Cow vigilantism has been portrayed as a blowback against the Muslim community’s insistence on consuming beef, unmindful of the fact that slaughtering cows hurts Hindus who worship the animal. This depiction has framed the cow as an incendiary issue between Hindus and Muslims, an irreconcilable clash of cultures, so to speak.
This narrative was challenged during a three-day dharna that civil society groups and a clutch of political parties organised in Jaipur from April 24 to protest the killing of Pehlu Khan, a dairy farmer who was waylaid in Alwar on April 1 while transporting milch cattle to his farm.
“We insisted it was not a Muslim issue,” said Kavita Srivastava, president, Rajasthan People’s Union for Civil Liberties, who was one of the organisers of the demonstration. “Lynching is unacceptable because it does away with the rule of law.”
Srivastava said the dharna was also a protest against criminalising the victim. “The Rajasthan home minister [Gulab Chand Kataria] continues to defend those who killed Pehlu Khan,” she said. “They are gau goondas, not gau rakshaks.”
It is very likely that some readers will dismiss Srivastava’s remark as typical of the irreverence Left-liberal activists have for religion and its symbols. But Srivastava’s sentiment is shared by many Hindu farmers, dairy owners and traders who are simmering with anger against thugs masquerading as cow protectors.
Their anger is reflected in six separate clips made from a lengthy video that a journalist friend sent to this writer. He filmed it at the cattle market held every week in Jaipur. The footage was shot on April 8. The journalist-friend’s questions to a cattle trader triggered a passionate debate in which both Hindus and Muslims participated, belying the claims that the two communities have been divided because of their contrarian sentiments on the cow.
Each of the clips in the story is followed by a synopsis for those who do not understand Hindi.
‘One-way export of cattle’
In the first clip, a man in a white shirt introduces himself as Kailash, a dairy farmer who has been in the cattle trade for 35 years. He says vehicles from Rajasthan ferry milch cows to Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat, but always return empty. Are they being milked? “We do not know,” he declares, suggesting they might have been slaughtered.
The export of cattle from Rajasthan has had three consequences, Kailash claims. The price of cows has shot up, their population in Rajasthan has dwindled, their rampant sale has deprived farmers’ children of milk.
A vociferous rebuttal
The second video shows Kailash’s comments have enraged those around him. They accuse him of lying. Different voices are heard, though the religious identity of speakers is not always obvious. They counter Kailash on each and every point. A voice claims that Rajasthani farmers breed cows, which are counted as among the best in the country. Why breed cows in the absence of an organised dairy farming in the state, counters Kailash, who is again rebutted by many voices clamouring simultaneously.
The clip ends with a man in a checked shirt asking the videographer to follow him.
A cow worth Rs 1 lakh
In the third clip, the man in the checked shirt, bristling with rage, says he is Nemichand, a son of a Jat. He is shown standing next to a cow, which he says is worth Rs 1 lakh and gives 40 litres of milk daily. He challenges those who accuse farmers of selling cows for slaughter to come before them instead of waylaying them on roads. “Two cases have been filed against me,” Nemichand says.
‘Take care of plastic-eating cows first’
In this video, Nemichand punctures some of the pet theories of cow protectionists. Referring to the Rs 1-lakh cow he had shown to the videographer, he and others say it makes no sense to sell it for slaughter as its meat and other parts, such as skin, would fetch the buyer between Rs 5,000-Rs 6,000 and Rs 8,000-Rs 10,000. Nemichand hurls expletives at gau rakshaks for the sheer irrationality of their accusation – and violent actions.
Others demand to know why gau rakshaks do not look after cows foraging in rubbish heaps, which consume plastic and die. Nemichand says that if Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath and Prime Minister Narendra Modi pay Rs 20 lakh to each dairy owner, they would stop trading in cattle. Later in the clip, Nemichand asks the videographer to send pictures of abandoned cows to Modi and Adityanath, saying if they arrange feed and water for them, he and others would stop their dhanda (business).
The people around him break into a chant: “Hum dhanda nahin karegein.” We will not do this business.
‘Just do the math’
The fifth clip is of Narendra Bhatore from Ujjain, Madhya Pradesh, who comes to Rajasthan to buy cows. He testifies to Shiv Sainiks harassing him and others in the trade, and says he cannot kill the cow because Hindu religion prohibits it, apart from the fact that it makes little economic sense to buy an animal for Rs 50,000 only to slaughter it.
Earlier, 20 vehicles would come from Madhya Pradesh to cart away cattle from Rajasthan. The number is now down to just two. Narendra describes his scary encounter with the cow protectionists in Deoli, Rajasthan, in 2016. His animals were seized, and the court case continues. “They beat me very badly,” says Narendra. “Had the police not arrived, I would have died.”
‘Can’t transport holy cows’
In this sixth video, Azharuddin, who has come from Mathura in Uttar Pradesh to Jaipur, says he buys animals for mahatmas, or holy men, who run ashrams. They provide him with letters and he secures the requisite permits before ferrying the cattle from Jaipur. Yet the Bajrang Dal activists accost him, impervious to his pleas that he purchases cows on behalf of mahatmas who worship them.
Azharuddin says he has been attacked twice, once in Bharatpur, near Agra, where his two vehicles with 15 cows and calves were seized. Each animal cost him Rs 1 lakh to Rs 1.25 lakh. A case was filed against him. The cows were sent to a gaushala. Ultimately, Azharuddin won the case, but nine of his animals in the gaushala had perished by then.
Azharuddin claims that the attacks on traders and transporters of cattle began two years ago. “It has been particularly bad since Yogi Adityanath became chief minister,” he says. “This is because he speaks in a partisan language.”
These videos testify to gau rakshaks not even sparing Hindu farmers and traders ferrying cows purchased legitimately from cattle marts. It is, therefore, bewildering why the plight of Hindu victims of cow vigilantism has not been reported in the national media. Is it because a story on cow vigilantism is considered worthy only when it victimises a Muslim, or there is a dead person to mourn? Are such heartfelt narratives exploited to bring about a polarisation between Hindus and Muslims?
‘Safer to breed goats’
Hindu farmers and traders have been attacked not only on highways, too far away from their homes for anyone to come to their rescue, but also near their farms located in the vicinity of where they stay.
Take Rajinder Singh Bhati, an Army clerk who retired at the age of 36, in 2006. He decided to enter into the dairy sector, not least because he was deeply interested in cross breeding cows. His farm, Tanotrai, is just a 40-minute drive from Jaipur, and his stock comprised 70 heads. Until 2014, he supplied 450 litres of milk daily to Jaipur.
Typically, Bhati would transport cows that were not in lactation from Tanotrai to other farms he has elsewhere. These serve as pastures for them. “It cuts down the cost of production,” Bhati explained. With Tanotrai as his base, he hops from one farm to another through the year.
Before embarking on such a trip one day in September 2014, he instructed his most trusted farmhand to transport 10 cows from Tanotrai to another farm of his. In his absence, the cows were loaded onto a vehicle and driven out.
But just 2 km later, members of the Gau Rakshak Seva Samiti swooped down upon Bhati’s vehicle. They claimed that the cows were being taken to a slaughterhouse. Bhati said that the villagers intervened only because his brother had been the panchayat head. The police seized the truck and the farmhand spent a night in the lock-up.
“I returned to Tanotrai, showed the authorities the relevant documents I possessed, and told them I had served in the Army,” Bhati recalled. “My man was released as were the cows.”
But life was not to be the same for Bhatti thereafter. The farmhand was so frightened he left Bhati’s service. “I was completely dependent on that man,” said Bhati. “You need honest people in the dairy business because it is so easy to adulterate milk. I just couldn’t get a replacement for him.”
He could not get a replacement because the farm’s reputation was tarnished. It was made out as if Bhati bred cows to ultimately sell them to slaughterhouses. His interest in cows did not measure to the risk of incurring the wrath of gau rakshaks. “I sold 60 of them, keeping 10 for my family’s need for milk, and I breed goats now,” Bhati said with a chuckle.
Bhati might have had the resources to switch from breeding cows to goats, but such options are not available to most. He says what is common knowledge: that most farmers rear two or three cows to supplement their income from agriculture. This is more so in Rajasthan because it does not have an elaborate irrigation network so its farmers are vulnerable to the vagaries of monsoon rains.
“Farmers sell those cows which stop giving milk and use the proceeds to partially finance a new cow,” said Bhati. “But with gau rakshaks around, who would want to risk rearing cows?”
This is why dairy farmers, big and small, are dismayed, and angry, at the havoc gau rakshaks have wreaked on the rural economy. But they have not been able to unite against their tormentors or mount pressure on the state government to provide protection to them. “It is difficult to unite a person who has two cows with one who has 20 or 70 or 100,” Bhati said.
The Modi effect
So controversial has the cattle trade become that even the authorities are reluctant to issue relevant documents to those who purchase cattle from markets. This reluctance took an ironic twist for Shailendra Singh, who is no ordinary man. As Deputy Superintendent of Police who headed Uttar Pradesh’s Special Task Force for Poorvanchal in the early 2000s, Singh took on politician-dons Brijesh Singh and Mukhtar Ansari in Varanasi. In 2004, he apprehended an army deserter who was going to deliver a light machine gun to Ansari, which was when he came under tremendous pressure from Mulayam Singh Yadav, then the Uttar Pradesh chief minister. In a huff, Singh resigned from the police service, and joined the Anna movement against corruption. He then joined the Congress, fought on its tickets from Chandauli in Uttar Pradesh in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, and after meeting Modi twice, entered the Bharatiya Janata Party. Singh was in charge of Modi’s Varanasi war room during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.
At the end of April, Singh bought cows in Bharatpur, Rajasthan, and sought certificates from the district authorities vouching for the legitimacy of his purchase. But the authorities declined his request. “What am I going to show gau rakshaks?” Singh asked them.
Since the authorities did not relent, an angry Singh tweeted to Modi’s twitter handle about his plight. It prompted the Prime Minister’s Office to intervene – the relevant documents were handed over to him.
Singh thanked Modi through this tweet:
“I was able to reach Modi,” Singh said. “But the aam aadmi can’t. If we can’t breed cows, improve our stock or even rear them, the rural economy can’t be given a boost.”
Oxen trade in trouble too
But it is not just about extortion and violence, for once the cattle are seized, they are sent to gaushalas until their buyers are able to secure release orders from courts. “They just don’t look after cows there,” said Parash Ram Banjara, convener of the Banjara Vikas Shakti Sangathan, who has been campaigning against cow vigilantism. “The buyers have to provide food and water and milk to them. It adds to their cost. Some just decide to abandon them.”
In October, Banjara organised a public protest against Bajrang Dal activists who abducted a member of the Banjara community and his two sons along with the six oxen they had purchased from Rajsamand district to sell them in South Rajasthan. (His interview can be read here).
“We Banjaras trade in oxen, not in cows,” said Banjara. “These oxen are used to plough the rocky terrain of South Rajasthan. Trading oxen is our identity, our right. And, mind you, we too are Hindus. But the vigilantes have turned the cow into an emotional issue for their dubious ends.”
It is palpable that cow vigilantism has many worried and they aren’t just Muslims. Some fear that cow vigilantism is bound to adversely affect milk production in the country.
“This is because if farmers don’t have buyers to whom they can sell cows which have stopped yielding milk, they will be saddled with providing for animals no longer useful to them,” said Badri Prasad, general secretary, Rajasthan Kisan Union. Since farmers struggle to feed their own families, they cannot be expected to provide fodder to animals no longer useful to them.
“Another few years of cow vigilantism and milk production will be badly hit,” Prasad predicted. He said the other inimical consequence of cow vigilantism is that it will reduce the participation of women in economic activities. It is the women who feed and take care of the one or two cows that small farmers keep to supplement their income from agriculture.
Why then are farmers not raising their voices against cow vigilantism? Hasn’t their silence enabled Hindutva forces in the country to spin the cow into a Hindu-Muslim issue?
Prasad says they are silent because of sociological changes in villages. “The younger generation wants to escape the non-profitable agriculture sector and migrate to cities,” he said. “The older generation is biding its time – they are reconciled to the inevitable.”
Inevitable? Prasad answers, “The land has been subdivided to the point of agriculture providing diminishing returns. Cow vigilantism will further hit earnings. People will start to sell their land and corporates will enter farming. Today’s farmers will become their employees.”
This might sound like a conspiracy theory floated by those who find it difficult to believe that people could kill human beings in the name of the holy cow, and consequently search for a hidden agenda. But given that gau rakshaks have not dithered from targeting the Hindu farmer who has over the centuries nurtured and worshipped the cow, it does seem a bit surprising why a Hindutva dispensation, menacing in its rhetoric and muscular in its responses, has not curbed their activities.
Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid.