Sunday, Jun 11, 2023

All In The Name Of Cow Protection

Cover Story/Book Extract

All In The Name Of Cow Protection

It is important to understand the depth of the politicisation of the issue of cow protection which, over the last couple of decades, has resulted in the production of violent vigilantes called 'gau rakshaks' (cow protectors).

On Guard
On Guard Photograph: Tribhuvan Tiwari

“Gau Rakshak,” these two words created havoc in India in the last few years. Their existence is not new but the violence they unleashed at a scale was something unheard of. They have not suddenly emerged, but have been emboldened and supported by the new system. Still, there are many questions about their functioning, the pattern of violence, intelligence gathering and the local support system. I decided to explore more on this aspect and visited Western Uttar Pradesh and Haryana areas in April 2021, the worst affected areas by the movement. Earlier, I had met a few gau rakshaks in Maharashtra, and spoken to a few over the phone to understand the functioning.

Most of the gau rakshaks and organisations are scattered all over rural and semi-urban areas. However, they are more organised in semi-urban areas with backing from local politicians, police, etc. A few of them are in just their 20s with a desire to create an identity and have a social inclination. Political parties like BJP give them numerous platforms through their network of organisations to become a member and have the social identity needed. So, all of them are actively involved or attached to some right-wing organisations. The bold types even start their own outfit and quickly climb the organisational hierarchy. They are being called at the various dais as guests, asked to participate in election campaigns and get invited to religious programmes and processions. They also act as a mediator in resolving the personal issues of the locals. As they become known, their social prestige and acceptance go up. With a growing support circle, their violent acts get praised. Their supporters, in return, act as informers for them, passing on the minutest information from the vicinity about Muslims.

Along with unemployed youths, many gau rakshaks hold white- collar jobs in private companies, working as a lawyer and having their own business. The term “gau rakshak” became so glamorous for the right-wing supporters after 2014 that many youths wanted to hold that identity. Apart from Brahmins, they come from Jat, Gujjar, Yadav, Bania, Agrawal, Thakur and Rajput communities. The narrative built over hundreds of years about the cow being the mother of Hindus worked well to attract more people to the movement and gain sympathy for the work. Especially in north India, one cannot question the holiness of the cow. Even the farmers who are suffering from stray cattle problems told me that the Indian cow breed is the real “gau mata” and she should not be slaughtered. But they do not object to slaughtering foreign breeds of the cow. There is a tradition in Haryana of giving one roti to a cow before having the everyday meal. This love for the animal is so deeply rooted among the majority of Hindus that they see nothing wrong in the activities of gau rakshaks. The same thought labels Muslims as cow killers and eaters.

Who Will Bell The Cow
Who Will Bell The Cow Shruti Ganapatye Publisher: Notion Press

The movement also takes shape as per the socio-economic structure of the area. In Muslim majority pockets like Nuh in the Mevat area of Haryana, the movement is very strong. It is easier for Hindus to consolidate all non-Muslims including Dalits by saying, “Hindu Khatare Me Hai” (Hindus are in danger). When I was asking which castes the gau rakshaks belong to, Vinay Joshi,16 a district head of a right-wing youth organisation in Nuh stunned me by saying including Dalits. “Dalits are Hindus and they help us to inform when the Muslims are plying their bovine-laden vehicles for slaughtering.

This area is Muslim dominated and Hindus are in minority. There are 85 villages in the area with no Hindus at all. So, they need to protect their religion,” Joshi who is a lawyer by profession and actively involved in the movement said. He is in his early 30s and started to take part in the movement in 2014. Mewat area could be a classic example of how Dalits are considered Hindu in a numbers game against Muslims. From the Dalit perspective, they are competing with Muslims for the same resources in terms of opportunities and employment. Both come from the same oppressed social strata. But due to the constant hammering of the Hindutva agenda by various communities, Dalits find it convenient to have a bigger identity as Hindus. They hope to get the support of a larger society. Also, Dalits in other regions do not eat beef like Dalits in Maharashtra. So, banning beef does not affect their food habits. It is the erstwhile Mahar caste prominently found in Maharashtra that would consume beef. Intending to remove the stigma related to beef-eating, Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar had asked them to give up the meat of dead cattle.

Vinay Joshi keeps updating me about the seizures, raids and cultural programmes that he attends through WhatsApp messages. When asked if he justifies the violence in the name of cow protection, Joshi said only in “self-defence.” “We keep wooden rods, sticks in self-defence because the cow traders attack us during the night raids,” he said. At least, he admitted the violence because we all have seen gau rakshaks flaunting swords and even rifles in many pictures in the media as if mob lynching or cow protection is some act of bravery. They clearly do not hesitate to adhere to violence because of state protection. This is the difference between the past and the present. They end up enjoying the state’s support.

Every Violence Is Pre-planned

Incidents of mob lynching would make a separate book in itself. But none of the brutal attacks by gau rakshaks is sudden as claimed in the media and others. They are always planned in a systematic manner and a sizeable network is involved in it. They might not know their target in person but Muslims are “the enemy” followed by Dalit and castes related to leather, skinning and slaughtering works. The gau rakshaks use chatting apps like WhatsApp and record videos on mobile to share information on cows. Many of them are active on Facebook and YouTube and keep uploading videos and photos of the raids, seizure, cow service, etc. They are also attached with gau rakshaks in neighbouring areas and districts through these chatting groups. “We divide areas for monitoring and keep in touch with local people like shopkeepers, vendors and anyone who has sympathy for the Hindu religion, to know what’s happening in the area,” Mithilesh Singh from Meerut said. Other people who are part of these groups include police and local politicians. “There is a police branch which cooperates with us and helps in sharing information. We also brief them about any illegal activity,” Vinay Joshi said.

In Haryana, the BJP government has started an official division of police to handle the cases of cow protection. But otherwise also, police act as informants for the gau rakshak groups. There is constant information sharing that takes place in the WhatsApp groups like any other social media group. But these messages are particularly related to religion, cows and politics.

A strong and aggressive Hindutva group in the area which could be Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Bajarang Dal or a little-known outfit takes the lead in the work. The main group members decide the line of action and seek help from other groups. They have internal conflicts, as some would hog the limelight more than others. But on the issue of Muslim bashing, they are together. A section of media supports them to a large extent by circulating news, photos about their seizures and their statements on cow protection programmes.

The network keeps an eye on highways where trucks carry cattle. Even if a Hindu farmer is carrying cattle, he is restricted for checking. Photos, videos and number plates of a vehicle are instantly circulated on the groups if there is any suspicious activity as per the gau rakshak. They inform the neighbouring district groups about the possible entry of a vehicle into their territory. “Even the general meat trucks are labelled as ‘beef ’ without even checking the meat. The gau rakshas do not listen at all, and due to the fear of lynching, the traders and drivers prefer escaping from the scene. It takes days for checking the meat in a laboratory. By that time, the entire seized truck is spoiled,” Waseem Khan, a second-generation meat trader from Mumbai said.

Police taking bribes on highways for carrying cattle is a common experience told by farmers and traders. They further inform gau rakshak who take the call on what is to be done about the cattle. Sometimes, the cattle are seized; sometimes, money is extorted from them. On several occasions, the traders are beaten up badly. “Some time back, a farmer from our village was thrashed by gau rakshak while bringing a bull from Haryana. It takes Rs 10,000 to 15,000 more to bring new cattle from Haryana to our village because we have to bribe police and gau rakshaks at various check points,” Keval  Ram a farmer from western Uttar Pradesh said. The village has a large population of Jats and agriculture is the main source of income. The system has been developed in such a way that gau rakshaks end up doing work which only police are authorised to do. They act as an extra-judicial body by punishing the traders and farmers in the name of instant justice. Therefore, the attacks are never sudden but a planned conspiracy in connivance with the state players.

(This appeared in the print edition as "Who Are Gau Rakshaks?")

Shruti Ganapatye is a Mumbai-based Independent Journalist