“Mahindra pic up no. HR 61A 7**0 gauon ko leke ja rahi hai jo hamse Naraingarh ke paas se gum ho gayi hai.” (A Mahindra pick-up is taking away cows, we lost track of it near Naraingarh.)
“100 nmbr par viti kro ji.” (Call the police wireless on 100.)
“Pakdooow!” (Catch them!)
At a little after 10 pm on the rainy night of July 14, a group of cow vigilantes hurtled down a highway in Haryana’s Ambala district. They were chasing a pick-up van filled—so they say—with cows. As the van speeded away, her pursuers issued a social media SOS. Their message landed in a WhatsApp group run by Yamunanagar-based cow vigilante, 28-year-old engineering graduate Rohit Chaudhary. Chaudhary’s gau raksha dal (GRD), or cow protection group, is one of Haryana’s 114, with scores of gau-bhakts, or cow-worshippers, on speed dial. Gujarat has 200 such vigilante groups, and they are sprouting in Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan.
At a primal level, these groups seek to simply terrify anyone dealing with the ‘holy cow’. But look deeper, and an insidious cocktail of business and religion emerges. Economic terrorism has been introduced by the targeting of anyone who deals with cattle, cattle skin or animal byproducts. GRDs are out to deprive some of India’s largest (and poorest) communities—many of them Dalits and Muslims—of their traditional trade in animals and animal products. There have been incidents all over north India in recent months. The message spreads via horrific WhatsApp videos. That’s how Dalits in Gujarat remain up in arms against gau rakshaks who viciously beat up cow-skinners in Una town.
The vigilantism is spreading. In Punjab and Haryana, GRDs have brought prosperous elite-caste Hindu merchants to their knees by levelling false charges of trading in cow byproducts. Businessmen narrate how GRDs function like organised extortion rackets. Many who refuse to bribe cow protectors have had to shut shop. Even hides of fallen cows headed for tanneries in UP are unsafe. GRDs, aided by police, routinely extort wayfarers in gau mata’s name. Where do the cattle GRDs ‘rescue’ from ‘smugglers’ end up? Why, in gaushalas (cattle shelters) they own, or in animal hospices that get state patronage or donations from an unsuspecting or acquiescing public.
Gau rakshaks are depriving some of our poorest communities of their age-old professions.
The hullabaloo is over cattle being ferried around, whether for dairying or slaughter. What’s forgotten is that 60 per cent of the value of cattle is for other uses—there’s leather for domestic and industrial use, glue from bones, collagen and elastin for the cosmetic industry and so on. Most god-fearing consumers would be surprised at the number of daily products they use that have come from dead bovines (see graphic). This is worsened by GRDs also attacking buffalo, goat and even chicken transporters and processors, as they aim to impose vegetarianism and capture the cattle trade. The GRDs are wrecking a whole network of downstream industries, like tallow manufacturers who provide raw material for soap. The chain of production that yields cattle products provides subsistence to millions—livestock producers (farmers, dairies), traders, butchers, wholesale meat dealers, retailers and dealers in industrial products.
The cow’s holiness is just a ruse. What’s going on is a takeover bid of industrial proportions, at gunpoint.
Nights Of Long Knives
What Yamunanagar’s Chaudhary did that July night shows up GRDs’ violent tactics, while the state turns a blind eye. “We have our network of khabris (informants) just like the police,” says Chaudhary, who claims to be an RSS member. “Some of our informers are cattle smugglers themselves, who snitch on rivals for alcohol, money or to settle personal scores,” he told Outlook.
Businessmen who refuse to bribe cow protectors have had to shut shop in Punjab and Haryana.
After each successful raid, cow vigilantes post photos, posing with guns, sticks and captured cattle on social media. These videos help establish them in the gau raksha pecking order and lure new members. Fiercely committed gau rakshaks are also ‘imported’ from other states to ‘patrol’ highways in SUVs with blazing blue beacons, blaring police sirens and windscreens declaring ‘GAU RAKSHA DAL’. They carry guns, sticks, iron rods and equipment to barricade roads. They even fence their windscreens with iron grills, as if prepared to go into ‘battle’. The legality of this is hazy. Often, policemen pose with gau rakshaks and conduct joint raids. The GRDs also inform the police on cattle movements in the rural north.
Chaudhary explains that each GRD sticks to demarcated ‘areas’. He ‘controls’ 75 km from Hathnikund to Karnal along the Yamuna bordering Saharanpur in UP, a traditional cattle-trade hub. He claims to have conducted dozens of raids over three years and having ‘saved’ a hundred cows. “We are fighting a war and don’t have as many members or money as we can. Eight out of ten cow smugglers are Muslim but some Hindus are bad too,” he says.
Swapnil Shinde, a worker at a leather treatment plant in Sangli district, Maharashtra
Though Haryana and other states do have a ban on cow slaughter, gau rakshaks, as noted above, are going after buffalo traders too, riding on a growing impunity. In predominantly Muslim Mewat region, which spans Rajasthan and southern Haryana, cattle traders report having to pay hefty bribes to gau rakshaks or risk losing cattle on charges of cruelty to animals. “Gau kasam, we consider the cow our mother but even buffaloes should not be slaughtered. Hindus don’t believe in killing any life,” Chaudhary insists. This is bitterly ironic, for this very April Chaudhary was accused in the mysterious death of a cattle trader named Mustain Abbas, from Saharanpur, UP.
“Cruelty against animals is an important aspect of law. Buffalo traders can be caught for it.... Mewat is fertile; they can eat vegetables.”
Bharti Arora, Head, cow protection force, Haryana
Abbas was headed home with two oxen in his white pick-up truck when Chaudhary’s gang waylaid him past midnight near Kurukshetra. A tractor was parked across a road, creating a naka or roadblock. Abbas’s little truck tried to flee but was stopped by another naka, fashioned out of iron nails, with local sympathisers’ help. As Abbas’s van approached, Chaudhary fired four rounds from his companion’s double-barrel. “Only in the air,” he says. “And they were blanks.” Abbas’s family says their son never returned. Next time he was seen, around 25 days later, he was dead, floating face down in a Kurukshetra drain. “Abbas went to buy oxen that we use for farming. Why did they have to kill him,” asks Tahir Hassan, his distraught father. Hassan says he identified his son, who had gunshot wounds, from a tooth cavity and a mole below his chest.
But Kurukshetra SP Simardeep Singh says it isn’t certain if Abbas was present that night. A DNA and viscera test report is awaited. “Only police can conduct raids,” Singh agrees. “If gau rakshaks do it, it’s illegal. We tell them this,” he says. “We avoid joint operations. We only take information on cattle movement from them.” The incident is now being investigated by the CBI on a High Court of Punjab and Haryana order, which also says gau rakshaks enjoy police, administrative and political patronage.
“We got information of Abbas’s vehicle through informants, so we had set up a naka. A fellow gau sevak called the police. We regularly conduct joint operations with them,” Chaudhary boasts. But now he acknowledges the murkiness in the gau rakshak world. “I did so much for Hindu society. I broke the back of Muslim cow smugglers. But Hindu traitors and some rakshaks take bribes from Muslim smugglers and let cows get slaughtered,” he complains. Chaudhary’s calculations were simple. “One captured truck means a smuggler loses Rs 1 lakh. That’s Rs 60,000 worth cattle, Rs 10,000 lawyers’ fees and sundry expenses on fuel, hiring pick-ups etc,” he says. “One or two raids on a trader and he’s finished.”
Cow prices have fallen, with buyers terrified. Punjab farmers now let loose cows on roads.
One day, Chaudhary WhatsApped a photo of a big white torch, the kind gau rakshaks use to blind drivers of oncoming trucks, cracked and smeared with blood. Minutes later, he WhatsApped another photo, of a bleeding hand, symbol of the gau raksha enterprise. Days later, Abbas’s cousin Ali Akhtar also sent pictures of Chaudhary on WhatsApp. He says he found them on Facebook days before Abbas was himself found dead. In one, Chaudhary and his group stand jubilantly before a white pick-up van. His family says it is Abbas’s pick-up.
Chaudhary also took his ‘rescued cattle’ to a gaushala, from which he resigned this month, possibly under duress since the CBI probe. His unnamed benefactors took his SUV away. He says he has retired from gau raksha. “I’ll dedicate myself to Ma Bharti.”
New Business Model
Madan Mohan Chhabra in Kurukshetra is a VHP veteran with enormous experience of ‘raids’. “If a village has a gau bhakt, everybody will know whom to inform about smugglers’ movements. Once we get this information, our yuva karyakarta gather. We also call people from Punjab,” he says. Identifying ‘genuine’ cattle traders from the nefarious ‘taskars’, or cattle thieves, is being elevated to an art by gau rakshaks like Chhabra. “Genuine transporters show their documents and stop for checks.”
“India’s cow population is falling because of Hindu right-wing groups. They are mixing business and religion, creating paranoia.”
Haji Qureishi, Leading trader
Chhabra is also associated with a gaushala which, he says, is run by two policemen. “People should know about the health benefits of gau mutra and gobar (urine and cow dung). Without this, solely on the basis of milk and ghee, one cannot make the cow economically viable,” he says, admitting that the desi cow does not give enough milk to justify the expenditure on her care. He holds up examples of commercial organisations that have cropped up in recent years, to produce and market cow’s urine and cow dung as an FMCG product.
This demented world is where hapless cattle traders and other merchants in animal products venture, should they wish to survive. Strict anti-pollution rules bar commercial vehicles within city limits from dawn to dusk, so most commerce is by night. “But the moment we hit the road, gau raksha people lie in wait. They catch us at toll gates, beat us and take our buffaloes,” says Mohd Iqbal, a cattle trader of Ghasera in Mewat.
Dalit boys in Una being beaten up by gau rakshaks
Ghasera has over 500 cattle traders who deal solely in buffalo—landless Muslims here know no other trade. That is why, despite repeated beatings by gau rakshaks, men like Mohd Vakeel continue to ferry buffaloes to Delhi, UP, Rajasthan, Himachal and Punjab. Vakeel was last thrashed by a GRD last month on the Delhi-Gurgaon highway. Fifty men surrounded him, letting him off for Rs 2,000. Once, he was stopped at Delhi’s Ashram flyover, where police extorted Rs 5,000.
Employment in the leather industry is falling, with tanneries closing down.
“Ever since Modiji has come, gau rakshaks are angry with us. Nobody touched us before.... We take newly-born and young cattle and we take milch cattle too. Par gau rakshak hamari bhains ki bhi gai bana detey hain (cow-protectors turn even our buffaloes into cows). We don’t deal with cows now. If we do, can you imagine what they will do to us?” asks Vakeel. One May night, an SUV full of gau rakshaks chased Ghasera’s Mohd Iqbal’s van. His son, with several others, was headed for Faridabad with buffaloes. The SUV overtook them at Manesar and forced them to a halt. After thrashing them, the gau rakshaks made off with 17 buffaloes and calves worth Rs 5 lakh, which were deposited at an animal shelter over charges of cruelty during transport. Iqbal has spent Rs 60,000 trying to release them, unsuccessfully, despite a favourable court order.
Buffalo transport doesn’t break any cow protection law. Here a different strategy seems to be under way. A perusal of roughly a dozen FIRs filed around Mewat since February 2015 shows cattle traders are routinely booked on charges of cruelty to animals. “When they catch us they call us dirty, they say we’re Muslims, cow-killers,” says Mohd Fajinoor, an elderly, bearded trader. “Can’t you tell the gau rakshaks they have wrecked us traders?”
In Haryana, this bizarre, Kafkaesque situation has been handed over to Bharti Arora, a joint commissioner of police, recently appointed head of the state’s new cow protection force. “Some policemen don’t know the law, so they stop buffalo traders. It’s a new law and we are training them on it,” she says. “We tell gau rakshaks not to conduct raids independently or they can face action. Some of them are committed, attached to cows but there are also blackmailers among them.”
“Gau raksha has deteriorated to pure extortion in Punjab. And it is supported by the governments at the Centre and the state.”
Rajiv Aroraa, Businessman
As for buffaloes, she says, “Cruelty against animals is an important aspect of law. Buffalo traders can be caught for it.” She says she knows nothing of shelters where the cattle ends up. Bharti also claims, invidiously, that Mewatis cull ‘500 cows a day’ for meat. “Mewat is a fertile zone,” she says, incorrectly. “Why don’t they eat vegetables?”
Bharti runs a gaushala from her official Gurgaon residence. “My cows are strays or rescued from smugglers,” she says, offering kheer made from the captured animal’s milk. Recently, she ferried most of her ‘rescued’ stock to another shelter in Rewari, where she was earlier SP. Incidentally, Azad Arya—a former classmate of yoga guru Baba Ram Dev, is now vice-president, GRD Haryana—took credit for her appointment. “Bharti Arora ko hamne hi lagwaya hai (we got her appointed). We knew of her excellent work in Rewari and thought she is an achhi ladki,” Arya told Outlook.
Clearly, Arora is closely identified with the GRDs, a strange position for a police officer. Close ties like this ensure protection for vigilante groups and give them legal cover. She’s not alone. Retired IAS officer S.P. Gupta—currently director-general, Haryana Institute of Public Administration—and his wife Shashi run Kamdhenu Gowdham amidst the Aravalis in Mewat’s Bissar-Akbarpur. Her 1,500 cows were also rescued, she says, entirely from ‘smugglers’.
“Most Dalits can’t afford to own tanneries. Big hide traders are privileged-caste Hindus.”
Shashi insists the desi (indigenous) cow prevents or cures cancer, diabetes, obesity and other illnesses. This helps justify her avowed goal—improvement of indigenous varieties. This is a tall order, for, a handful of exceptions aside, desi cows produce 2 to 10 ltr milk, while Jerseys can give 60 ltrs. Shashi expects ‘success’ in nine years—a paltry 15 ltrs for the third generation reared at Kamdhenu. One step towards her target is inexplicable: monthly pravachans or religious lectures held to inculcate gau sanskar or respect for the cow among attendees. “Many people donate generously, even at these pravachans,” Shashi says. An ‘adopt a cow’ scheme, with monthly donations starting from Rs 2,000, is up and running. In turn, some donors get a regular supply of milk, manure and ghee.
“We get no government aid. Let’s see what happens in future,” Shashi says.
Disaster In Dairy Land
Punjab’s commercial dairies started cross-breeding Jersey cows in the late ‘90s, using semen imported from the US. From 20-25 litres, Punjab’s cows now yield 40-65 litres, rivalling European and American yields. “But the Punjab government has encouraged gau raksha dals, whose job is to loot us,” says Daljit Singh Gill, president, Progressive Dairy Farmers Association, a network of 6,500 large dairy farmers. “Nobody can transport anything related to cows in Punjab; even buffaloes are being stopped,” he says.
A leather mandi in Hapur, UP
Higher milk production lowered dairying costs but GRDs don’t get this, or the fact that dairying depends on milk and sale of animals. High-yielding cows from Punjab fetched Rs 75,000 to Rs 1 lakh plus a couple of years ago. Now, cow prices are as low as Rs 60,000. Buyers are too terrified of GRD attacks to risk transportation. Farmers have taken to letting cows loose on roads to avoid GRD wrath. Seven lakh cows are wandering on Punjab’s streets, causing accidents, while the pregnant and newly-foaled cows are dragged away by GRDs to gaushalas.
“Abbas went to buy oxen we use for farming. Why did the gau raksha dal members have to kill him in this brutal way?”
Tahir Hassan, Father of GRD victim
Normally, three lakh cows go to Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh from Punjab every year. “Gujarat’s milk cooperatives come to buy our cows but gau rakshaks catch them, because GRDs don’t know what a cow is. They stop even milk-giving cows,” says Gill. “Their gaushalas have become big business, getting Rs 8-9-10 lakh donations. Everything is free for them, even cows.”
In Punjab, a district collector’s no-objection certificate (NoC) is required to export cows to mandis. “District collectors don’t give NoCs because GRDs gherao them. If a vet’s permission was required, it might make sense, but the CM doesn’t listen to our plea,” says Gill. Five to six thousand cows still leave Punjab every day, Gill says, but only after GRDs extort money, as the new middlemen in this Rs 3,000-crore business.
Another prominent farmer in Punjab says that GRDs are propagating canards against the Jersey cow and other high-yielding breeds, as they try to mix business with religion. The desi cow yields 2 to 10 litres of milk, so a farm will need 5,000 cows to make up the difference with Jerseys—this is something gau bhakts don’t mention while they decry other breeds. It is simply a way to impose their insularity onto the animal kingdom—everything Indian is good and all foreign, bad.
Connecting The Dots
With all this afoot, those at the receiving end are starting to join the dots. They feel the government’s cow protection is biting into their livelihood. “Cow protectors don’t care if cows die. What they dislike is if Muslims and Dalits become prosperous from cow-related trades,” says Satish Prakash, who teaches history at Meerut College.
This is, in fact, easily demonstrated in Shobhapur, a stinking, squelchy suburb of 2,500 hide tanners in Meerut, western UP. Pulling the skin off dead cattle, hiving off its body parts—hoof to horn, intestine to ear—is a task mainly Dalits do. Each part of cattle, in turn, has some economic value. Cow leather is brought to Shobhapur from a raw leather market in nearby Hapur. White ‘Wazirabad’ cricket balls are prepared here.
The shortfall of leather for the Indian shoe industry is met by imports.
“Police extorts Rs 500-1,000 from vans ferrying raw leather to us from the mandi,” says Kishan Kumar, a tanner. “We earn Rs 200-250 a day for back-breaking work. Now, if leather won’t even reach us how will we live?” One cow-hide costs Rs 1,500-2,500 and is processed at tanneries like this one over 25 days. The skinning, wholesaling and transportation take another month. Each worker earns Rs 100 per skin processed. A viable tannery, therefore, needs 1,000 hides in circulation, plus 2,000 to 3,000 as buffer, just to stay afloat. “You need minimum Rs 50 lakh (2,000 hides multiplied by Rs 2,500) to start a tannery. Most Dalits can’t afford this, so the big hide traders are invariably privileged caste Hindus,” explains Prakash.
Workers here sense a paranoia being whipped up over cows, while their own deplorable living conditions are ignored. The leather industry is a focus area for the government’s Make in India scheme, but employment is declining, as over 400 tanning units in UP have shut shop over the last year or two. At the individual level, the pinch is felt by people like Kishan, who have no other skill-set at their disposal. “Now, the Modi government is out to destroy Dalits. They (merchants) send cow hides to us but also fear that we might become prosperous. How many of those rich leather merchants have gau rakshaks ever attacked?” asks Kishan.
The effect of GRDs has been polarising, to say the least. In Uttar Pradesh, a leather tanning outfit owner, a Jain, denies raksha dals have caused any crisis. “The Muslims complain because they dislike everything Modi does,” he says. “It’s because of 2002, and nothing else.”
Muslim traders beaten by gau raksha dal members in Mewat’s Ghasera village
The story plays out differently for Haji Qaiser Qureishi, who heads Asia’s biggest raw leather market in Hapur and an apex organisation of Qureishi Muslims. Around 250 traders, 300 tanneries and 500-1,000 leather dealers visit the mandi every week. Five lakh people depend on it, mostly Muslims and Dalits, but also manufacturers such as fertiliser plants, brush-makers, tallow-sellers, and shoe manufacturers. “India’s cow population is falling because of Hindu right-wing groups. They are mixing business with religion. There’s paranoia over cows,” says Haji. “The cattle business has become an eyesore for the ruling establishment, for it provides gainful employment to the weak,” he says.
A buffalo that cost Rs 80,000 last year now costs Rs 1 lakh in these parts, while the cow has slipped from Rs 50,000 to Rs 10,000. “Nobody wants to keep a cow any longer—people are afraid. We take care not to hurt Hindu sentiments, but when we try to transport cattle you don’t allow us. Don’t Hindu farmers sell off their cows?” Haji asks pointedly.
Roughly, 50 per cent of Indian farmers rear cows and buffaloes. It so happens that these farmers are the primary source of beef (buffalo) exports that fetch India $4.8 billion annually. “There were BJP governments earlier too, but Modi’s style is different. Gaushalas are coming up, and they are dens of corruption. They hand us their dead old cows after drinking up their milk and ghee, and then terrorise us,” says Haji.
As he sees it, the GRD ‘terror’ isn’t the first warning sign for Hapur’s Muslims. The downward spiral started in the 1990s, in the immediate aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition. “From 1977 to 1990, we did business of 1.5 to 2 lakh weekly in leather hides. Now, we’re 25 per cent of that. A further drop risks five lakh livelihoods,” he says. Ironic, for India has 20 per cent of the world’s bovine population, the largest number in the world of goats, sheep, cows and buffaloes.
Indian shoe manufacturers depend largely on fallen animals for cow leather, as most states ban slaughter. But the demand for finished cow leather products is much higher than available supply. So, the shortfall is made up by importing cow leather from Brazil, New Zealand and elsewhere. Puran Dawar, chairman, Dawar Shoes, Agra, and president, Agra Footwear Exporters and Manufacturers Chamber, says, “Cow protection is an emotional issue. It is a kind of constraint.... But, for now, supply of raw leather is consistent with demand.”
Leather industry veteran M. Rafeeque Ahmed, chairman, Council for Leather Exports, explains what’s going on: “The leather industry has been going through an extended slump for two-three years but if demand for leather had been normal then the bans or the gau raksha dals might have impacted supplies. What can be of concern in future is if buffalo leather supplies also falter,” he says.
In other places, the impact is not to be put off for later. “Gau raksha has deteriorated to pure extortion in Punjab, supported by the government at the Centre and state,” says an exasperated Rajiv Aroraa who, until September 2015, had a roaring business in supplying buffalo tallow to soap manufacturers. Aroraa, a devout Hindu, regularly donates to gaushalas in Haridwar.
Then the GRD folks started trailing his tallow tankers, demanding bribes. Seven of Aroraa’s tankers were locked up at police stations since last September. Each was released after a month, sometimes longer, causing tremendous losses. The gau rakshaks would accuse his drivers of ferrying cow, not buffalo, fat. In tests, he always came out clean. So, they charged him with hurting religious sentiment, as one of his tankers was adorned with a picture of a Hindu goddess. “I am against cow slaughter, I am a devout Hindu, but all this talk about cows has started to irritate me. I never ferried beef tallow and I wouldn’t. The gau rakshaks only want bribes—Rs 35,000 per tanker,” says Aroraa.
Two of Aroraa’s drivers wound up in jail during the fiasco and lost their jobs. “Now I don’t run my business, I only fight gau rakshak tormentors in courts,” he says. “Aa gaye achche din—one gau rakshak has demanded Rs 2 lakh from me late in July.” He points out that the businessmen would rather shut shop to cut their losses than deal with extortionists. “I speak out for I am running a legit business. Many, who skim on tax, prefer to shut down or pay up,” Aroraa says. He once had 15-20 employees in places like Patiala, Ludhiana and Chandigarh but he has now kept two or three employees per office.
Many firms—leather traders, tanners, merchants of products from cattle hair or ears, fight shy of speaking out against GRDs for fear of consequences. One such person is a prominent leather goods manufacturer, who wishes to stay anonymous. Once, he railed against GRD attacks on hide transporters, which had caused an immediate 15 per cent dip in raw leather availability. Now, he praises Modi and Make in India on the record but off the record he concedes: “Hindus revere the cow, as every part of a cow is important—like a tree, which is also revered. Cows are to be used fully, optimally, from skin to bone. That’s why they are precious. Gau rakshaks fold their hands before cows but they’re actually harming it. Cow prices are falling, while leather prices are rising. In this situation people get nothing out of the cow, none of its benefits. Only losses.”
By Pragya Singh in Haryana and Uttar Pradesh