One of the dominant features that accompanied the installation of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), at the Centre was a steady rise in the incidence of “cow protection” vigilantism. It was also not a coincidence that most of the violence taking place in the name of the cow and bovine progeny was in BJP-ruled States.
Ironically, “bovine” vigilantism, which targeted mainly middle and lower income groups, has been accompanied by a steady rise in meat exports (especially the meat of the water buffalo, known as carabeef), which has accounted for the largest agri-related exports during the BJP’s current tenure. The meat exports industry is one of the biggest foreign exchange earners for the country. A plausible explanation for this has been that the fear of being caught by cow vigilantes and booked under draconian cow protection laws may have resulted in farmers either abandoning their animals or engaging in distress sales of cattle progeny at very low rates owing to the prolonged agrarian crisis.
IndiaSpend, a data journalism website, stated in a story that 97 per cent of all cow vigilante-driven attacks after 2010 took place after 2014, when the NDA took over. Twenty-five out of 29 persons lynched in such vigilantism were Muslims, while the rest were Dalits and caste Hindus. The target of cow vigilantes or gau rakshaks has always been a certain category among minorities, Muslims in particular. Their targets often have been Muslims from poor backgrounds, small farmers and agriculturists.
More shockingly, it was found that in at least one third of all the cases registered—26 of the 78 incidents—the police had filed counter cases against the victims under cow protection laws. The cow protection law in Gujarat awards a 14-year term, akin to a life sentence, for anyone found guilty of cow slaughter.
The latest incident of lynching took place on June 13, when two Muslims were beaten to death in Godda district of Jharkhand on suspicion of being cattle thieves. The version of the police as reported in sections of the media was that the killing was not instigated by cow protection vigilantes but happened on the spur of the moment. It was surprising that people from four or five villages assembled to carry out the act without any planning.
Predictably, counter cases against the deceased were filed by the police on charges of stealing cattle. In each of the cases of lynching, counter cases were found to be registered against the victims themselves.
There is little doubt that such lynching and targeting of specific communities have happened mostly in States where a strident politics around cow protection exists and has been allowed to grow. For the Raghubar Das government in Jharkhand, this was not the first instance of mob vigilantism around the bovine. There have been a number of cases of lynching of minorities in Jharkhand ever since the BJP formed the government in the State.
The pretext of cattle theft or cattle smuggling has often been used to attack members of the minority community. In March 2016, two Muslim cow herders, one of them a teenager, were hanged to death by cow vigilantes in Latehar district of Jharkhand. They were also alleged to be cattle smugglers in the initial media reports.
The lynching of a meat trader in June last year in Ramgarh in Jharkhand by followers of a gau raksha samiti was the only case where a conviction was secured. In March 2018, a special fast track court in Ramgarh awarded life imprisonment to 11 persons accused of lynching a meat trader. The twelfth accused was a juvenile. The incident occurred on June 29, 2017. Alimuddin Ansari, a meat trader, was attacked and his vehicle set afire; he was later beaten to death by a communally charged mob. A BJP leader was among those booked for his murder.
More recently, on May 17, in Amgaar village of Mehar tehsil in Madhya Pradesh’s Satna district, a 70-80-strong mob attacked two Muslims named Siraj Khan and Shakeel Ahmed around 1 a.m. According to a fact-finding report by a delegation of the district unit of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), the Janwadi Lekhak Sangh and the Janwadi Mahila Samiti, the mob beat up the two men with sticks and other sharp weapons accusing them of slaughtering cows and smuggling cattle. The police reached only at 3:30 p.m. after a phone call was made to them by one Narayan Singh. Both the severely injured men were taken to a Satna hospital. While Siraj Khan died even before he could reach the hospital, Shakeel Ahmed was treated for critical injuries. Four persons were taken into custody, all of them members of the Gond tribal community.
Upon interacting with villagers in the area, the committee found that Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh and Bajrang Dal activists were active in Bhadampur panchayat, where the incident took place. The fact-finding team was told that many of these activists had mining businesses, not all of them legal. Villagers also told them that in the past, too, there had been several incidents of beating up and looting of farmers engaged in the livestock business. The gau rakshaks, they told the committee, had established a climate of fear in the area.
The charge that the two men were engaging in open cattle slaughter seemed implausible as the spot where they were supposed to have done the slaughter was 100 metres from a road that had regular traffic movement. In addition, there were villages located adjacent to the road. Siraj Khan was a tailor and his wife, Saheedunnisha, supplemented their family income as a beedi worker. They had three daughters and one son. The daughters were between 12 and 18 while the son was just seven years old. Siraj was the main breadwinner of his family. His wife told the fact-finding team that the police put pressure on her to conduct the last rites. There was a lot of fear among the Muslim households, she added.
Shakeel Ahmed was a driver by profession and had stepped out to collect some dues that day. The two men, she said, as per her information, were returning home when their vehicle was stopped by some people at Amgaar village, located close to the road. Upon getting to know their identity and names, the crowd started beating them. Like Siraj’s wife, Shakeel’s wife, too, was a beedi worker.
The fact-finding team learnt that there had been aggressive communal mobilisation in Mehar tehsil on December 8, 2017, which coincided with the festival of Id. Some ceremonial and decorative flags put up by members of the minority community were destroyed and shops belonging to them were vandalised and some set afire. The police filed cases, mostly against members of the minority community, the team was told.
“Cow protection” vigilantism was also very rampant in the tehsil, the team was told. Members of the minority community were often targeted and accused of being cattle smugglers. At the time of writing the story, no compensation had been given to either of the two families.
The Bhumi Adhikaar Andolan (BAA), a wide coalition of farmer and peasant organisations, conducted a fact-finding study early this year. Its representatives travelled and met families of victims of cow vigilantism in north India, where the incidents were concentrated. Of the 78 incidents compiled by IndiaSpend, nearly 50 had occurred in north India.
The BAA organised a two-day national convention in March 2018 where the agrarian crisis, the assault on the cattle economy and the issue of lynching of Dalits and minorities were discussed threadbare. Vikas Rawal, professor of economics in Jawaharlal Nehru University, who is also associated with the BAA, told Frontline that India’s large livestock market that was managed by small-scale household production and network of dairy cooperatives was the prime target of dairy multinationals. The current assault on the small livestock keepers would directly benefit the multinationals.
It may be recalled that India is the largest producer of milk in the world and it is small livestock owners who have helped India achieve that position. Krishnaprasad, finance secretary of the AIKS, told Frontline that more than 50 per cent of the cattle wealth was owned by the middle and the small peasantry for whom individual care of livestock was the only recourse. Nearly 20 per cent of the total income earned by the peasant community came from livestock. “It is like an ATM. When the crops fail or they do not get a good price for their output, they sell their animals,” he said.
In May 2017, the Ministry of Environment and Forests issued a notification under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act effectively banning the sale of cattle for slaughter in cattle markets. Several conditions were imposed before anyone could effect a sale or make a purchase of cattle. The rules were criticised as they were seen to be affecting livelihoods and interfering with dietary habits.
After several State governments protested against the rules, for the simple reason that regulating livestock trade came under their purview, the Madras High Court and the Supreme Court were petitioned and a stay was granted on the notification. The new draft rules were put up in April this year.
“We, from the Kisan Sabha, petitioned the Supreme Court. And we got a favourable response. The blanket ban was effectively stopped. Under the previous notification, maintenance of animals was proving to be a burden to the peasantry,” Krishnaprasad said.
Boom in carabeef exports
The curbs on the sale of cattle and the activities of cow protection vigilantes had benefited the meat export sector, he added. Nearly 60 per cent of large industrial meat processing plants are in Uttar Pradesh, most of them owned not by minorities but by members of the majority community. The State also accounts for the largest share of the country’s buffalo population (28 per cent).
According to the ratings agency ICRA, the value of Indian carabeef exports went up from Rs.3,533 crore in 2008 to Rs.29,682 crore in 2015-16 and is expected to touch Rs.40,000 crore in 2020-21. In 2009, India was in the fourth position in buffalo meat exports; it jumped up to the third position in 2011 and in 2014 it occupied the top slot followed by Brazil.
ICRA said that carabeef is the highest agri-related export in value and its contribution to the total export revenue nearly doubled to 1.56 per cent in 2015-16 from 0.76 per cent in 2010-11.
Explaining this, Krishnaprasad claimed: “It has become a taboo now to rear animals. Farmers would rather sell their animals at low rates to the exporters rather than risk being lynched by communally motivated mobs. It has been a win-win situation for the meat export industry and a proletarianisation of the peasantry.”
The targeting of minorities continues unabated in one form or the other and under some pretext or the other. Mere suspicion is enough to lynch minority community members, which is now justified in the name of the cow or its progeny. While such polarisation on communal lines often peaks in an election year, its outcome on the general social fabric is something that lasts for generations.