Inside the Riot Machine
n August 3, 2016, policemen of the Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) stationed at Meerut in western Uttar Pradesh had a strange task at hand: to dig 27 ditches.
The carcasses of cows had surfaced in Muzaffarnagar, a neighbouring district. This was a concern on any day in communally sensitive UP, where more than three-fourths of the people are Hindus who believe cows to be sacred. But on this particular day, thousands of Kanwarias — Hindu devotees who carry home water from the river Ganga — would walk past the carcasses on the way to their villages.
District officials were alarmed enough that they rushed the 24 members of the PAC, a special force usually reserved for major disturbances, to bury 27 dead cows.
Dead cows, as a senior police official told HT, were a “sure-shot recipe” for a communal riot. “Had any Kanwaria seen that sight, we would have ended up digging many more ditches to bury humans,” he added.
The cow has become a unique flashpoint in UP, accounting for nearly a fifth of all communal incidents between January 2010 and April 2016, according to HT’s investigation of police complaints from the state’s 75 districts. Cow-related incidents have steadily increased since 2012, especially in western UP, part of a pattern of rising communalism across the state.
Desecration, from vandalism to cow slaughter, has proved to be an easy ruse for triggering communal incidents that drive a deeper wedge between Hindus and Muslims in the state. Sometimes an allegation is all it takes: A Muslim man’s lynching in UP last year on suspicion of possessing beef is a gruesome case in point. Yet, many feel justified in fighting over cows.
“Cow is sacred like mother in my religion, an attack on my mother is an attack on me,” said Kamal Dutt Sharma, BJP leader in Meerut and a Gau Rakshak or “cow protector.” He proudly added that he regularly rings up the police with tip-offs he gets from his “sources.”
“If you are a social worker, people will appeal to you for intervention and pass on information,” said Sharma. Such information often leads to charged allegations — of recovery of alleged beef, transportation of cattle, rumors of slaughter — that routinely stir up scuffles and even full-blown violence.
Sharma is only one part of the cow protection machinery that kicks in when rumors about mistreated cows start to circulate. “Whenever a truck is seized with cows, I send my team to spread the message,” said Seema Chauhan, who heads a local women’s wing in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), often described as the ideological arm of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Chauhan has created a cadre of 25 volunteers whose job is “cow protection.” These volunteers allegedly recover these cows and find them homes in nearby villages. People oblige, Chauhan said, because the “cow is sacred to us.” The primary reason, she says, for the “rise in tension” in her district, Mainpuri, is cow slaughter.
Such zeal isn’t unusual in UP, where cow protection has a long history. Arya Samaj founder Swami Dayananda Saraswati set up India’s first cattle sanctuary and cow protection council in Agra in the late 19th century. In 1966, various cow protection groups banded together to push for a total ban on cow slaughter in the country. Most of the activists hailed from Uttar Pradesh.
Cow politics is once again back in vogue in UP, according to JNU professor Badri Narayan, because of its “potential” to mobilise Hindu nationalists. As next year’s assembly election approaches, the issue has assumed more importance. This year alone, the state police have booked 16 people for cow slaughter under the National Security Act.
Cow politics, Narayan added, resonates especially in western UP. The region’s traditional ballad singers, who were influenced by Arya Samajis, often sang of heroes who died defending cows against wild animals or invaders. These stories, he said, have left a “deep impression in the collective conscience” of western UP.
HT’s analysis of police records bears out Narayan’s argument: over 70 percent of all cow-related cases were registered in UP’s 26 western districts. The animal also remains an emotive issue with Yadavs, a crucial voting block that is concentrated in the west.
The BJP’s success in winning the Yadav vote in the 2014 parliamentary election, according to political scientist Asmer Beg, was “unprecedented.”
“The larger religious identity of the Hindu could overwhelm their caste consciousness,” he said. “(The) cow has emerged as a major rallying force for Hindu consolidation and even appeals to Yadavs.”
Amid this fragile political atmosphere, every act of vandalism has taken on added significance — from desecrated holy texts to beef or pork being thrown onto the premises of temples and mosques respectively.
A mosque in Muslim-majority Aligarh district had its doors broken in July last year. Then someone pasted a message on its walls that said the daily prayers at the mosque, surrounded by Thakur-dominated villages, must be discontinued.
“Places of worship are the softest targets to trigger communal passions,” said Azad Pradhan, a village head of Mian Kasba in Shamli district. “Only if they spill blood now... they can reap vote(s) in the next election season.”
Temples and mosques in neighbourhoods dominated by any one community are particularly vulnerable and dicey. But police said preventing such vandalism or even the subsequent flare-up was a daunting task.
“We check the religious places early in the morning during the festive seasons and mostly in the communally sensitive spots,” a senior official said. “But, it is practically impossible to reach out to interior villages and other locations around the year.”
Web production and graphics by Harry Stevens.
Inside the riot machine
A three-part investigation by the Hindustan Times