Election In Pincodes: Hope and aspiration, in the shadow of vigilantism in Alwar | Latest News India - Hindustan Times
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Election In Pincodes: Hope and aspiration, in the shadow of vigilantism in Alwar

By, Alwar
Apr 17, 2024 06:43 AM IST

In Alwar multiple allegations of extrajudicial assaults have been linked to cow vigilante groups.

The rally is yet to begin, but the sabzi mandi ground in Alwar is buzzing; men in motorcycles with Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) flags tied to their rearview mirrors arrive in raucous droves; organisers mill around the dais, asking the teeming crowd to take their seats; and the occasional slogan rents the air. In that melee of fervour and dust, near the stage, is a wiry man nearing 50, his bushy moustache melting into a thick beard with streaks of white.

Armed with increasingly stringent anti-cow slaughter laws and growing political influence, cow-protection groups have mushroomed across north India. (Parveen Kumar/HT photo)
Armed with increasingly stringent anti-cow slaughter laws and growing political influence, cow-protection groups have mushroomed across north India. (Parveen Kumar/HT photo)

He is dressed in a maroon kurta peeking out from behind a bright saffron scarf. Around him is a small cloud of people, clamouring for attention. Some touch his feet; others just stand, hands clasped together, making small talk. His name is Ram Dayal, the Alwar unit president of the Gau Raksha Dal, the local cow-protection group.

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By 2pm, the programme begins, and the BJP candidate from Alwar, 54-year-old Bhupender Yadav, ascends the stage. Yadav is a leader with national heft — general secretary of the BJP, Union minister of environment, forests and climate change, and a strategist who has led the party’s campaigns in both Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in the past. He speaks once the other men have finished their addresses, launching into an attack against the Congress, calling the party a repository of corruption and responsible for crimes against women. He speaks of his commitment to Hindu values, and his plans to attract investment. By the time he is finished, the crowd is frenzied.

Once the dust settles, and people begin to leave, Dayal is surrounded by a group of around 100 young men, all members of the Alwar Gau Raksha Dal. For most of the year, this group of men, some of them only boys touching 15, have taken it upon themselves to maintain the so-called honour of the revered animal.

They are not alone. Armed with increasingly stringent anti-cow slaughter laws and growing political influence, cow-protection groups — known as gau raksha dals – have mushroomed across north India, their actions considered pious by the faithful, but often veering into vigilantism. And with Lok Sabha elections round the corner, their influence is also spilling into the political arena -- limited to rabble rousing in some parts, but also in mobilising the hardliners on ideological issues. 

In an arc of the border districts of Haryana and Rajasthan where Alwar sits at the centre, multiple allegations of extrajudicial assaults, some resulting in death, have been linked to cow vigilante groups.
In an arc of the border districts of Haryana and Rajasthan where Alwar sits at the centre, multiple allegations of extrajudicial assaults, some resulting in death, have been linked to cow vigilante groups.

Incidents of vigilantism

In an arc of the border districts of Haryana and Rajasthan where Alwar sits at the centre, multiple allegations of extrajudicial assaults, some resulting in death, have been linked to cow vigilante groups. Once night falls, on highways and village roads even in close proximity to the national capital, there is news of high-speed chases of trucks laden with cattle, followed recklessly by armed vigilantes, with or without the police. Alwar has been roiled by some prominent cases of cow vigilante killing in the past.

In April 2017, 55-year-old Pehlu Khan was allegedly attacked by cow vigilantes in Alwar’s Behror, when he and five others were transporting cattle from a weekly market in Jaipur to their village in Haryana’s Nuh. Khan died in hospital, and six of nine accused were acquitted by the Alwar court in August 2019.

A year later, 28-year-old Rakbar Khan was killed, again in Alwar, when he and a friend were attacked while transporting two cows. Khan was assaulted, and handed over to the local police, but he died, with the family accusing the administration of delaying medical attention. In May 2021, an Alwar court held four people guilty of culpable homicide and sentenced them to seven years in prison.

In 2023, the Rajasthan Police booked Monu Manesar or Mohit Yadav, a prominent cow vigilante and a member of the Bajrang Dal who rose to prominence over the last few years, for the alleged murders of Junaid, 35, and Nasir, 27. The bodies of the two Muslim men were found in a charred vehicle in Bhiwani on February 16. Manesar denied his involvement in the deaths.

HT graphic
HT graphic

The Alwar seat

Bordering the communally sensitive Nuh district in Haryana, Alwar has eight assembly segments. The Congress holds five of these, and the BJP three. But in the Lok Sabha elections, it is the latter that has consistently come up on top over the last decade. In 2019 Lok Sabha elections, fuelled by a nationalistic wave after the Balakot strike and the Pulwama attack, Balak Nath, the head of the Baba Mastnath Mutt in Haryana, won by over 300,000 votes.

The seat has followed the larger trend in Rajasthan, which usually backs the party dominant at the national level. In 2004 and 2009, the constituency elected Congress members of parliament — Karan Singh Yadav and Jitendra Singh respectively. In 2014, as the BJP swept to power under the leadership of PM Modi, the BJP wrested Alwar, with Mahant Chandnath — the head of the Mastnath mutt before Balaknath – emerging victorious. He died four years later, but in the 2018 bypolls necessitated by his passing, Alwar switched its loyalty to the Congress, before Balak Nath regained the seat in 2019.

The constituency has a mix of Yadavs, Rajputs, Jats, Gujjars, and Brahmins with a 14.9% population of Muslims. But the largest social group are Yadavs who make up around 15%.

This is reflected in the choice of candidates -- the BJP’s heavyweight Bhupender Yadav facing off against the Congress’s 35-year-old Lalit Yadav, once from the Bahujan Samaj Party but now the Congress’s sitting MLA from Mundawar, one of the eight assembly segments in the constituency.

Despite its proximity to the national capital region and its booming economy, residents in Alwar are dependent on fields of bajra, maize and wheat. Irrigation is a constant source of concern, as is drinking water.

Vikram Yadav, a resident of Alwar city, said that he will vote for whoever assures regular flow of water. “The candidates are promising development but no one is giving specific details that what , when and how things will be done. How will they increase the water supply, how much will be increased and what will be the time period to bring this change. What will we do with the infrastructure and industries if we have to pay 700 for water tankers every day?” he asked.

Another resident Mahesh Gupta, a businessman in Alwar town, pointed to problems of formal jobs and industry to soak in young people, who are sometimes forced to Delhi and its satellite cities. “The government should work for building good affordable schools so that middle class people can afford it,” he said.

Over the past decade, the BJP has successfully married caste dynamics to nationalistic fervour, papering over any local discontent with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity. This time, the local unit is clear -- the Union minister’s candidature is the driving force in the elections. “He is a senior leader who is vastly experienced and people know his commitment to pressing issues of the water crisis and unemployment,” party leader Anil Yadav added.

The Congress is hoping that its local candidate Lalit Yadav would be able to capitalise on his ground connect and community affiliations. Former Haryana chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda said, “His chances of winning are high because he is a local, and multiple communities are backing him. The people of Alwar know him,” he said.

Cogs in the wheel

As this high-profile campaign reaches its crescendo, also working as cogs in the wheel are the hundreds of cow vigilantes who roam the region, blending a mix of faith-based pride and fear to appeal to hardliners. Their influence on the overall results might not be significant -- after all, the BJP won by 300,000 votes in 2019 -- but their actions on the ground add to the “hawa” around core ideological issues such as gau raksha.

Dayal and others say they are active political volunteers. “I stand in support of the BJP because it is the only party that truly values our Hindu beliefs and traditions,” he said.

Every day, when Dayal is not at a rally, he meets his reportedly 500-strong gau raksha dal. They separate into groups, going door-to-door, rallying support for candidates of their choice. There are some, mostly the young under 25, who are in charge of social media — using WhatsApp, Facebook and X, to share posts and mobilise support. There are several dedicated WhatsApp groups of volunteers where members discuss new outreach areas, create and share news articles and videos related to cow protection that are then disseminated.

The more experienced members have created a calendar of public events. The thrust is always the same; the importance of cow protection in Hinduism, and advocacy for even stricter laws to prevent slaughter. “We organise regular meetings to discuss our strategies, recruit new members, and coordinate their activities. These meetings take place every day, sometimes twice a day, depending on logistics,” said 30-year-old Vishvender Singh.

Aftab Ahmed, the Congress MLA from Nuh, said in Alwar, issues of Hindutva and vigilantism are growing in importance. “Alwar has witnessed several incidents of cow vigilantism with some tragic cases such as the lynching of Pehlu Khan. But these incidents also exacerbate existing communal tensions."
Aftab Ahmed, the Congress MLA from Nuh, said in Alwar, issues of Hindutva and vigilantism are growing in importance. “Alwar has witnessed several incidents of cow vigilantism with some tragic cases such as the lynching of Pehlu Khan. But these incidents also exacerbate existing communal tensions."

Aftab Ahmed, the Congress MLA from Nuh, said in Alwar, issues of Hindutva and vigilantism are growing in importance. “Alwar has witnessed several incidents of cow vigilantism with some tragic cases such as the lynching of Pehlu Khan. But these incidents also exacerbate existing communal tensions. This always becomes a political issue and addressing these issues is imperative to foster social cohesion,” Ahmed said.

The BJP said its campaign is focussed on development. “The BJP has devised comprehensive solutions, having engaged in discussions with the central government. Alwar would undergo a significant transformation post-elections,” said Anil Yadav.

Another senior BJP leader, requesting anonymity, acknowledged the support from cow vigilante groups. “While the party does not endorse vigilantism, we recognise the passionate dedication of these groups towards cow protection. Their activism is crucial in mobilising support particularly among conservative voters,” he said.

But there is a flip side.

Fear, a factor

In a tiny bylane of Rajgarh tehsil’s Manaka village, 46-year-old former sarpanch Jamshed Khan sits pensively. The village is quiet and narrow – winding roads meander through clusters of modest, earth-toned ramshackle homes. The streets are unkempt, patches of garbage and mounds of upturned earth lining both sides. Khan points to the squalor around him. As he talks, the subject begins to pivot to fear; a fear that is in their every day, exacerbated by vigilantism and politics. Manaka has around 5,000 residents, a majority of them Muslim. In one home after another, in sheds or open fields, or simply ambling outside homes, are cows.

“Cows have always been a part of our life. They have always helped sustain us. But the situation is such that we cannot buy or sell them, because on the way, we fear we will be waylaid. These vigilantes are basically extortionists, who take money from us, and often seize our cows and sell them somewhere else,” Khan said.

In the courtyard is also 46-year-old Mohammad Ilyas. Eight years ago, Ilyas said, he was assaulted when he was returning to the village after purchasing two cows from Jaipur. “I told them I bought the cattle legitimately. I gave them the phone number of my relative who I bought them from. But they didn’t listen. Luckily there were people around, and they intervened. Since that day, I have never sold or purchased any livestock,” he said.

A third participant, 34-year-old Imran Khan, who runs a small dairy, is shaking with anger. “They are gau gundas (thugs), not gau rakshaks. There are no job opportunities and cow vigilantes have the power to target us and make our lives hell. And now they are campaigning in the elections,” Khan said.

Back at Alwar’s sabzi mandi, Dayal’s supporters are ready to disperse. Before they leave, Dayal has one last word of encouragement, wrapped in caution. Elections are less than a week away, with Alwar going to the polls on April 19. “There is no time to slack,” he exhorts them. “This election is for our gau mata.”

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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    Leena Dhankhar has worked with Hindustan Times for five years. She has covered crime, traffic and excise. She now reports on civic issues and grievances of residents.

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