Bhiwani killings: How pride intertwines with fear, ‘gau raksha’ and Monu Manesar in Haryana

ByLeena Dhankar and Dipankar Ghose, Manesar/nuh/gurugram
Mar 10, 2023 12:02 PM IST

From grainy videos of high-speed chases to pitched gun battles, from villages that take pride in enforcing a controversial law to villages living in fear of being targeted: Inside the politics of cow protection in the state.

At 3.15am on a cold November morning, the smartphones of crime reporters across Gurugram lit up with the arrival of a WhatsApp video. Most did not stir; those woken up by the ping went back to sleep; the sender was familiar and persistent, and his messages had lost their novelty.

Outside Monu Manesar’s house in Gurugram. (Parveen Kumar/HT Photo) PREMIUM
Outside Monu Manesar’s house in Gurugram. (Parveen Kumar/HT Photo)

The video was grainy and chaotic; the speed of the action lending itself to pixelation. It opened on Golf Course Extension Road in India’s millennium city, where the lights in the glass corporate edifices twinkle all night, where the liquor stores are the size of shopping malls, and the grandeur of apartment complexes designed by Hafeez Contractor mask the dark underbelly within.

Dekh, dekh, dekh, bhaga, bhaga, bhaga,” (Look, look, look, go, go, go) a voice in the car with a steel mesh across the windscreen screams frantically. The man holding the camera never appears on screen, but this is a high-speed chase. About 10 metres in front of the vehicle with the camera, is a pick-up truck, desperately trying to get away, weaving terrifyingly past traffic. There are faint silhouettes of animals in the back of the pick-up. Those inside are ostensibly cow smugglers, indulging in an act outlawed by the Haryana Gauvansh Sanrakshan and Gausamvardhan Act, 2015. The two-minute video ends with the pick-up van lying on its side, its driver having lost control.

Then the video cuts to a man, short, stocky and bearded, dressed in a blue sweatshirt that has “Alaska” emblazoned across it. He talks of a successful operation; how their “teams” intercepted the vehicle; how the smugglers threw three cows off the pick-up van ; and how he and his do this every day to protect the law.

But this man is no policeman. His name is Mohit Yadav, the sender of the 3.15am Whatsapp message. What he prefers being called is Monu Manesar. And what he would like to be known as is gau rakshak (cow protector) extraordinaire. His YouTube page, called “Monu Manesar Bajrang Dal” has 212,000 subscribers and 325 such videos. Most detail high-speed chases; some show a gunfight; some show him and his men standing victoriously next to a group of men they have apprehended, like game they have hunted down. He has been doing this for years. The first video is dated January 18, 2017.

The police only found out, the FIR registered at 7.58am the next morning at the sector 56 police station said, once the daredevilry was over. A sub-inspector on his night rounds received a phone call from the police station that a car belonging to cow smugglers had turned turtle near the Krishna Wine store, and that the Bajrang Dal was at the spot. Three men escaped, the FIR says, and three men, Iklas, Sharif and Waris, were arrested under sections of the law involving cow slaughter, and attempt to murder. They are all in jail.

It was a tidy little case. But that is not always true. This is Gurugram, where once the well-heeled retire into their gated cocoons, “gau rakshaks” morph into gun-toting, car-chasing vigilantes. And when there is the inevitable collateral damage, there is a veil of administration-aided silence.

The gau rakshak

The road that leads to the house in Manesar is narrow and crowded, characteristic of a village straining to be not-a-village. A motorcyclist honks impatiently, navigating past a pile of marketplace garbage on one end, and a disinterested cow. It is 10am on February 22, six days after two Muslim men, Junaid and Nasir from Rajasthan’s Bharatpur, were found charred to death in Bhiwani 219km away. Their families have alleged that the two cousins were kidnapped, beaten and set ablaze by Monu Manesar and four other cow vigilantes, and that the Haryana Police refused to save them even when they could have intervened.

Much has happened since. Manesar has denied any involvement but has gone underground. One Hindu Mahapanchayat threatening the Rajasthan Police against arresting Manesar has already been held. Another is scheduled for later in the day.

Inside the modest courtyard of the home, there are a group of men, sitting on plastic chairs, or a stool, next to an open chulha. Behind where they sit are two rooms that have bolts on the outside. Monu Manesar, they say, may or may not be inside them. There is both fear and bravado. “Sher hai sher (He is a lion). Lions do not hide. He will emerge when he has to,” says one man, identifying himself as an uncle.

The son of Om Prakash, a private school bus driver, Monu Manesar was born here in the year 1995; he was married here at 19; and it is here that he is bringing up an eight-year-old son. To the right of the main gate is a two-storey building that has four shoebox rooms, rented out to daily wage labourers that pay him 2,000 a month. “That is his primary source of income,” says Om Prakash, the former sarpanch of the village. “They say he is rich, but his life is dedicated to service of the cow,” he says, pulling away a faded cloth partition in one corner of the courtyard. Inside there are two cows, and bales of hay.

One man talks the loudest, and with the greatest sense of pride. Dharmendra Yadav is the former president of the Haryana Gau Rakshak Dal, and has been “saving cows” for close to two decades. Thin moustache across his lip, and a steely glint in his eye, he is in a hurry. He wants to leave for the second Hindu mahapanchayat scheduled for that afternoon. In August 2013, Yadav says he and a group of men “apprehended” a group of cow smugglers outside the Government Polytechnic Education Society College in Manesar. Then a first year student, Monu Manesar watched the commotion with a burning curiosity. “I remember that day. He asked questions about how we work, and how Gau Rakshak Dal’s operate,” Yadav said.

Also read: India should rein in cow vigilante groups

He explained to Monu Manesar that almost every village in Gurugram, Nuh and Manesar have representatives of these groups that track “suspicious vehicles.” Today, there are close to 500 people who work in their networks. “From that day, he came to every meeting, and came along for cow rescue operations. We wanted someone energetic and dedicated. He was never afraid, and by 2016, he was a full-fledged leader,” Yadav said.

He is more.

Over the last eight years, Monu Manesar has collected a rap sheet of three FIRs, including sections of attempt to murder and criminal intimidation. But he has never been arrested. Yadav dismisses them all as conspiracies; inevitable battle scars from a fight to protect the Hindu way of life.

Yadav talks glowingly, but some in the group shift uneasily. Monu Manesar may not be among the eight names that the Rajasthan Police has announced as suspects, but a close ally, Rinku Saini has been arrested and is in jail. “The Haryana government and the police are using you. They are using you. They are using Monu. What will you get from all this?” Om Prakash shouts out loud with worry.

Yadav, calm and composed, answers quietly. “Monu has done nothing wrong. The law is with us.”

The cattle smuggling law

In October 2014, breaking a decade-long Congress stranglehold, the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) stormed to power in Haryana, winning 47 of the 90 seats with 33% of the vote. Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) protégé Manohar Lal Khattar took oath as chief minister. Just over a year later, the state assembly passed the “Gauvansh Sanrakshan and Gausamvardhan Act, 2015” that prohibited cow slaughter, trafficking and consumption of beef in the state, till then governed under the Punjab Prohibition of Cow Slaughter, Act 1995.

Under the new, stringent law, anyone found guilty of cow slaughter is liable to be given rigorous imprisonment ranging from three to 10 years; those guilty of exporting cows for slaughter are liable for rigorous imprisonment for three to seven years; and those guilty of selling beef liable for three to five years of rigorous imprisonment.

The catch is in section 16(1) that deals with the enforcement of the law. The section reads, “Any police officer not below the rank of sub-inspector or any person authorised in this behalf by the government, with a view to secure compliance with the provisions of this act or for satisfying himself that the provisions of this act have been complied may enter, stop and search any vehicle used or intended to be used for export of cows; and enter or search any premises used or intended to be used for the slaughter of cow, and seize any documents regarding activities related to slaughter and the export of the cow.”

Anurag Hooda, deputy district attorney, Gurugram, said, “The literal and strict interpretation of the said section only permits sub-inspector of police or any higher rank police officer or any person authorised by the government to act within the ambit of the said section and permits nobody else.”

In July 2021, the Haryana government notified state- and district-level cow protection task force committees to “give teeth to the act”. At the state level, it has six members – the chairperson as well as the secretary of the state Gau Seva Aayog, the special secretary of the revenue and disaster management department, the special secretary of the animal husbandry and dairying department, an additional director general of police (ADGP), and the additional legal remembrancer (ALR) of the department of legal affairs. In the district, each special cow protection task force has 11 members. Six of these are government officials. But there are five private citizens involved in enforcement – three people nominated by the state Gau Seva Ayog, and two gau sevaks nominated by the deputy commission.

Except, this legal restriction of the number of people that can enforce the law has fallen through the cracks even as the police say they have not even moved to set up these committees.

Kala Ramachandran, Gurugram police commissioner, said, “We are not aware of any such committee.”

Gurugram deputy commissioner Nishant Kumar Yadav added that they have identified no private citizens as part of the committee thus far. “Only officials are part of the task force, and cow vigilantes are not allowed to act on behalf of the police. They are advised not to indulge in any such activity. We will form the task force with private citizens soon, but only after verifying that their names are not part of any FIR,” Yadav said.

That’s for the record, though. Inside a cushy police office in Gurugram, a senior officer admits that there is support extended to vigilantes. It may not be savoury, but it is “practical”. “The first thing to understand is that it is a priority for the state government, and the police, to stop cow smuggling,” he says, asking not to be identified.

In 2021 and 2022, the Haryana Police registered 422 and 400 cases under the cow protection law, arresting 1,437 people, police data shows. Of the 822 cases in all, a huge proportion are registered in Mewat, the district next to Gurugram, which Nuh is part of, with 394 cases. Of the 1,437 people arrested, there have been only five convictions in two years, and no acquittals.

“Arresting people for cow smuggling is not easy. They only operate in the dead of the night, and drive their vehicles at breakneck speed. They are aggressive, burst past barriers, and attack the police. Our teams have been fired upon, stoned from the back of their vehicles, crashed into, with cows launched into the middle of the road. But if we retaliate, there is always a huge hue and cry. So the gau rakshaks do the chasing for us. Sometimes, it is true, things go wrong. Bhashmasur ban jaate hai,” the policeman adds, with a wry smile.

He is referring to the Bhiwani case, and to a demon in Indian myth whose first target after getting powers from a God was the God himself.

But there are more such that have gone unnoticed.

Role of the police

Eight kilometres down a bone-rattling road from Nuh, the village of Hussainpur is still in mourning, a hush over its potholed by-lanes. Close to the centre of the village is a small two-room house with clothes strewn over an unkempt floor. In one corner with a veil over her face is Tasleema Khan, a three-month-old daughter in her arms. She is quiet; her eyes have run dry.

At 10.30pm on January 27, Tasleema’s 22-year-old husband Waris’s cellphone rang. The call was not unusual. He was a car mechanic, and there are tools all over the broken home. He told his wife that a car had broken down, and he was going to attend to a plea for help. She never saw him again.

The next day, at 10am, Waris’s brother Shahid received a phone call from the police, asking him to rush to the Nalhar Medical College in Nuh. Khan was in an accident; the caller said. The next phone call was minutes later. He was dead, the voice on the other end said.

At the hospital, police personnel told Shahid and Tasleema that Waris, and two others, Nafis and Shaukeen, were killed in an accident after their vehicle collided with a pick-up van when they were attempting to evade cow vigilantes. Nafis and Shaukeen had escaped with minor injuries, but Waris was dead. The family protested; Waris was not a cow smuggler, they cried. Inside the vehicle was one injured cow, the police told them.

Three days later, the Nuh superintendent of police Varun Singla said the post-mortem report made it clear that Khan had died of internal injuries sustained in the accident. “His liver had ruptured causing internal bleeding. There was no external injury on his body, including the abdomen. It was the vigilantes who extricated the three suspects from the car following the accident and handed them over to police,” Singla said on January 31, seemingly lauding the samaritans. An FIR, in fact, was registered against Waris and the two other men at the Sadar Tauru police station.

“Look, look, look,” Shahid Khan screams, his voice piercing the silence, shrill with frustration, as he points to some videos on his phone.

In the first, Waris, Nafis and Shaukeen are inside a vehicle, bruises all over their faces. Waris, scared and hurt, can barely speak. He is asked repeatedly, in a loud aggressive tone, where he is from. “Hussainpur,” Waris whispers.

The second video shows a damaged car in the background, and Waris being pushed into a Mahindra Bolero by a group of men. One of them has a rifle in his hand. One man elbows him in the back as he walks.

The third is all of seven seconds long. Kneeling in front of the bonnet of the white mangled car, are a cowering Waris, Nafis and Shaukeen. Around them, standing tall and proud, is a group of eight men as cameras flash in a photo op. To Waris’s right is a man in a black jacket, holding the rifle. To his right, in an orange fluorescent sweatshirt, is a familiar face -- Monu Manesar.

“The vigilantes uploaded these videos themselves on January 28, like they always do, but deleted them later. If my brother died in an accident, how is he bruised but alive, with the damaged car in the background?” Shahid Khan asks.

It is not as if the police did not know. In fact, a complaint that night alleged they were complicit. At 9.37pm on the night of January 28, Imran Fauz Mohammad, another brother of Waris, filed a complaint that HT has accessed, that was entered as a general diary entry number 23 at the Sadar Tauru police station. The complaint alleges that, on January 27, the three men had gone to Bhiwadi to purchase an old car. They were returning home in the morning when, at 5.30am, they reached Khori village. Five or six people from the Bajrang Dal including Monu Manesar were waiting in a Mahindra Bolero, and they smashed Waris’s car with theirs. They pulled out the three men and accused them of being cow smugglers from Mewat. They made Waris and his friends sit in their vehicle at which point a police vehicle arrived at the scene. And in front of the police, the Bajrang Dal men took Waris into the forest and assaulted them. Waris was hurt the most and the vigilantes handed him over to the Tauru police.

Also read | Bhiwani killings: Second mahapanchayat backs Monu, asks police to drop name from FIR

Hours later, Waris was dead. But general diary entry 23 was never made into an FIR.

On February 27, in the wake of the Monu Manesar controversy, the Nuh police launched a fresh probe. Singla said, “A committee headed by ADGP South Range Rewari will conduct the investigation.”

The economy of fear

At the Nuh district court, like most other advocates, Tahir Hussain Ruparya has no office. He operates out of a workstation that has a wooden desk and a few chairs, under a tin shed. He is the man who those accused of cow smuggling come to; a man who says he is unafraid of the consequences. “I get three distress calls a week,” he says.

Ruparya has developed a system; negotiate with the gau rakshaks. For cow vigilantism, he says, is an industry. “They first register cases against cow smugglers and then strike a deal to remove their names from the FIR. I know of at least 35 such cases where these cow vigilantes have given affidavits in court that the names mentioned in the FIR are innocent. My clients have paid them between 4 lakh and 10 lakh in the past, and Monu Manesar is the kingpin of this extortion gang,” Ruparya says.

HT has reviewed at least two affidavits that suggest this.

On October 12, 2020, for instance, the Punjab & Haryana high court was adjudicating the bail hearing of an alleged cow smuggler. The allegations he faced are consistent with the pattern of cases filed by vigilantes. The FIR, filed by a man called Manoj, who identified himself as a Bajrang Dal worker, said that at 2am on October 9, 2019, he and three other men, including Monu Manesar were on cow protection duty. They spotted another car with no number plate, ostensibly loaded with cows, and gave chase. Cars collided, cows were thrown, Monu Manesar was even shot in the chest, but survived.

But the bail application before the high court records, “During investigation the alleged injured namely Mohit @ Monu had suffered an affidavit that out of the aforesaid three persons, two of them were not involved in the case despite the fact that their names have been specifically mentioned in the FIR.” The man was given bail.

Kulbhushan Bhardwaj, Monu Manesar’s lawyer said that he gives these affidavits, “only after realising those people are innocent.” “Initially when he lodges the complaints, he is not sure of the names. But the investigation brings clarity, which is why he submits affidavits to ensure no innocent person faces trial. The allegations that he takes money are baseless. He has never taken a single rupee,” Bhardwaj added.

Another 28-year-old man who claims to have paid 5 lakh to cow vigilantes said that he did so under threat to his life. “Monu Manesar is the kingpin of the gang. They pressure family members to pay protection money. If you don’t pay, they harass and accost you with the help of the police. Even if we have buffaloes they say ‘cows’. There is a sense of terror in our community every day. And this is how they get their information. People that are afraid of them are asked to keep the vigilantes notified of moving vehicles that have not paid protection money. Sab dhanda hai (everything is a business),” he said.

Former Haryana CM Bhupinder Singh Hooda calls these incidents the “failure of the BJP government”.

“Who allows these gau rakshaks to take the law in their own hands? Who has given them the power to use weapons? Despite the cow protection law, even smuggling and slaughter is on the rise. It feels like a free-for-all,” he asked.

Jawahar Yadav, officer on special duty (OSD) to chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar said the government has not given powers to vigilantes to assault people or work on behalf of the police. “The young generation is fascinated by social media and records videos for publicity. We are planning an awareness drive with do and don’t sessions for cow vigilantes. Anyone found indulging in illegal activity, strict action will be taken,” he said.

Back in Hussainpur, an argument has broken out. The voices are low – this is a house still in mourning – but tempers are high. One visitor to the home, attempting to find some solace, has found a silver lining. The discovery of the charred bodies of the two men from Rajasthan has revived some hope for justice; at least journalists are arriving at the house; at least a fresh probe has been ordered; at least their voices are being heard. A family member responds with three questions; questions that have no answers.

“One month has passed since Waris died, but has an FIR been registered? Twenty days have passed since those bodies (in Haryana) were found: has Monu Manesar even been questioned? You talk of justice. Can there be justice when there is no rule of law?”

Nobody answers. Tasleema Khan’s widow stares at the floor, glass-eyed. There it is; that veil of silence.

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