Hindu-Nationalist 'Cow Politics' Breed Vigilantes In India

Ever since Narendra Modi became prime minister of India in May 2014, "cow politics" have moved to the forefront across India, especially in those states ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Hindu-nationalist movement to which Modi belongs. 

Vigilante groups known as gau rakshaks (cow protectors) have sprung up in many parts of the country. They have attacked farmers, laborers, and impoverished families for dubious "crimes" such as slaughtering or transporting cows or using or consuming products derived from cows, such as leather or beef.

Muslims have suffered most as a result of this extremist turn. In the last two years, at least 10 Muslim men have been killed by Hindu mobs in similar incidents on suspicion of eating beef or smuggling cows.

Veneration of the cow is not new in India. The cow is associated with a number of Hindu deities, including Krishna, the divine cowherd. There are also many voluntary organizations that care for cows when they are old, such as the Ramachandrapura mutt (monastery) in the southern state of Karnataka, whose mission is to protect and propagate native Indian cattle breeds.

It is only in recent times that the cow has been used as a political tool, leveraged to great effect by the BJP. 

There is no national law against animal slaughter, but India's federal system means that many states have local laws protecting cattle. As of May 2017, 84% of India's states and territories had passed laws protecting cattle, according to the Hindustan Times. This effectively means all but a tiny sliver of India's population now contends with some legislation regulating treatment of cattle. Fully 99.3% of the population is affected. 

As of May 2017, 84% of India’s states and territories had passed laws protecting cattle.

Those found guilty of killing cattle or even transporting them to slaughter face penalties including steep fines and lengthy prison terms. The severity of the penalties varies widely from state to state, with northern states more aggressively persecuting cow crimes. 

Modi’s home state of Gujarat, along India's northeast border with Pakistan, where he was governor before becoming prime minister, has been the most ferocious defender of cows. The Legislative Assembly amended the Gujarat Animal Preservation Act of 1954 on March 31 of this year. The updated law, incredibly and unprecedentedly, will now punish those found guilty of cow slaughter with life in prison - a term previously reserved for murder of a human being. Cow slaughter has also been made a non-bailable offense.

The updated bill also sets out a ten-year imprisonment for transportation, storage or sale of beef. It also calls for permanent forfeiture of vehicles involved in transportation of progeny of cows and beef, and bans transportation of live animals during the night.

The updated law, incredibly and unprecedentedly, will now punish those found guilty of cow slaughter with life in prison - a term previously reserved for murder of a human being.

The turn toward more extreme forms of legislation has been mirrored by the turn to extremism by private citizens in the gau rakshaks. 

In September 2015, a mob entered the house of a villager in Uttar Pradesh and killed 52-year-old Mohamed Akhlaq Saifi on the suspicion of having eaten beef.

In June 2016 a video emerged showing volunteers of the Gau Raksha Dal (Cow Protection Group) forcing two alleged beef smugglers to eat cow dung and drink cow urine. According to reports, Dharmendra Yadav, president of the Gurgaon Gau Raksha Dal, admitted that his group had forced two Muslim men, Rizwan and Mukhtiar, to eat cow dung.

On 11 July, 2016, seven members of a Dalit family in Gujarat's Una town, involved in leather trading, were attacked and brutally assaulted. Four of them were stripped half-naked, tied to a car, dragged for about a kilometer, and then beaten with metal rods and sticks. Their only "crime" was skinning the carcass of a cow brought from a neighboring village. It came to light later that the cow had been killed by a lion. 

A 29-year-old man from Udupi district of Karnataka State was lynched by an alleged mob of right-wing groups for carrying cattle in a van on August 17, 2016.

In March of 2017, a hotel manager was beaten by a mob and his restaurant sealed in Jaipur city in the state of Rajasthan after Hindu vigilantes accused him of serving beef.

The latest victim of the cow vigilantes is Pehlu Khan, a 55-year-old dairy farmer who, along with others, was legally transporting a cow to his village in the state of Rajasthan on April 1, 2017. The gau rakshaks stopped the farmers' vehicles, dragged them out, and assaulted them with sticks and belts, while accusing them of smuggling cows for slaughter. Pehlu Khan later died in hospital.

The BJP has often been accused of using cows as an election issue that creates communal tensions, and the prime minister has remained largely silent on the cow vigilantism. He did speak out in August 2016, calling the vigilantes anti-social elements who commit crimes all night and wear the garb of gau rakshaks in the day. If they were true protectors, he said, they would realize that most cows die because of eating plastic, not due to human slaughter.

Despite the prime minister's meek criticisms of vigilantes, the nation's obsession with the elevation of the cow is revealed time and again across India.

Yogi Adityanath, elected in March this year as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, a state in north India, founded the Hindu Yuva Vahini, a nationalist group of youth. In 2015, these activists embarked on a mission to declare the cow rashtra maata (mother of the nation).

In August 2016, the animal husbandry and dairy production minister of Haryana state’s BJP government said that the state faced a problem of stray cattle due to the "loose moral character" of mixed-breed bulls.

The BJP-ruled state of Rajasthan in northern India is in the forefront of cow politics. In September 2015, the health minister in the Rajasthan state government directed the Sawai Man Singh Hospital to try a "disinfectant" made from cow urine. 

A key pledge in the BJP manifesto in Rajasthan was declaring the cow the state animal. Soon after BJP came to power in December 2013, Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje announced a ministry for the protection of cows, which later became a department. The subsequent death of thousands of cows at a government-run cow shelter forced the Mayor of Jaipur City in Rajasthan to resign.

 In October 2014, Otaram Devasi became Rajasthan’s minister of cattle affairs. He belongs to a tribe of cowherds who depend on cows and livestock for their livelihood. He dresses like a traditional cowherd including a turban, dangling ear-rings and a lathi (stick) used by cowherds.

In Rajasthan's former royal city of Udaipur, the Biotechnology Department of Mohanlal Sukhadia University will launch a cow-therapy center this year. The school introduced a course in which students will be taught the medicinal values of cow urine and its supposed disease-curing properties.

The center will offer a skills course in Panchagavya, a concoction mixed from five cow products and used in rituals. The three direct constituents are cow dung, urine, and milk. The two derived products are curd and ghee.

In January this year, Rajasthan’s education minister Vasudev Devnani claimed with no scientific evidence that the cow is the only animal that inhales and exhales oxygen. Devnani also said that diseases such as the common cold and coughs will be healed if one goes near a cow. He also claimed that cow dung has high quantities of vitamin B, making the dung absorb radioactivity. Such bizarre statements attracted sharp criticism from scientists and in social media.

In his home state of Gujarat, Narendra Modi announced plans for a sanctuary for at least 10,000 cows, close to Porbandar, the birthplace of Mahatma Gandhi. In September 2015, a sum of Rs 75 lakh was released for the sanctuary to be set up over an area of 900 hectares. While 100 hectares would be used for building 1,000 cow sheds, 800 hectares would be used for fodder production.

When Modi was the chief minister of Gujarat government in 2011, he imposed a complete ban on cow slaughter, transportation, and sales of beef by executing the first amendment of the 1954 Gujarat Animal Preservation Act.

The BJP government in Haryana, another northern state, has made possession of beef a non-bailable offense, with cow slaughter receiving a punishment of ten years imprisonment along with a fine of Rs 1 lakh. Haryana’s Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar has proposed Gau-Rakshak Task Force (Cow Protection Force).

In the southern state of Karnataka, the BJP party attempted to introduce legislation to ban cow slaughter completely and make it illegal to sell beef in the state. However, it failed when its plans did not get a presidential approval.

The violence perpetrated by the gau rakshaks groups has elicited a response from the Supreme Court, which demanded they be banned in the five BJP-ruled states and the Congress-ruled Karnataka states, where the groups are most active. 

The high court also issued notices to Rajasthan, Gujarat, Jharkhand, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka States seeking their stand against groups resorting to violence.

While these vigilante groups have primarily targeted Muslims with violent attacks, the Muslim community for its part has shown restraint and even offered concessions.

The spiritual head of the Ajmer Sharif Dargah, a popular Muslim pilgrimage center, in early April called upon Muslims to cease eating beef eating to honor the religious sentiments of their Hindu brethren.

Dargah Deewan Zainul Abedin Ali Khan said that Muslims should refrain from the slaughter of cattle and not consume beef so that a good and positive message could be communicated in the country.

He announced that he and his family would no longer eat beef, and said that the government should declare the cow the national animal.

The Aligarh Muslim University Student’s Union has demanded a complete ban on cow slaughter across the country. Union President Faizul Hasan said that they would support any move made by the central government to impose such a ban, keeping in view the sentiments of Hindu brethren.

But all these gestures seem to have no effect on the cow vigilantes, who seem to have an agenda of intimidation that goes far beyond mere protection of the animals.