The Supreme Court on Tuesday stayed the central government’s notification banning the sale of cattle for slaughter at animal markets. It might not be enough to dispel the fear that has gripped cattle markets.

Bhaisa Mandi, Delhi’s largest wholesale cattle market in Ghazipur, wore a deserted look on Tuesday. Not a single buffalo could be seen even during the otherwise busy morning hours.

Two security guards and a cattle trader sat in a small kiosk near the entrance to the market, facing an air cooler. “The market is open but there are no buffaloes for trade,” said the trader, Amit Kumar, as he walked out. Behind him, the security guards ranted about buffaloes getting too much media attention lately.

“What you see here today is all because of fear,” Kumar said. “Did you not hear about drivers getting thrashed by locals in Jharoda last week? There had been no business after that though the mandi is open all days of the week, except for a few hours on Friday.”

Six men carrying buffaloes in pickup trucks were assaulted by unidentified men claiming to be gau rakshaks in Outer Delhi’s Jharoda Kalan area Friday evening. They were on their way to the Ghazipur mandi from Jhajjar town in Haryana. The attackers, whom the police believe to be residents of villages near Jharoda Kalan, also fled with a few buffaloes. The police have registered a case but there have been no arrests so far.

Kumar said the buffalo trade at the mandi took a big hit after the Centre banned the sale of cattle for slaughter. However, the dairy trade was going well until the Jharoda Kalan attack.

Fear of vigilantes

“In the past one year, I have been assaulted three times by unidentified men accusing me of transporting cows for slaughter,” said Satpal Bijnoi, 36, a driver who ferries cows and buffaloes mostly for dairy farmers between Haryana and Delhi. “They were least concerned about what exactly I was transporting, for what purpose and the documents I had.”

Bijnoi remembers each incident and the amount of money he had to pay the self-proclaimed gau rakshaks for letting him go. “The first incident happened at Ellanabad town in Haryana’s Sirsa district,” he said. “I was stopped by a group of about 25 people and soon another 10-15 men joined the crowd which had started beating me. I had to pay them Rs 7,000 to let me go. They called it a donation and issued me a receipt, which does not even look genuine.”

“The second incident took place in Haryana’s Fatehabad district,” Bijnoi continued. “It was similar to the first incident and I had to pay the mob Rs 20,000 in cash. The latest attack happened in Sonepat and the mob demanded Rs 50,000, which I did not have. They later settled for a cow,” he said.

The first two assaults took place in late 2016 and the third on May 25 this year. “The second attack was reported to the police and it ended up in a case [under the Prevention of Cruelty to the Animals Act] against me. The police were not bothered about the assault.”

Another driver, Saddam Ali, 26, recounted a similar experience. “It happened in May,” he began. “I had just loaded a buffalo onto my pickup van when some youths on scooters came and surrounded me. They accused me of transporting cows for slaughter and slapped me. It happened in Naraina in West Delhi.”

Balveer Singh (right) with two of his drivers. Photo credit: Abhishek Dey.

There are “particular stretches in Delhi and Haryana that are notorious for such extortion”, said transporter Balveer Singh. Recently, one of his drivers was stopped by a mob in Sonipat. “They let him go after I intervened and called up some local contacts there,” Singh said. “One of the so called gau rakshaks turned out to be my brother-in-law’s neighbour.”

“But they would have killed him [the driver] had he been a Muslim,” Singh added.

Over a hundred dairy farmers, both Hindu and Muslim, operate out of Ghazipur. Some of them have lived there for generations. While the Muslim dairy farmers mostly belong to the Quraishi and Gaddi communities, the Hindus are either Pandits or Gujjars.

Choking supply lines

According to Mohammad Riyazuddin, 70, a cattle trader and owner of a dairy farm in Ghazipur, buffaloes are brought to Delhi mostly from western Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Punjab and Haryana. The supply from Uttar Pradesh, however, fell drastically after Adityanath became the chief minister in March this year and cracked down on slaughterhouses. Supply from Rajasthan took a hit after the lynching of Pehlu Khan, a 55-year-old dairy farmer from Haryana’s Nuh district, in Alwar on April 1.

“Until six months ago, at least 25 buffaloes used to arrive in the mandi from just two Uttar Pradesh districts – Amroha and Shamli – but there is almost no supply from these places now,” said Surendra Kaushik, 45, another dairy farm owner in Ghazipur. “Rajasthan was a profitable supplier because of all the livestock fairs held there. But hardly any driver agrees to transport cattle from there after Pehlu Khan.”

Now, buffaloes come mostly from Haryana, traders at the mandi said. A small number of cattle used to come from Punjab through Haryana, but that supply line has stopped after the Jharoda Kalan attack.

Mohammad Riyazuddin at his dairy farm in Gazipur. Photo credit: Abhishek Dey.

Economy of fear

According to Roshan Lal Nagpal, another cattle trader in Ghazipur, attacks on truckers ferrying cows and buffaloes, irrespective of which industry they cater to, have increased significantly in the past three years. “And it works in two ways,” he said. “First, by instilling fear among transporters, these goons have managed to increase the extortion amount significantly. Such extortion gangs have existed for decades now and they often used to extort anything between Rs 100 and Rs 500 in the name of donations. But a physical attack was rare until three years ago. Now these goons have got the gau rakshak tag and there is no limit to the extortion amount.”
As Nagpal spoke, Iqbal, a 45-year-old driver, interjected. “It is not that they [mobs] beat the drivers when they do not pay,” he said. “They start beating from the very beginning after stopping a truck so that the driver does not even think of negotiating with them out of fear.”

Nagpal continued: “Second, the cost of transportation has increased. If we had to pay Rs 2,500 per buffalo for transporting it from Rajasthan to Delhi, the transporters today charge at least double that. It makes sense too because the extortion amounts have increased as has the risk they take.”

Nagpal himself barely escaped a mob in Fatehabad while he was accompanying one of his drivers in 2015. He had to pay Rs 13,000 to the group of men that intercepted their vehicle, accusing them of illegally transporting cattle and threatening to kill him. The matter was not reported to the police. For a reason: all traders and drivers met at Ghazipur accused the police of working hand in glove with such gangs.