Cover Story

The cow menace

Print edition : November 10, 2017

Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his visit to the Pashudhan Arogya Mela at Shahanshahpur in Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh on September 23. Photo: PTI

Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Aditiyanath at a "gaushala" in Lucknow on March 31. Photo: PTI

Abandoned cows overrun the grazing areas of the Katarniaghat Wildlife Sanctuary straddling Bahraich and Lakhimpur Kheri districts in Uttar Pradesh that are normally the abode of wildlife such as deer. Photo: VENKITESH RAMAKRISHNAN

Raju, of Malhendi village in Shamli district of Uttar Pradesh, shows the damage caused by stray cattle to his crop. He was sent to judicial custody for criticising the policy of cow protection. Photo: VENKITESH RAMAKRISHNAN

Lalji (right) and his son-in-law Atul Kumar at Tediya village say unproductive cattle are transported in mini trucks and tractors and abandoned near the Katarniaghat sanctuary. Photo: VENKITESH RAMAKRISHNAN

The BJP governments’ holy cow policy has given rise to the phenomenon of large herds of unproductive cattle abandoned by their owners creating social, economic and environmental crises across northern India.

RAJU, a 23-year-old Dalit youth of Malhendi village in Shamli district of western Uttar Pradesh, is a living symbol of what the metamorphosis of the benign cow into a menace of multidimensional proportions can do to a humble farmer. Raju, who was released from jail a couple of days before Deepavali, would be able to tell you how the cow, more specifically the stray and abandoned one, has become an agrarian hazard, a law and order threat, a political provocateur, a victimiser nonpareil, all rolled into one. Raju’s life since the last week of September is a dynamic testimony of this. He spent two weeks in jail on account of these assorted roles that the cow has acquired. Raju has just one plea: save me from the cow and the political-administrative machinery of the government which has converted this docile animal into one capable of perilous forays affecting everyday life, especially in rural northern India. Raju lays stress repeatedly on the role of the political-administrative machinery in aggravating the situations. He is certain that it is the politico-administrative machinery’s moves and manoeuvres that have converted this docile domestic animal into a menace, as perceived by people across the cow belt—Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.

Raju’s encounter with the metamorphosed cow led to a chain of precarious developments in the last week of September, when he set out on a farm-related errand, which included collection of fodder for a relative’s buffalo. As he passed by the small field owned by his family, he noticed that stray cattle had destroyed the crop and the fresh seeds kept for sowing. He had heard about similar damage done in the fields of other farmers by stray cattle. He heard that farmers in Malhendi and nearby villages were forced to chase the cattle away using red chilli sprays or by wielding lathis. He had also heard that at several places, abandoned cows were devouring fodder stored for farmers’ own milch cattle and that farmers and farm workers thrashed the stray animals mercilessly. It was also in his knowledge that farmers were forced to keep round-the-clock vigil in order to stop the marauding cattle from raiding their harvest. He was under the impression that his small, marginal farm would not attract the attention of stray cattle. So, when he saw his crop trampled upon, he was devastated.

The aggrieved Dalit farmer was aware that the population of cows and bulls had multiplied in the village’s streets ever since Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government and later the Narendra Modi-led Union government imposed serial bans on the slaughter of unproductive cows.

While the Yogi Adityanath government issued instructions immediately after assuming office in April 2017, directing the police to take action against illegal meat shops and slaughterhouses, the authorities went for an overkill, moving not only against illegal slaughterhouses but also against mechanised slaughterhouses and meat-processing and packaging units. This in itself had caused considerable confusion among livestock holders and traders, but in about a month, on May 23, the Centre came up with an order that further complicated the situation. This order, based on the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Regulation of Livestock Markets) Rules, 2017 (Animal Market Rules), imposed a virtual ban on the sale of cattle in animal markets for the purposes of slaughter. These bans, in turn, unleashed Hindutva-oriented gau rakshak (cow vigilante) groups across Uttar Pradesh. The vigilantes blocked transport of cows, bulls and calves, leading to violence and mayhem in several parts of the State. The cumulative effect of the government ban as well as the ruckus created by cow vigilantes was an abrupt and massive reduction in the slaughter of unproductive animals and the abandoning of these animals by their owners.

On seeing the damage done to his crop, Raju lost his cool and composure. The fact that his predominantly agricultural labour family, which migrates to Punjab and Haryana periodically to earn better wages, had cultivated only on small patches of land exacerbated his sense of rage.

What followed was a full-throated voicing of some choice epithets against the stray cows for the damage they had caused and against the political-administrative perpetrators of the stray cow menace, which included Modi and Adityanath. One of his friends recorded this venting of ire on his mobile phone, and as is the wont with all youngsters, rural and urban, nowadays, promptly posted it on social media without thinking about the consequences of such an act. The video went viral, as the content had some extreme expletives targeted at the top administrative executives of the country and the State. This happened on September 29-30 and October 1. Within no time, a first information report (FIR) was registered, on October 1, Raju was arrested and sent to judicial custody. Initially, there were suggestions that sedition charges would be invoked against Raju since the video, in which he was seen showing his anger in pronouncedly extreme language, had references to the Prime Minister. However, later procedures showed that the case was largely confined to defamation and related charges. This toning down of the offence helped him get bail in two weeks and join his family for a muted Deepavali celebration, marked by apprehension.

Indeed, Raju’s encounter with the stray cow phenomenon and the developments that followed have marked a high point in terms of public visibility, at the level of the media and social media. The Raju incident has also become a vastly noticed, high-profile case in terms of police action and legal procedures. But scores of similar but relatively less intensive police actions, legal procedures and wranglings have come up in different parts of northern India. More importantly, farmers and farm workers across Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh are becoming increasingly more voluble about the menace and the “misguided political-administrative actions and manoeuvres that have created this abject situation”.

Highly placed sources in the Home Ministry in Madhya Pradesh told Frontline that reports of angry farmers using not only lathis and red chilli sprays but even acid sprays against marauding cows come up every day. “Most of them say that they have no alternative to protect their crops from the ravaging herds. When reports of acid attacks on cows started emanating from across the State, many gau rakshak groups sought to blame the Muslim community. But in places as varied as Malwa and Bundelkhand regions, inquiry by government agencies and in some places by cow vigilantes themselves revealed that it was Hindu farmers who were attacking cows with acid,” a senior Home Department official told Frontline.

Reports from Rajasthan have it that the aggression of stray and abandoned cows have even resulted in deaths of people. The State Home Department officials said that a stray cow attack, which resulted in the death of a 60-year-old woman, was reported from Mahaveer Nagar in Kota city, barely a month and a half after the Centre’s May 23 ban. “There are unconfirmed reports about more such deaths from Kota. Informal information is that four people have succumbed to injuries caused by stray cow attacks in Kota and Dausa. The cattle invasion on agricultural fields and vegetable markets are a regular occurrence across Rajasthan villages and towns, as in other northern States,” said Mahendra Singh, a Dausa-based farmer. He said these cows were getting thrashed and whipped by the local population.

A progressive farmer and retired colonel, Subhash Deswal of Sikandrabad in Bulandshahar district of western Uttar Pradesh, pointed out that the problem of marauding stray and abandoned cows was literally a law and order problem that was bound to explode in a big way in the not-so-distant future. “My carrot farming and trade keeps me in touch with almost all the States of India and what I am hearing on the cow menace from the farming community in all these States is extremely alarming. It is palpable on a day-to-day basis in almost all the States. However, it is most alarming in Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Rajasthan. Bihar, Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra also face a problem but with less intensity. The skewed government policy and its reckless implementation has led to a situation wherein cattle owners are left with no other option but to abandon their unproductive cows and bulls. This number will grow as more and more cows reach non-productive age, without being directed to the natural course of slaughter. This army of stray cattle will virtually overturn cane, vegetable and grain fields. Apart from the assault on rural fields and farms, the stray and abandoned cows cause widespread traffic snarls and accidents across national highways in northern India, many of them built under the guidance of the BJP Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. The majority of the accidents triggered by stray cattle have been reported from Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan.”

Deswal added that because of the huge population of Uttar Pradesh (it is the most populous State), the impact and damage of the cow menace was also felt strikingly in the State. He said that the political undertones of this disturbing social situation were palpable and strikingly anti-BJP.

Travelling across several districts of central and eastern Uttar Pradesh, this correspondent was able to confirm the veracity of Deswal’s observation. From Shamli and Meerut in western Uttar Pradesh to Barabanki in central Uttar Pradesh and to Faizabad in central eastern Uttar Pradesh and to Bahraich and Lakhimpur Kheri bordering Nepal, farmers and common people had the same story: cow menace. In many places, Frontline came across genuine and committed cow protectors who complained about the cow menace and accused the Yogi Adityanath and Modi governments of talking big about cow protection but doing nothing concrete on the ground.

Talking to Frontline at Ram Vatika Dham, a designated cow protection centre at Nighasan near Lakhimpur Kheri, Udit Narain Dwivedi, the caretaker of the centre, said that the number of cows brought there had grown in leaps and bounds in the past three months, but the government support was not proportionate. “Nobody takes care of our genuine demands or the needs of the cows. All that they do is deliver speeches.” Dwivedi hoped media coverage would draw the attention of the authorities to the menace and result in the setting up of better infrastructure.

In the nearby Khazipurva village, the farmer Mohammed Shareef told Frontline that he and fellow farmers were constrained to keep round–the-clock vigil to restrain the marauding cows. “We have not slept a wink for the past two months. It is going to be like this until harvest is completed.” Shareef said some farmers had already lost lakhs of rupees worth of crops. Evidently, this story is not confined to Khazipurva. Farmers in thousands of villages across Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh have been having sleepless nights and restless days for months. Reports of massive destruction of crops are emanating from these States despite the Herculean efforts of farmers to protect their crops.

The phenomenon of abandonment of unproductive cows and bulls has acquired bizarre and almost surreal proportions at the Katarniaghat Wildlife Sanctuary, which straddles the districts of Bahraich and Lakhimpur Kheri. The sanctuary, spread over approximately 400 square kilometres, is located on the banks of the Sarayu river. Cattle owners from Bahraich and Lakhimpur Kheri and a few other adjoining districts have taken recourse to abandoning their unproductive cattle on the borders of the sanctuary, including on the river side. The number of these cattle has swelled into thousands. Such is their concentration that entry to and exit from the sanctuary are now dictated by the crowding cows. Only when they move out does the road open for traffic. Lalji and his son-in-law Atul Kumar, residents of Tediya village adjoining the sanctuary, told Frontline that every day cattle owners would come to the area surreptitiously at night in mini trucks and tractors. “And each day hundreds of cows are abandoned near the sanctuary. Sometimes, the cattle owners bribe the so-called gau rakshaks to facilitate the transportation of the cows. These cattle graze in the sanctuary’s grazing lands during the day and move to nearby wheat and vegetable fields at night.” Lalji added that farmers in the nearby areas complained about these herds but there was no action from the authorities to stop the abandonment of cattle in the area or clear the herds.

Environmental disaster

Ecologists pointed out that the large-scale abandonment of domesticated animals in a wildlife sanctuary posed a grave ecological threat. Speaking to Frontline, Sudhir Kumar Panwar, a professor attached to the Zoology Department of Lucknow University and president of the Kisan Jagriti Manch, a collective of farmers and academics focussing on agrarian issues, pointed out that what was happening in Katarniaghat was primarily an example of invasion ecology, pregnant with very disastrous results. “At the very basic level, this invasion of cattle means that they would be encroaching upon the natural grazing lands of herbivorous wild species such as deer. In the medium and long term, translocating an alien species from another region is bound to have a lasting ecological impact on animal populations of the region as well as novel biotic interactions. As masters of the discipline have time and again pointed out, invasion of non-indigenous species is a serious concern in terms of managing and protecting natural as well as managed ecosystems. The government may be advised to look into this fallout of its cow protection manoeuvres. Otherwise, we could be witnessing a huge environmental catastrophe in the region,” Panwar warned (see separate story on page 13).

Clearly, the portents of the highly rhetorical and hugely impractical cow protection policies of the Modi and Yogi Adityanath governments are massive and extremely disconcerting. Analysing the political and administrative dimensions of the cow menace as a whole, Deswal pointed out that cow nationalism served as a good political ploy for the BJP to acquire power both in 2014 in the Lok Sabha election and in 2017 in Uttar Pradesh, but the party leadership should have realised that this unique play of nationalism could not be blindly applied to policy and administration. “The Modi and Yogi Adityanath dispensations seem to have committed the colossal error of becoming blind,” Deswal said.

The BJP government in Madhya Pradesh has apparently come up with a so-called rectification scheme, which involves tying Aadhaar tags on the ears of the cattle complete with a chip that will contain the cow’s date of birth, address, milk yield, and reproductive and health details. Apparently, this was being planned as a huge, State-wide exercise.

Deswal is of the view that while one must wait to see how the scheme will play out, the fact remains that the Aadhaar scheme does not address the fundamental flaw of banning the slaughter of unproductive and aging cattle. For a real solution to the menace and for a way forward, this fundamental flaw will have to be addressed, but the big question is whether the tenets of the long-exploited cow nationalism will allow Yogi Adityanath and Modi to take the sagacious course correction.

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