The killing of a Haryana Muslim dairy farmer who was attacked along with four others in Alwar on April 1 by an alleged right-wing Hindu group while transporting cattle purchased in Jaipur has put the spotlight on gau rakshaks (cow protection vigilantes).
In Rajasthan, they operate under different names – Gau Raksha Dal, which claims to be a national body with presence in 22 states; the Rashtriya Mahila Gau Raksha Dal that operates in Haryana and Uttar Pradesh as well and the Bajrang Dal, the extremist youth wing of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad.
Gau Raksha Dal vice president Babulal Jangid says the body has the biggest network of “cow protectors”, down to the tehsil level. “But we never indulge in violence. Our men call police when they receive information about bovines being transported. Our focus is on saving the cattle; for the smugglers, there is police,” he says.
Jangid claims the Dal has 15,000 workers but they are not an organised group. “There’s no registration, no record on papers, we know each other and operate through contacts,” says the 43-year-old.
The Rashtriya Mahila Gau Raksha Dal, a body of 2,200 women vigilante, is headed by Sadhvi Kamal, called Didi by her supporters. The saffron-robed 39-year-old was thrust into the spotlight recently after she forced the Jaipur administration to seal a hotel for allegedly serving beef. The hotel is owned by a Muslim businessman.
Forehead streaked with vermillion, Kamal also claims credit for a road jam in Chhoti Sadri in Pratapgarh district in June 2016 after a mob thrashed three alleged cow transporters and stripped one of them.
And then there is Bajrang Dal and its parent body, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. It is alleged that the people who waylaid two vehicles carrying cows and calves near Behror in Alwar on the Jaipur-Delhi national highway belonged to these saffron outfits.
VHP state president Narpat Singh Shekhawat denies the charge. “I am going to sue papers which are calling these lumpen members of our group,” he says.
These fringe groups became active after the BJP-led government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi took over at the Centre. They claim to protect cows from being taken to slaughterhouses. Critics, however, accuse these vigilante groups of targeting people, mostly from the Muslim community.
“It’s a business,” says Noor Mohammad, a social activist who works with Meo-Muslims in Rajasthan’s Mewat region, a hotbed of cow smuggling and slaughter. “The gau rakshaks want money. If you pay them, they let you go. Otherwise they snatch it from you and lodge police complaint against you for cow smuggling,” he says.
Rajasthan’s crime statistics appear to buttress Mohammad’s claim.
In 2015, police closed 73 cases registered under the Rajasthan Bovine Animal (Prohibition of Slaughter and Regulation of Temporary Migration or Export) Act, 1995, after they were found to be fake. In 2016, 85 such cases were closed and until February this year, five have been dropped.
On an average, more than one case of cow smuggling is registered daily in the state, Rajasthan Police data show.
In 2015, 543 cases were registered. The number dropped to 474 the next year. This year until February, 95 cases have been lodged under the bovine act.
The Alwar Police registered a case of illegal transport of bovine against the five men assaulted on April 1. “For export of bovine from Rajasthan for agricultural or dairy farming purposes or for participation in a cattle fair, a special permit needs to be issued by the district collector or an officer authorised by him for the purpose. These men from Haryana didn’t have the permit,” superintendent of police Rahul Prakash says.
Kavita Srivastava of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) counters the SP. “They were illiterate dairy farmers. They didn’t know the legalese. Police have no moral authority to book them for smuggling when they had transport permits from a municipal body,” she says.
HT, too, wrote on April 6 that the men had permits from civic bodies to transport the animals.
PUCL has demanded Rs 1 crore compensation to the family of Pehlu Khan, who died in a hospital on April 3, and Rs 10 lakh each for the four who suffered injuries. The organisation has also demanded suspension of Behror police station in-charge and transfer of Alwar SP.
Cattle protection campaign is a milch cow for Hindu nationalist groups, adds Mohammad. “Cows seized during such actions are often found at houses of members of the management committees of gaushala (cow shelters). They happily milk them instead of keeping them at the shelter. The seized cattle are sometimes handed over to the gau rakshaks for paltry sums,” he alleges.