Wednesday, May 31, 2023

When Cow Protection As State Policy And Cow Vigilantism Go Hand In Hand

Cover Story/Uttar Pradesh

When Cow Protection As State Policy And Cow Vigilantism Go Hand In Hand

In Uttar Pradesh, the cow, and its progeny, an animal essential for the rural economy, has transformed into a symbol of distress for both Muslims and Hindus.

Surviving a Mob
Surviving a Mob Photograph: Suresh K. Pandey

The fields of Madapur–Mustafabad fragment into the bright colours of mustard, tall sugarcane plants and lush wheat crops. Samaydeen’s glistening face, covered with thick, white beard blends seamlessly into this tranquil rural landscape in Uttar Pradesh’s Hapur district.

More than four years ago, however, this site witnessed a brutal mob lynching in broad daylight. “They thrashed me so badly I had no hope of coming out alive. It was kudrat ka karishma (a miracle of sorts),” says Samaydeen, recalling the horror.

On June 16, 2018, Samaydeen, a farmer, was gathering fodder for cattle in his fields when he noticed a man, later identified as Qasim, who was being chased by a mob from neighbouring Bajhera Khurd village, headed towards him. They were thrashing Qasim mercilessly. Samaydeen tried to intervene. “I asked why were they beating him? What was the matter? They screamed back, ‘This man slaughters cows’,” recounts Samaydeen. The mob did not appreciate his intervention and assaulted him as well with lathis, kicks and punches, while throwing communal slurs at him. They pulled at his beard.

“They started accusing me, too, of cow slaughter,” says Samaydeen. He had to spend many days recovering in hospital before he could walk again. “My head cracked, my ears ruptured, both arms and a leg got fractured, ribs were injured and my skin had deep abrasions at many places.”

Qasim, however, was not as fortunate. He succumbed to his injuries.

Killed for No Reason
Family members of Qasim, Photograph: Suresh K. Pandey

While Samaydeen and Qasim’s family maintain that the mob falsely accused them of cow slaughter, police had initially dismissed it as a scuffle between two sides over a motorbike collision. Qasim’s family says he was primarily a petty goat trader, who made meagre earnings at local markets.

Last week, when I met Samaydeen, a police security guard followed him wherever he went. A constant reminder of the brutal episode which became one of the defining images of cow vigilantism. “Now, I have to be alert when I am outside, in the field,” he says.  

The brutal lynching was captured on camera and widely circulated on social media, bringing condemnation for the state police whose three personnel were seen walking with the mob dragging an injured and bloodied Qasim. A few kilometres away in Pilkhuwa town, Qasim’s family, including his widow Naseem and four little children, still live under the shadow of the murder. “He was like a father to me,” says Saleem, who sells fruits on a cart for a living. His eyes well up as he remembers his brother. “He had nothing to do with cows. He never had any altercation in his life. Such a decent man,” he says. As the case drags on in a local court, Saleem hopes the law punishes the accused.

Prem Singh, a progressive farmer from Banda, feels the BJP government does not want to provide a long-term solution to the crisis around the cow.

Held sacred by millions of Hindus, the cow has for decades been a political animal in the country, more so in the communally sensitive Hindi belt. Hindu right-wing groups have consistently used it as a weapon to persecute and demonise Muslims on false allegations of beef eating. The Hapur incident, preceded by the lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq in Dadri in 2015 over rumours of cow slaughter, provides us a glimpse into the bloody consequences of the resurgence of aggressive politics over the cow. Laws and rules banning slaughter of the cow, and sale and purchase of beef returned to the political lexicon in the recent years.

In Uttar Pradesh, the cow, and its progeny, an animal essential for the rural economy, has transformed into a symbol of distress for both Muslims and Hindus. While Muslims fear they could be lynched or even jailed under stringent laws on mere suspicion of cow slaughter or trading, farmers, majority of them Hindus, are bearing the brunt of the stray cattle menace and suffering losses owing to damage to their crops.

Observers say that the aggressive endorsement of cow protection through state policies and divisive rhetoric go hand-in-hand with mob vigilantism to propel the animal back into the mainstream political consciousness of the state since 2017. Author Dhirendra K. Jha, who has written extensively about the RSS–BJP politics over the decades, says the “climate of impunity created by the government has emboldened” both vigilante groups and party cadres. Once the BJP came to power, it brought in stricter laws against cow slaughter, points out Jha. “Their cadre, emboldened by this, tries to implement the law as per their own wish. They are not afraid. They know the police, the state and the law are on their side,” he says.  

A stray cattle in Pilkhuwa Photograph: Suresh K. Pandey

In December 2018, police officer Subodh Singh was among two persons shot dead during mob violence that erupted in Syana in Bulandshahr after right-wing groups linked to the ruling party alleged cow slaughter in a village and brought the carcasses to a police outpost in a tractor trolley. Incidentally, Singh had been the investigation officer in the Dadri lynching.

Bajrang Dal activist Yogesh Raj, allegedly the main conspirator in Singh’s killing, was elected to the Zilla Panchayat in 2021, while out on bail. In fact, even in the Hapur lynching, an accused after being released on bail bragged publicly about the violence, while in Dadri, the body of an accused was draped in the tricolour in his village after he died of a disease in 2016.

In several cases, even the role of the police has been subject to severe criticism and allegations of extra judicial measures by them. There have been several instances where police have shot men accused of cow slaughter and smuggling in what it terms as ‘encounters’. A case in point is the killing of Zeeshan Haider Naqvi, a farmer from Theetki village in Saharanpur. Naqvi was murdered in cold blood by 12 policemen in September 2021 alleging that he was involved in cow slaughter. His family members, however, refute the police claim and maintain that Naqvi was picked up from his home by the men in khaki.

In line with RSS ideology and strategy, the Yogi government effectively tried to appease the Hindu consciousness by shutting down ‘illegal’ abattoirs soon after coming to power. It also directed strict implementation of the anti-cow slaughter law and enforced the stringent National Security Act against those accused of harming the cow.  

However, the government is accused of arbitrarily using the law to punish members of a particular community. In 2020, the Allahabad High Court observed that the Uttar Pradesh Prevention of Cow Slaughter Act, 1955 was “being misused against innocent persons”. “Whenever any meat is recovered, it is normally shown as cow meat (beef) without getting it examined or analysed by the forensic laboratory. In most of the cases, the meat is not sent for analysis,” Justice Siddharth had said then.

Since 2017, Adityanath has presented himself as the saviour of the cow. However, his rule also coincided with the worsening menace of stray cattle in the state. A ‘side-effect’ of successful cow protection, as BJP UP spokesperson Rakesh Tripathi puts it.

Experts say that the collapse of local cattle markets, curbs on transportation of cattle, shutting down of ‘illegal’ slaughterhouses and the government’s policy of cow conservation, along with increasing mechanisation and falling standards of agrarian living, culminated in the worsening of the stray cattle issue. This was earlier prevalent only in the drought-prone Bundelkhand region as ‘Annapratha’, the tradition of abandoning unproductive cattle.

The BJP has tried to project the stray cattle issue as a victory over illegal smuggling and slaughtering of cows. It claims that it halted the illegal anti-cow practices under previous governments.

Farmers, however, have had a distressing experience. Not only do stray cattle raid their fields and devour and damage their crops, in many instances, stray bulls have also attacked villagers, sometimes fatally. “This government did the
unthinkable. It turned the holy cow into an enemy for the farmer. We are now forced to keep vigil and sometimes even threaten violence to the animal to save our hard-earned crops. It is a choice between feeding our children or the cow,” says Bhagwan, a farmer from Bulandshahr, echoing the larger sentiments of the agrarian community.

Mahendra Kumar Singh, a political science professor at the Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Gorakhpur University, however, praises Adityanath for tackling the issue of both illegal slaughtering of cows and the resultant stray cattle menace. That politics over the cow has witnessed a resurgence in Uttar Pradesh under Adityanath, the head priest of the Gorakhnath Mutt, should come as no surprise, says Singh. “Gau rakhsha (Cow protection) is the commitment of his peeth. It was expected that if any person from the Gorakh peeth became chief minister, he will work for it,” Singh adds.

Despite the wide impact of the stray cattle menace as well as the economic cost of the shutting down of cattle markets, the BJP did not pay any electoral cost for it. In the 2022 assembly election, when the issue was its peak, the Samajwadi Party took the stray cattle issue head on with its chief Akhilesh Yadav even labelling Adityanath’s government as “Baba, bull and bulldozer Sarkar”. The stray cattle menace provided the Opposition a window of opportunity to link itself with the otherwise precarious issue of cow welfare, which has the potential to polarise Hindus.  

If voted to power, the SP promised it would provide a compensation of Rs 5 lakh each to the kin of those who died after being injured by stray bulls. Concerned that the stray cattle issue might blunt his narrative among farmers, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in an election rally, promised farmers that he would introduce a new policy to tackle it if the BJP retained power. The government would make the dung of the stray cattle lucrative for farmers, Modi had said. While the scheme is yet to be launched, the Yogi government is already running three schemes for cow conservation and for stray cattle, including one in which farmers would be provided incentive to adopt stray cows.

So far, according to a government spokesperson, 9 lakh destitute cattle heads have been provided shelter. The government had earlier also launched a “Sex Sorted Semen”, a sex selection scheme under which chances of cows delivering a female calf are as high as 90–95 percent, thereby aiming to reduce the population of stray bulls.

Prem Singh, a progressive farmer from Banda, feels the BJP government does not want to provide a long-term solution to the crisis around the cow. “Buying gobar (cow dung) is no solution. More cows are dying in gaushalas (shelters) today than they were being slaughtered. If cow doesn’t remain a problem, who will vote for them?” he asks.

Tripathi, on the other hand, admits that more needs to be done both administratively and socially to tackle stray cattle. However, he dismisses all political criticism around it. “What alternative model does the Samajwadi Party have, except sending animals to illegal slaughterhouses?” he asks.

On January 22, a Chief Judicial Court in Saharanpur ordered to register an FIR against all 12 policemen, including a Muslim, involved in the killing of Naqvi after the Allahabad High Court intervened, justice eludes other victims of cow vigilantism in the state as elsewhere in the country. It may be recalled that after a spate of mob lynching across the country, the Supreme Court had in 2018 directed the Union government to frame a law to stop the menace. However, only four states have framed such a legislation and Uttar Pradesh is not one among them.

(This appeared in the print edition as "The UNHOLY MENACE")