Beef politics

‘These people do not know hunger’: An author struggles to make sense of the Jharkhand lynchings

As seven people are killed, Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar explains how cattle bind together the various communities of his ancestral village.

“These people do not know hunger.”

I could feel the anguish and anger in my father’s voice as he said these words.

“The people who did this, they seem to have never seen or experienced hunger in their lives. They seem to have never been deprived of food. They just cannot understand to what extremes hunger drives a person. They just cannot understand what all a man can eat if he is kept hungry for days.”

My father’s response was to the horrific incident that took place in Reasi in Jammu late in April in which a nomadic family of five was attacked by apparent cow vigilantes, about 200 of them, who believed that the Gujjars – travelling with their goats, sheep, and cattle – were taking the cows to slaughter. The people my father referred to, the ones who did not know hunger, were those cow vigilantes.

“The poor are attacked for the scraps they somehow manage to find to eat.” The anguish in my father’s voice had not ebbed. “What will these gau rakshaks ever know about having to survive on a dead cow’s entrails?”

Life in Kishoripur

He proceeded to tell me how it was a norm among Santhals and other low-caste Hindus to utilise the remains of a dead cow for food and other purposes. He gave the example of our own village.

Kishoripur, my ancestral village, is in the Chakulia block of Jharkhand’s East Singbhum district. Kishoripur is a Santhal village, with the next two dominant communities being the Kamar (the blacksmith caste) and the Kunkal (the potter caste), both included in the Backward Caste category, yet, both considering themselves above the Santhals in the caste hierarchy though the Santhals, because we are Adivasis, do not have a caste system at all. The fictional village of Kadmadihi in my novel, The Mysterious Ailment Of Rupi Baskey, was partly modeled on Kishoripur and I have mentioned how the Kamar considered Santhals to be untouchables despite the Santhals being a majority.

In Kishoripur, too, the Kamar, years ago, considered Santhals to be untouchables. Though this situation has changed now and Kamar families come to draw water from the well my family owns, there are certain taboos that the Kamar and the Kunkal and other non-Adivasi communities in Kishoripur still adhere to. For example, the disposal of dead cattle.

In Kishoripur, which is primarily an agricultural village, nearly all families – Santhals as well as non-Santhals – own farm land and cattle to plough those lands. Apart from cows and bullocks, several families own goats and sheep. Some Santhal families also have pigs. Yet, when cattle die, a non-Adivasi family does not touch the carcass. Cattle, when alive, are an asset, but, when dead, are impure. Hence, it becomes the job of the Santhals – either from Kishoripur or some other, nearby villages – to carry the dead cattle to the “bhagar”, the spot where animal carcasses are placed. There is a saying in the colloquial Bengali spoken in the villages: “Sokunay chinay bhagar” – a vulture identifies a bhagar.

The Santhals do not just dump the dead cattle at the bhagar. They use whatever can be used of the dead animal. The skin is used for making drums and other objects. If the carcass is fresh, the flesh is cut away to be eaten as food, especially the flesh from the rump of the cattle. Those with a taste for the entrails take those away as well. The rest of the carcass is left for the sokun, the vultures.

Credit: Hindustan Times
Credit: Hindustan Times

In some villages, Muslims, who work with animal skin, come to take the dead cattle from the houses of higher-caste Hindus or those Hindus who consider themselves too pure to touch their own dead cattle to skin the carcass. Some Muslims also come to take away dead goats and sheep.

No one is killing an animal. No one is slaughtering a cow or a bullock or a buffalo or even a goat or a sheep. It is a dead animal that is providing for the needs of human beings. Down the years, despite the concept of purity and impurity, despite the caste and community differences, people from all communities in our village have lived in an atmosphere of symbiosis. There had never been the need for any cow vigilantes or goat vigilantes.

My father proceeded to recount how, during times of drought and scarcity of food, it was this meat from the carcass of a dead cow that helped people survive. The flesh of the dead cattle was cut into long, rope-like pieces. “The thick, strong plastic rope we use nowadays,” my father gave an example to show what that rope of beef looked like. Those ropes of beef were placed out in the sun to dry on bamboo lattices, which are commonly used as boundary walls around houses in villages. Drying in the sun preserved the beef, and this preserved beef saw the poor, the lower caste and the supposedly impure through days of drought and hunger.

The nomadic family that was attacked by gau rakshaks in Jammu was, perhaps, among these poor, hungry, and impure people. They were attacked by the pure gau rakshaks despite not having a single dead cow with them. Imagine what would have happened had they been carrying beef?

“Desperation drives the hungry and the poor to gather something to eat, in any way.” My father’s voice was laced with emotion. “The gau-rakshaks will never understand this.”

The Gujjar woman whose family was attacked by cow vigilantes in Jammu in April pleads for mercy. Credit: YouTube
The Gujjar woman whose family was attacked by cow vigilantes in Jammu in April pleads for mercy. Credit: YouTube

My father told me about a tradition in some villages where agriculture is the primary occupation and there is a lack of pasture where cattle may be taken out for grazing. Our village, Kishoripur, is one such place. In villages like these, during the farming months, from Ashadh (mid-June in the Gregorian calendar, when sowing takes place) till Kartik (mid-October in the Gregorian calendar, when harvesting takes place), the cattle of these villages are taken to settlements where there is enough pasture for the cattle to graze for three or four months. The cattle our family owns in Kishoripur, for instance, are taken to the house of a Mahato family – Mahato are Hindus, placed in the Backward Caste category – in a village called Purnapani. Purnapani is about 10 kilometres away from Kishoripur, a little off the aerodrome of the Allied Powers built in Chakulia during World War II.

Down the decades, this tradition has been ingrained so deeply that our family does not need to go to this Mahato family. Someone from this Mahato family comes to Kishoripur in June, takes all our cattle – except the bullocks we need to plough our fields – to Purnapani. While we busy ourselves with our farming, this Mahato family takes care of our cattle in their village for four months. Then, during Sohrai – the harvest festival celebrated by the Santhals, in October-November in southern Jharkhand – someone from the Mahato family comes to us in Kishoripur with all our cattle. In return, we give that Mahato family a share of our produce, usually paddy. That is how a relationship between a Santhal family and a Mahato family has grown down the decades, though their lives are so different from one another. Cattle has bound us together.

Now imagine this transport of cattle between two villages, two families, for practical reasons, in the times of purity-driven cow vigilantism.

A lone Mahato man – a member of a backward caste – is taking, perhaps, ten cows to his village to look after them while the Santhal owners of those animals are busy farming. The gau rakshaks – pure, high-caste Hindu men, who would, perhaps, never understand this relationship between a Santhal family and a Mahato family – find this Mahato man with these cows. They suspect that he is a cattle smuggler, taking the cows for slaughter. They beat him up. They might even kill him. If a lone Santhal man brings his cows back from a Mahato family, he might be in even deeper trouble. The gau rakshaks already know Adivasis to be consumers of beef.

Cow vigilantism has received some boost in Jharkhand, with cow vigilantes in April attacking even policemen on hearing rumours of cows being taken for slaughter. Maybe this was not enough. So an even more horrific method of unleashing violence and terror has been introduced in Jharkhand: branding apparently innocent men as the abductors of little children.

People in Jharkhand watch images of a lynching on their phones. Credit: Hindustan Times
People in Jharkhand watch images of a lynching on their phones. Credit: Hindustan Times

In the past few days, at least seven people, some of whom were reported to be cattle traders, have been lynched by mobs, fearing that those men were kidnappers. Seven men were lynched in Seraikella-Kharsawan district, while one man was lynched in Narwa area of East Singbhum district. Seraikella is one of my favourite places, while East Singbhum is my own home district. The news of these killings have filled me with terror even as I sit in Pakur in northern Jharkhand, nearly 700 kilometres away from those scenes of crime in southern Jharkhand.

The practice of mobs lynching people for possessing or consuming beef will be unlikely to become commonplace in Jharkhand, in my opinion, because the state, due to its remarkable Adivasi population, has traditionally been known to be a consumer of beef, pork, and whatever else might be considered taboo or inedible by the majority – for example, monitor lizards. Hence, what new story could be cooked up to create a situation of fear and distrust? What is most dear to people? Their children. Accuse some people of being kidnappers of children and have them lynched. In this age, when social media has become a carrier of hatred, is it that difficult to get anyone lynched? Be it beef or the abduction of little children, everything is just a pretext, an excuse. The purpose is to kill, to terrorise, to dominate, to create a pure and ideal kingdom.

Nearly every day, I see Santhal men, women, and children migrating from Pakur. So many minors must being kidnapped, forced to do things that no human being aspiring to live a life of dignity should ever do. Why is there no outrage? Why does a stray rumour of a kidnapping makes a mob in a mofussil town lynch some men ruthlessly while the entire nation is quite blind to the reality of Adivasi women and children being trafficked day in and day out?

Some days ago, I watched an English-language horror film called Darkness Falls. Roughly based on the legend of the Tooth Fairy and set in a fictional town called Darkness Falls, this film tells the story of a widow who loves children and whom children adore. However, when two children go missing, the townspeople blame that widow and burn her. When those two children are found unharmed, the people realise their mistake: they had killed an innocent woman. But it is too late. The vengeful soul of that widow returns to kill the children and adults of that town.

In this lynching movement against non-existent abductors of children, are we turning innocent men into vengeful souls?

In the film, the innocent widow is shown turning into a fearful villain and, in the climax, is killed the way villains are usually killed in mainstream, adrenaline-pumping films. She does not find justice, although everyone knows that she was innocent. In these lynching incidents too, I am afraid, those who are lynched will never find justice. Once branded villains, they will remain villains. An innocent man being killed for no fault of his, an innocent man not being given an opportunity to clear his name as he is already dead, an innocent man never finding justice – that is the kingdom we should be afraid of.

Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar is a doctor and the author most recently of The Adivasi Will Not Dance, a collection of short stories.

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