For pastures new

Sant Gopal Das takes on the Haryana government for failing to protect cows and to keep its promise to provide grazing land.

Published : Oct 25, 2017 12:30 IST

Gopal Das in AIIMS, New Delhi.

Gopal Das in AIIMS, New Delhi.

THE Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Haryana has been extremely enthusiastic in making promises on matters bovine. One of the commitments the party made in the run-up to the Assembly elections in 2016 was about developing grazing lands with government grants in order to protect cows. Other promises included a world-class cow research centre and a milk revolution in the State. The punishment for cow slaughter would be the same as that for manslaughter, said BJP State president Ram Vilas Sharma while releasing the party’s manifesto.

One animal activist-cum-conservationist from the State is determined to remind the BJP repeatedly of its promises. For over four years, Gopal Das from Panipat, who has the prefix “sant” or saint to his name, has been waging a relentless campaign to restore common grazing lands, which, he said, was the most non-violent way of protecting the bovine species. Since June 2, he has been on a hunger strike protesting against the BJP’s apathy towards cow protection. He has been arrested time and again and shifted to hospitals in and outside the State.

But on August 3, he and his supporters did the unthinkable: they placed a dead bull at the venue of a meeting in Rohtak that was being chaired by BJP national president Amit Shah. Incarcerated since then, Gopal Das seems unflappable. “That was the only way I could highlight the problem of stray animals that were falling prey to road accidents. They had me arrested,” he told Frontline from his bed at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in New Delhi.

Breaching the security cordon, Gopal Das reached the venue on August 3 with a handful of supporters and, with the help of a JCB excavator, placed the carcass at the entrance of the Tilyar Convention Centre. The animal was apparently killed by a speeding vehicle. Gopal Das’ idea was to highlight the dangers that abandoned and stray cattle faced and to remind the government of its promise to provide grazing land.

“The only way the cow can be protected is by providing grazing lands. They are dying today in road accidents. This is what I was trying to tell Amit Shah by showing him the dead bull. The State government is charging me with cow slaughter now, saying that I poisoned the bull. The post-mortem report says that the animal died in an accident,” he said with a weak smile. His long-standing grievance has been against the BJP government for not taking the issue of cow protection seriously, which, he says, was just an electoral issue for the party. He pulled out a poster issued by the Rashtriya Govansh Vikas Prakoshth, an organisation set up by the BJP specifically for cow protection, to show how the organisers had expressed their gratitude to the BJP for being the first among political parties to commit itself to cow protection in its manifesto.

Vipin Malik, one of his steadfast supporters, said that Gopal Das belonged to a well-to-do Jat family. He was born Azaad Malik to a family of landed peasants in Panipat and could have had a comfortable life, having inherited his family’s land. But his calling was in the protection of the cow and the preservation of ecological balance, said Vipin Malik. Gopal Das recalled how everyone was jubilant when the BJP got elected at the Centre and in Haryana. They were impressed by the party’s commitment to the cow, and in particular the protection and conservation of native breeds. Haryana even enacted the Cow Protection and Conservation Act (Haryana Gauvansh Sanrakshan and Gausamvardhan Act, 2015), which sought to give stringent punishment for cow slaughter—three to 10 years in prison with a fine of up to Rs.1 lakh.

Government permits (given at the discretion of the government) were required to send cows to other States. A requirement for this is a declaration that the animals would not be slaughtered. A Gau Sewa Aayog, or Cattle Welfare Commission, was also constituted. Alongside these measures, the foot soldiers of the cow protection movement too got into action, leading to an escalation in cases of cow vigilantism.

Unforeseen consequences But the government did not foresee the extent of the consequences of the law. The restriction on the sale of cows, especially of unproductive and non-milch cattle, and the inability of the farmer to provide fodder and shelter for such livestock led to the number of strays on the roads growing exponentially. Agricultural mechanisation had also resulted in the bull getting redundant. Farmers and cultivators Frontline spoke to said they could not afford to keep unproductive cattle and therefore had to let them go.

With growing cow vigilantism, there were now fewer buyers for the cattle too, even those used for breeding purposes. The lynching of the Mewat resident Pehlu Khan on the Delhi-Jaipur highway in Alwar district in April this year for transporting cows was still fresh in the minds of people. On October 13, less than a week before Deepavali, five Muslim men were beaten up in an area in Faridabad district by cow vigilantes who accused them of transporting beef in an autorickshaw. It turned out to be buffalo meat. According to IndiaSpend, a data-based news portal, Haryana was among the top States that reported a large number of cases of cow vigilantism leading to lynching.

According to Gopal Das, the solution is not gaushalas but grazing lands. The number of gaushalas went up from 370 to 430 after the new government took charge in the State and the budgetary allocation for the Cow Welfare Commission, too, was hiked manifold times. Yet the gaushalas were overflowing with stray bovines, and their budgets were too meagre for them to take care of the bovines. Bovine deaths in gaushalas in Kurukshetra in Haryana and Hingonia in Rajasthan vindicated Gopal Das’ view. Gopal Das’ fast has drawn support from other political parties. Haryana Congress chief Ashok Tanwar reached out to the fasting seer in July. The Indian National Lok Dal, the Aam Aadmi Party and even a section of the BJP are known to support him. Several gaushala owners in the State also support his demand for freeing “pastureland” from encroachment. Gopal Das claimed that the State government had raised Rs.2,378 crore by auctioning wasteland that could have been developed as pastureland, or gochar land, but had allocated only Rs.3 crore for cow protection and conservation. He also alleged that four and a half lakh acres of common grazing land had not been “cleared” by the government as promised.

Supreme Court guidelines Most importantly, Gopal Das says, the Supreme Court had way back in 2011 banned the diversion of village grazing land and directed that governments ought to compensate for allowing pastureland to be used for community needs like schools or hospitals. A bench consisting of Justices R.V. Raveendran and H.L. Gokhale held that “any attempt by either the villagers or others to encroach upon or illegally convert the gochar to house plots or non-grazing use should be resisted and firmly dealt with”. The order was delivered in the context of diversion of grazing land in a village in Jharkhand. The court also laid down that “5 per cent of village land must be set aside for cattle pasturing and in unavoidable diversion cases, the government’s adherence to guidelines was a must”.

The judgment was in effect a blow for those peasants and farmers who had small landholdings, were landless, or relied on their livestock for a living. The order, which came a couple of years before the Land Acquisition Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013, was perspicacious in that it laid down that “any requirement of land for any public purpose should be met from available waste or unutilised land in village and not gochar land… when the gochar in a village is de-reserved and diverted to non-grazing use, simultaneously or at least immediately thereafter the State government should make available alternative land as gochar in a manner and to an extent that the gochar continues to be not less than 5 per cent of the total extent in a village”. In addition, where the grazing land was not owned by the government, prior consent of the village headman and villagers was to be obtained before its diversion for non-grazing purposes, the bench ruled. It was an apex court judgment that applied to the entire country.

Gopal Das claimed that historically all the 36 communities in Haryana, called Chattis Biradari colloquially, had reserved 3,32,50,000 acres (an acre is 0.4 hectare) of land for grazing purposes, which roughly constituted 13 per cent of the total land in the State. He said that grasslands for grazing had come down drastically over the years.

The Indian Grassland and Fodder Research Institute in Jhansi, Uttar Pradesh, too, has accepted that “shortage of green and dry fodder was a major and continuous challenge”. It is also well documented that the “commons” play a significant role in the household incomes of the poor. Studies have shown that 80-100 per cent of the rural poor depend on the commons for fuel, fodder and food. A study by N.S. Jodha of 80 villages in 21 districts of seven States has found that there was a significant contribution of common property resources on employment and income generation for the rural poor (“Common Property Resources and the Rural Poor in Dry Regions of India”, a 1986 paper by N.S. Jodha in Economic & Political Weekly ).

Gopal Das’ campaign is limited to that of cow protection and conservation, but he knows that the poor will also benefit in some way. “It will help everyone in the long run. It is a charitable act for animals as well as the poor,” he said in English. Gopal Das apparently protested in Gujarat as well when Narendra Modi was Chief Minister. He said he was arrested three times in Gujarat alone. The Gujarat government has a Gauchar Development Board, which Gopal Das said should be replicated in all States, especially in BJP-ruled States, as the party had promised to do so in its manifesto for the 2014 Lok Sabha election. In 2014, he led a rally of bullock carts from Jind, which was the epicentre of a farmers’ agitation, to Delhi in support of Modi. “The police beat us up badly and threw us in jail,” he sadi.

On cow vigilantes, he said they were not the “real protectors” of cows. “There are extortionists among the gau rakshaks,” he said from his hospital bed. Gopal Das has a persistent headache and ulcers in his mouth because of the fasting he has undertaken. His weight is all but 43 kg and his sugar levels fluctuate. His hospital admission slip describes him as a “patient… protesting for grazing land in Haryana”. He said he was still on a “hunger strike” and would not relent until the government allocated adequate grazing land for livestock. Saying that people across the world were demanding such rights for their livestock and themselves, he shows a video of the Sioux tribe protesting peacefully for grazing land rights in Standing Rock, Dakota.

In May 2016, the government organised a national seminar in the national capital on gauvansh (cow progeny) and gaushalas with the objective of discussing government schemes for cow protection and conservation. The programme coincided with the second anniversary of the National Democratic Alliance’s victory in the Lok Sabha election. The participants included non-governmental organisations, religious groups and owners of gaushalas. The issue of grazing lands being sold off for real estate business was raised, and the meeting, according to media reports, turned acrimonious. There were protests as some of the experts roped in by the government spoke in English; there was also anger reportedly because the kit provided to the participants had the pictures of the Jersey cow on it instead of a desi breed. It was here that Minister for Environment and Forest and Climate Change Prakash Javadekar made an assurance that his Ministry was working on a plan to protect gochar bhoomi, or grazing land.

The cow and its emotive appeal may have been used for divisive and narrow political ends, but there is a growing restiveness among those like Gopal Das and others who have campaigned for and voted for the BJP. This yawning gap between what was promised and what is delivered on the ground is what riles them.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment