tin roof. He was a vegetable vendor. He would buy vegetables from the wholesale market in Nagaon and sell it in the village.

According to details available from Hanifa’s Aadhaar card, he was not yet legally an adult. He would have turned 18 on November 5.

Abu and Ali were lynched in a neighbouring village later that morning, and branded as cattle thieves. The lynching has prompted several people to question if the incident was yet another instance of cow vigilantism: have the gau rakshaks who have run amok in North India recently reached Assam too?

Not another Sunday morning

Hanifa’s father recalled that the two young men stepped out of the house around 8 am. Neither had told their family where they were headed. No one asked either as Hanifa and Ali often spent time together.

But later that morning, at exactly 10.35 am, Ali’s uncle, Sahidul Islam, said he received a call on his mobile phone from an unidentified number. The caller said: “Your nephew and another boy were trying to steal cows from our village. Come soon, or the people here will kill them.”

The caller told Islam that he was calling from Kasamari, a village some five km from Naramari. By the time, he told his older brother, Ali’s father Raham Ali, news spread that Ali and Hanifa were being taken to the Nagaon Civil Hospital.

When Raham Ali reached the hospital a little past midday, his son was long dead. In fact, he had died at Kasamari itself. Hanifa too did not make it to hospital. He succumbed to his injuries on the way.

Vegetables Hanifa had bought from the wholesale market a day before he was killed.
Vegetables Hanifa had bought from the wholesale market a day before he was killed.

The owner speaks

At Kasamari, Brojen Nath, an employee with the village panchayat, said that he was tending to his rice field with his brother Mintu Nath on Sunday morning when he saw two men leading his favourite bull – a Red Sindhi with a white spot on its abdomen – across the paddy fields behind his house. Nath said he remembers checking the time. It was 9.15 am.

Nath lives with his mother, wife, and toddler daughter in a concrete house within the panchayat office compound. After computers were stolen from the panchayat office a few years ago, the panchayat decided that the presence of a family round-the-clock would keep thieves at bay.

Kasamari appears to be significantly better off than Naramari. A predominantly Hindu village with a small tribal population, most people here have some farm land of their own. The village does not have the claustrophobic feel of Naramari.

The panchayat compound is on the main road of the village, and the only other building in the vicinity is the village public health clinic a few hundred metres away. Nath’s field, which skirts the road, is right next to the compound. After that begins acres and acres of rice fields stretching to the horizon. On the other side of the fields is another concrete road.

“That’s where they were taking my cow,” said Nath. “A vehicle must have been waiting for them there, and from there the cow would have gone straight to a slaughterhouse.”

Nath said that he gave chase to the two men. When he thought he was close enough to be heard, he screamed, asking them to stop. “When I screamed, they just ran,” said Nath. “I ran behind and cried, ‘thief, thief!’ But they just wouldn’t stop” running.

Nath said that the two men left the animal behind. “I just went and got it back,” he said. “I don’t know what happened after that. It seems people from the other side of the fields heard me screaming and came down heavily upon the boys.”

No amount of probing would make Nath divulge anything more than that. “There is nothing more to say,” he said. “I have nothing to hide. That is exactly what happened. I got my cow back and returned. I don’t know who was in the mob.”

Mintu Nath stands by his older brother’s testimony. “We are simple straightforward people,” he said. “We don’t like getting into controversies.”

‘There will be no cows left in our village’

Almost everyone in Kasamari this reporter spoke to denied having anything to do with the murders. Some, however, admitted to seeing a mob of 300-500 people unleashing their anger on the two young men. “There is very little anyone can do when a mob gets angry,” said one young man. “If I had tried to stop them, they would have beaten me up too.”

Some reluctantly conceded “they shouldn’t have been killed”. But that is because they believe the mob could have made the two “admit to their crime” if they had been left alive. “Cow theft has become a menace,” said Mintu Nath. “Look brother, we are poor people. The cow is our source of livelihood. People have grown sick of their cows being stolen and smuggled to slaughterhouses.”

Even Brojen Nath’s mother, a gentle-looking lady in her seventies, flared up on the subject of cattle theft. “Every day our cows are taken away,” she said. “It happens in broad daylight. At this rate, there will be no cows left in our village.”

The villagers complain that more than 10 cattle have disappeared in the last two weeks alone. “This has nothing to do with anyone being Hindu or Muslim, it is about stealing,” they say, when asked if they thought the thefts were the handiwork of a particular community.

Back in Naramari, the families and neighbours of Ali and Hanifa maintained that the two had nothing to do with cattle theft in the area. There is not one criminal case against either of them, they say.

Here too, the villagers say there has been no history of communal tension in the area. “This has never happened before,” said one of them. “We share a friendly relationship with Hindu people in the area. I don’t know what took over people.”

A sense of disbelief looms over the village. “The way they killed my son, you treat even animals better,” said Ali’s father.

Ali's parents at their house in Naramari.
Ali's parents at their house in Naramari.

‘When an angry mob gets together’

The photograph of two corpses on the smartphone of Ananta Das, the officer in charge of the Nagaon Sadar police station, makes for grisly viewing. Ali and Hanifa are lying next to each other, half of their bodies covered with a black plastic sheet. There are multiple gashes on their faces. There is not much left of their eyes.

Ali’s father claimed that when he saw his son’s body, it had no eyes. “After beating him to death, it seems they gouged his eyes out too,” he said. The police, however, claim there was not a deliberate attempt to do so.

What explains this brutality?

Das’s explanation seems to echo what residents of Kasamari say. “There have been many cattle thefts in the recent past,” said Das. “And when an angry mob gets together you know how it works. The first guy hits, then the second one thinks he can do better, then the third. It’s like a chain reaction.”

He said that two people have been arrested. “It is a case of murder and we are treating it as such,” said Das.

The Naths of Kasamari filed a complaint of theft in the same police station, which Das confirmed.

Das ruled out any communal angle: “It is a peaceful area,” he said. “The last time any communal incident happened was way back in 1983.”

The communal question

In 1983, a mob went on a rampage in Nellie village in Morigaon district (then in Nagaon), killing at least 2,000 Muslims. Like most villages in the district, Kasamari and Naramari, barely an hour’s drive from Nellie, were affected by the killings

While no major cases of communal violence have been reported in Nagaon district since, tensions have surfaced from time to time, especially in the last couple of years. Last year, a few months before the Assembly elections in Assam, someone allegedly threw a chunk of beef into a temple in the district, putting the residents of the area on tenterhooks.

Local residents claim that there are no vigilante organisations working in the area. Nagaon, however, is home to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s biggest operational set-up in Assam.

Das of the Nagaon Sadar police station insisted that what happened in Kasamari on Sunday morning was not an extension of the cow vigilantism on the rise in other parts of the country. “As I said, it’s a simple case of theft,” he said.

A Nagaon-based human rights activist Reyaz Ahmed said that while the lynching may not be a classic case of cow vigilantism as seen in North India, the extreme brutality could be the result of a new culture of impunity. People may have been under the impression that they could get away with it, as many have in other parts of the country, he said.

“Everyone has a smartphone these days,” said Ahmed. “People know what is happening in the rest of the country. Maybe, a few years ago, they would have just slapped them around and handed them over to the police.”

That is what happened two years ago when villagers apprehended a truck full of stolen cattle at Kasamari. “Initially, the driver denied that he was taking the cows to a slaughterhouse,” said a person who did not want to be identified. “But after we threatened to beat him up, he admitted [to the crime]. We gave him a few slaps and handed him over to the police.”

The law in Assam

Residents of Kasamari claim that the theft of cattle increased as slaughterhouses sprang up in the vicinity. From Nagaon to Kasamari via Naramari there are at least three slaughterhouses, all makeshift structures made of bamboo. They can be identified by the red flags on their roofs.

Assam has a complex and somewhat ambiguous law on cattle slaughter. The Assam Cattle Preservation Act of 1950 allows the slaughter of cattle over 14 years of age or those incapable of work or for use in breeding. The law stipulates that such cattle will be given a “fit-for-slaughter certificate” by a doctor of the state husbandry and animal welfare department. Unlike many other Indian states, the law in Assam does not distinguish between buffaloes and cows or bulls.

However, according to a former deputy director of the department, no such certificates are ever given. The law may say something, but cow slaughter is banned for all practical purposes in Assam except on Eid, said the former bureaucrat, who did not want to identified. “In my over 35 years of service, there was not a single instance when we issued such a certificate,” he said.

That has led to cow slaughter and, to a large extent, beef consumption being a clandestine activity in most parts of the state. “Obviously, the government knows that cows are slaughtered, but it is convenient for everyone to just look the other way,” the retired official said.

He added that there were no designated slaughterhouses in the state either. “Setting up a slaughterhouse and maintaining it is a lot of work that no government wants to do,” he said. “People eat beef in the state, anyway. Why not make the trade organised and reduce petty crimes? Plus, it will lead to the setting up of many ancillary industries.”

A sizable beef-eating population and the lack of a robust legal framework around beef slaughter is a recipe for trouble. Often, stolen cattle make their way to slaughterhouses, said the former bureaucrat. He added that since all of these slaughterhouses are unlicensed, no one ever checks where they are getting their meat from. “You can put checks and balances only when a system exists,” he said. “Here, there is none.”

We welcome your comments at
Sponsored Content BY 

India’s urban water crisis calls for an integrated approach

We need solutions that address different aspects of the water eco-system and involve the collective participation of citizens and other stake-holders.

According to a UN report, around 1.2 billion people, or almost one fifth of the world’s population, live in areas where water is physically scarce and another 1.6 billion people, or nearly one quarter of the world’s population, face economic water shortage. They lack basic access to water. The criticality of the water situation across the world has in fact given rise to speculations over water wars becoming a distinct possibility in the future. In India the problem is compounded, given the rising population and urbanization. The Asian Development Bank has forecast that by 2030, India will have a water deficit of 50%.

Water challenges in urban India

For urban India, the situation is critical. In 2015, about 377 million Indians lived in urban areas and by 2030, the urban population is expected to rise to 590 million. Already, according to the National Sample Survey, only 47% of urban households have individual water connections and about 40% to 50% of water is reportedly lost in distribution systems due to various reasons. Further, as per the 2011 census, only 32.7% of urban Indian households are connected to a piped sewerage system.

Any comprehensive solution to address the water problem in urban India needs to take into account the specific challenges around water management and distribution:

Pressure on water sources: Rising demand on water means rising pressure on water sources, especially in cities. In a city like Mumbai for example, 3,750 Million Litres per Day (MLD) of water, including water for commercial and industrial use, is available, whereas 4,500 MLD is needed. The primary sources of water for cities like Mumbai are lakes created by dams across rivers near the city. Distributing the available water means providing 386,971 connections to the city’s roughly 13 million residents. When distribution becomes challenging, the workaround is to tap ground water. According to a study by the Centre for Science and Environment, 48% of urban water supply in India comes from ground water. Ground water exploitation for commercial and domestic use in most cities is leading to reduction in ground water level.

Distribution and water loss issues: Distribution challenges, such as water loss due to theft, pilferage, leaky pipes and faulty meter readings, result in unequal and unregulated distribution of water. In New Delhi, for example, water distribution loss was reported to be about 40% as per a study. In Mumbai, where most residents get only 2-5 hours of water supply per day, the non-revenue water loss is about 27% of the overall water supply. This strains the municipal body’s budget and impacts the improvement of distribution infrastructure. Factors such as difficult terrain and legal issues over buildings also affect water supply to many parts. According to a study, only 5% of piped water reaches slum areas in 42 Indian cities, including New Delhi. A 2011 study also found that 95% of households in slum areas in Mumbai’s Kaula Bunder district, in some seasons, use less than the WHO-recommended minimum of 50 litres per capita per day.

Water pollution and contamination: In India, almost 400,000 children die every year of diarrhea, primarily due to contaminated water. According to a 2017 report, 630 million people in the South East Asian countries, including India, use faeces-contaminated drinking water source, becoming susceptible to a range of diseases. Industrial waste is also a major cause for water contamination, particularly antibiotic ingredients released into rivers and soils by pharma companies. A Guardian report talks about pollution from drug companies, particularly those in India and China, resulting in the creation of drug-resistant superbugs. The report cites a study which indicates that by 2050, the total death toll worldwide due to infection by drug resistant bacteria could reach 10 million people.

A holistic approach to tackling water challenges

Addressing these challenges and improving access to clean water for all needs a combination of short-term and medium-term solutions. It also means involving the community and various stakeholders in implementing the solutions. This is the crux of the recommendations put forth by BASF.

The proposed solutions, based on a study of water issues in cities such as Mumbai, take into account different aspects of water management and distribution. Backed by a close understanding of the cost implications, they can make a difference in tackling urban water challenges. These solutions include:

Recycling and harvesting: Raw sewage water which is dumped into oceans damages the coastal eco-system. Instead, this could be used as a cheaper alternative to fresh water for industrial purposes. According to a 2011 World Bank report, 13% of total freshwater withdrawal in India is for industrial use. What’s more, the industrial demand for water is expected to grow at a rate of 4.2% per year till 2025. Much of this demand can be met by recycling and treating sewage water. In Mumbai for example, 3000 MLD of sewage water is released, almost 80% of fresh water availability. This can be purified and utilised for industrial needs. An example of recycled sewage water being used for industrial purpose is the 30 MLD waste water treatment facility at Gandhinagar and Anjar in Gujarat set up by Welspun India Ltd.

Another example is the proposal by Navi Mumbai Municipal Corporation (NMMC) to recycle and reclaim sewage water treated at its existing facilities to meet the secondary purposes of both industries and residential complexes. In fact, residential complexes can similarly recycle and re-use their waste water for secondary purposes such as gardening.

Also, alternative rain water harvesting methods such as harvesting rain water from concrete surfaces using porous concrete can be used to supplement roof-top rain water harvesting, to help replenish ground water.

Community initiatives to supplement regular water supply: Initiatives such as community water storage and decentralised treatment facilities, including elevated water towers or reservoirs and water ATMs, based on a realistic understanding of the costs involved, can help support the city’s water distribution. Water towers or elevated reservoirs with onsite filters can also help optimise the space available for water distribution in congested cities. Water ATMs, which are automated water dispensing units that can be accessed with a smart card or an app, can ensure metered supply of safe water.

Testing and purification: With water contamination being a big challenge, the adoption of affordable and reliable multi-household water filter systems which are electricity free and easy to use can help, to some extent, access to safe drinking water at a domestic level. Also, the use of household water testing kits and the installation of water quality sensors on pipes, that send out alerts on water contamination, can create awareness of water contamination and drive suitable preventive steps.

Public awareness and use of technology: Public awareness campaigns, tax incentives for water conservation and the use of technology interfaces can also go a long way in addressing the water problem. For example, measures such as water credits can be introduced with tax benefits as incentives for efficient use and recycling of water. Similarly, government water apps, like that of the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai, can be used to spread tips on water saving, report leakage or send updates on water quality.

Collaborative approach: Finally, a collaborative approach like the adoption of a public-private partnership model for water projects can help. There are already examples of best practices here. For example, in Netherlands, water companies are incorporated as private companies, with the local and national governments being majority shareholders. Involving citizens through social business models for decentralised water supply, treatment or storage installations like water ATMs, as also the appointment of water guardians who can report on various aspects of water supply and usage can help in efficient water management. Grass-root level organizations could be partnered with for programmes to spread awareness on water safety and conservation.

For BASF, the proposed solutions are an extension of their close engagement with developing water management and water treatment solutions. The products developed specially for waste and drinking water treatment, such as Zetag® ULTRA and Magnafloc® LT, focus on ensuring sustainability, efficiency and cost effectiveness in the water and sludge treatment process.

BASF is also associated with operations of Reliance Industries’ desalination plant at Jamnagar in Gujarat.The thermal plant is designed to deliver up to 170,000 cubic meters of processed water per day. The use of inge® ultrafiltration technologies allows a continuous delivery of pre-filtered water at a consistent high-quality level, while the dosage of the Sokalan® PM 15 I protects the desalination plant from scaling. This combination of BASF’s expertise minimises the energy footprint of the plant and secures water supply independent of the seasonal fluctuations. To know more about BASF’s range of sustainable solutions and innovative chemical products for the water industry, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of BASF and not by the Scroll editorial team.