For cow and cash

It is not just love for the cow that motivates gau rakshaks. Often, as the recent lynchings in Jharkhand indicate, commercial interests and rivalries are behind their carefully engineered sectarian violence.

Published : Jun 07, 2017 12:30 IST

A cow vigilante mob assaulting men transporting livestock, including cows, in Rajasthan’s Alwar district. A video grab.

A cow vigilante mob assaulting men transporting livestock, including cows, in Rajasthan’s Alwar district. A video grab.

THE interplay of organised sectarian violence in India and commercial pursuits of interested groups has been cited off and on in various works, including academic research and docu-fictional literature. Vibhuti Narain Rai, the writer and Hindi novelist who has drawn extensively from his nearly three-and-a-half decade service in the Indian police and security establishment for his creative and literary output, has repeatedly pointed out this interplay. Rai’s works such as Shahar Mein Curfew (Curfew in the City) and Hashimpura 22 May delineate different dimensions of the plight of people caught in situations of communal tension, and what goes into the engineering of organised sectarian violence.

Talking to Frontline about these works and the professional experience that inspired and contributed to their creation, Rai said that he had personally been a witness to numerous communal riots and rampant killings that were engineered specifically to enforce a planned and coercive displacement of targeted communities from prosperous commercial areas in different North Indian towns. “I have witnessed targeted, engineered communal violence in places like Varanasi, Meerut and Allahabad, which were driven not merely by communal and fundamentalist fanaticism but also by definite ulterior plans to appropriate property and make commercial gains. Indeed, many of them were in the 1980s and 1990s, the period when the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh [RSS]-led Sangh Parivar’s Ayodhya Ram Mandir agitation was creating sustained turbulence across north India. Whole streets dominated by one community were taken over by another community, along with their respective trade and commercial enterprises, through these engineered riots.” Rai is also of the view that, in recent times, cow vigilantism, spearheaded by self-professed gau rakshaks, has become a new and intense form of sectarian violence.

“The manner in which it is spreading across various States, with periodic assaults and lynching, there is every possibility that underlying commercial vested interests too are playing, along with religious, fundamentalist fervour, an important part in their propagation,” said Rai.

A closer look at the recent cow vigilante attacks in different States underscores the relevance of the veteran security affairs specialist’s perception. An analysis of various cow vigilante attacks in States such as Jharkhand, Rajasthan, Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh and interactions with gau rakshaks in some of these States highlight the materialistic motives of the perpetrators of these incidents. One gau rakshak operating on the western Uttar Pradesh-Haryana border told Frontline : “Of course, we are driven by devotion ( bhakti ) for the cow and the urge to protect it as per the values of Hindutva, but our everyday life and vigilantism cannot survive on this alone.” This gau rakshak was very clear that there were other material, tangible benefits and attractions in pursuing vigilantism.

Several other gau rakshaks that Frontline interacted with were in agreement with this attitude. All of them said that the accrual of benefits from these activities had gone up considerably over the past one year. “In most operations, the gau rakshaks get to keep the cows and other animals that are caught while swooping in on those transporting these animals. This mostly happens in the border districts of various States, especially Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Rajasthan, Jharkhand, Odisha and Bihar. In many States such as Rajasthan, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, some gau rakshak units have also started extorting protection money from cattle traders,” a western Uttar Pradesh-based gau rakshak told Frontline . However, some of these Hindutva activists also said that given the intense media and public focus on cow vigilantism in the past few months, gau rakshaks and their outfits were making conscious efforts to downplay and camouflage their assaults.

Multiple motives

One recent assault, which happened in the third week of May in Shobhapur village in Rajnagar block on the outskirts of Jamshedpur in Jharkhand, encapsulates the multiple dimensions of this form of sectarian aggression. Four cattle traders—Sheikh Sajju, Sheikh Siraj, Sheikh Halim and Sheikh Naim—were lynched by an aggressive, rampaging crowd on the morning of May 18. On the same day, in the evening, three Hindu youths—Vikas Prasad, Gautam Prasad and Ganesh Gupta—were also killed in a similar fashion in Kolhan village, approximately 20 kilometres from Rajnagar, by another mob. Initial reports suggested that the seven youngsters were killed by villagers who had formed vigilante groups because of rumours about widespread child-snatching in the area. The reports said the villagers had suspected that these seven people were part of a child-lifting gang operating in the region though they had no connection whatsoever with such gangs. Comments from sections of the police and the investigating teams after early investigations suggested that these youngsters were in the wrong place at the wrong time: they were caught in front of an irrational and infuriated crowd. At this stage, the killings were treated as an unfortunate mishap.

However, further investigations and detailed information coming out of the villages and surrounding areas where the killings took place steadily changed this “unfortunate mishap” narrative. The new revelations virtually negated the accidental nature of both the lynching. Suspicions about vested business interests have emerged in relation to both the cases, leading to the suspicion that the killings were a result of conspiracies. The element of communal targeting has also come up in relation to the Shobhapur assault. These revelations have emerged in the course of routine police investigations and at the level of people’s inquiries launched by non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

One of the key factors that came to light on the Shobhapur assault was that the cattle traders were virtually drawn to the area by giving them unsubstantiated information about the theft of one of their cows by unidentified cattle thieves. This information has raised grave doubts in the investigating team as well as the public. One strong suspicion is that those who got lynched were trapped by rival cattle traders, especially some belonging to the Odiya Brahmin community of the region. Sheikh Halim, one of the traders who was lynched, had personal and trade relations with many persons in Shobhapur village and was well-known to many people there. So, when they were initially surrounded by the mob, several villagers intervened on their behalf, assuring them the four were not child kidnappers. Following this, the crowd disbursed and the four were able to get away. But sections of the crowd regrouped later and ran the four cattle traders down.

Suspicions of a conspiracy

According to a police official involved in the investigations, the conspiracy and the execution thereof have not been fully established as yet, but the investigation team is probing whether they were lured to the area with the clear objective of having them murdered. “There is little doubt that there was a running feud between the Muslim cattle traders, led by Sheikh Naim, and some Brahmin cattle traders of the region. The other important factor was that Naim and his associates were able to run away from the mob after the first confrontation, but were tracked down and killed later. The long search undertaken by the mob after the cattle traders had fled was not a spur-of-the–moment, rage-propelled hunt. Assiduous planning seems to have gone into the manner in which the hunt was carried out, leading to the capture and murder of the four cattle traders,” the police official said.

A number of social and political activists of the region have their own arguments which confirm these suspicions. Talking to Frontline over phone, Sher Mohammed, a worker engaged in minority welfare activities, said that rumours about child-snatching had been rampant in the area for some time and that villagers had organised groups to keep night vigil. “It is true that Halim and his associates were accosted rather aggressively by this night vigil group. But once their identity was established, they were let off.” But a larger group returned after 30 minutes with an ultimatum, prompting Sher Mohammed to suspect conspiracy and incitement. “The mob started chasing the cattle traders, leading to their lynching.”

Sumant Mahato, a Jamshedpur-based activist of the Jharkhand Mukthi Morcha (JMM), the principal opposition in the State, pointed out that cow vigilantes associated with the Sangh Parivar had been so vociferously active in the Rajnagar region that cattle traders had been forced to opt for an alternative route, which had forced them to take a 20-km detour while transporting cows to and from Odisha. “In fact, after the Uttar Pradesh election and the ascent of the militant Hindutva leader Yogi Adityanath as Chief Minister, these groups have become even more aggressive. The Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) government in the State is also encouraging these activities. Jharkhand was among the first States that took similar steps following the Yogi government’s move in Uttar Pradesh to crackdown on illegal slaughterhouses. This has emboldened the gau rakshak vigilante groups,” Mahato told Frontline .

Factors that go beyond the “unfortunate mishap” angle are present in relation to the Kolhan incident, too. Vikas Prasad and Gautam Prasad had gone to Kolhan to inspect a piece of land where they had planned to set up a business with multiple objectives, including facilitation of construction activity and printing. They too were reportedly confronted by a mob on suspicion of they being child-snatchers, following which they called Ganesh Gupta to help them convince the mob that they were not kidnappers. Here too, investigations have shown that there were some people who were opposed to the business venture that Vikas Prasad and Gautam Prasad were trying to set up.

The advocate Nishant Akhilesh, national general secretary of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), which has undertaken a detailed inquiry into the incidents and is in the process of preparing a report on them, is of the view that there is more to both the Rajnagar and Kolhan incidents than meets the eye. “The elements of business rivalry and past hostilities on the part of some in the lynching mob cannot be ruled out. At Shobhapur, the added element of communal hostilities was also latent. Halim was apparently grilled a couple of weeks ago by some Hindutva activists about his dealings in the beef trade. While there may not be a direct connection between this and the killing, the findings of our inquiry suggest that those who had these vested business interests and rivalries made use of the climate of widespread suspicion and rumour-mongering on child-snatching to infuriate the mob and obtain their objective. Clearly, the way things developed, things fell into their hands. The fact is that child-lifting rumours are part of Jharkhand’s social scenario almost every summer. There have been instances in the past too when such rumours have been exploited by organised gangs to usurp land from old people by lynching them. The modus operandi would be to brand old people as child lifters and kill them. Many old women get branded as witches before they are killed. However, it seems this time around, it came in handy for these groups involved in trade rivalries.”

Akhilesh also told Frontline that while the suspicions on business rivals were aired by people of the area, the PUCL was not in a position to mention those involved, but it had demanded a thorough criminal investigation by appropriate agencies so that the truth was not brushed under the carpet.

Sections of the investigating teams and the NGOs inquiring into the incidents highlight the fact that 18 police personnel and two officers had stood watching as mute spectators when the lynching took place and point out that this too could be because of influential local players being part of the mob.

At the time of writing this report, departmental action had been initiated against some of these police personnel and cases had been lodged against more than 50 people involved in the incidents. For the record, the police and the district administration have maintained that they have not been able to identify a Hindutva right-wing plot. They have also said investigations are continuing. Chief Minister Raghubar Das, on his part, has stated that the lynching incidents were part of a larger conspiracy to discredit and tarnish the image of Jharkhand and the State government. He is also of the view that this could be a ploy to drive away potential investors from the State.

While this bandying about goes on at the level of the government, gau rakshak groups in other parts of north India consider the Shobhapur episode as an important step in achieving greater authority and hegemony for their brand of Hindutva in the larger social and political space.

Talking to Frontline , Nagendra Kumar, a Rashtriya Gau Raksha Dal operative in Moradabad, said that the developments in May, including the Jharkhand lynchings and the Union government’s decision to ban the sale of a clutch of animals, including the cow, the buffalo and the camel, for slaughter at cattle markets has given a fillip to their brand of Hindutva politics.

Evidently, this means, as some of Kumar’s associates operating in the western Uttar Pradesh-Haryana border affirmed, greater pecuniary benefits to the gau rakshaks’ collective across several north Indian States.

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