Cow Vigilantism and the Politics of ‘Cow Protection’

It will not be an exaggeration if we say that India is the sole country in the whole world where, at present, the lives of cows are more secured than the lives of common people, especially who belong to the marginalized communities. Less than a year after the barbaric murder of Mohammad Akhlaq, a twenty-year old woman and a teenage girl were found raped in Mewat in Haryana as punishment for eating beef. When the BJP chief minister of the state Manohar Lal Khattar, who was also an ex-pracharak of RSS, said – “Muslims can continue to live in this country, but they will have to give up eating beef. The cow is an article of faith here” – we understood that by ‘faith’ he, along with his party, is actually trying to uphold the age-old brahminical hegemonic and reactionary ideas as the sole religious faith of this country. In the last few years we realized that in the new ‘Sankalpit Bharat, Sashakt Bharat’ these faiths will have more weightage than constitutional rights. Our realization gained more strength when we came across the incident of atrocious killing of two Muslim cattle herders from Jharkhand – Mohammad Mazlum Ansari, 35, and Imteyaz Khan, 12, and hanging of their bodies from a tree in March 2016. After one year, in April 2017, we witnessed that the BJP chief minister of Chhattisgarh – Raman Singh was legitimizing such mobocracy by saying – “We will hang those who kill cows”. According to Thakur Raja Singh, the BJP lawmaker of Telengana state, gauraksha [cow protection] is a war. Indeed it is! Rather, more precisely, this is a war imposed by the brahminical fascist regime on minority communities to destroy their lives and livelihoods in the name of cow.

The attacks on the marginalized communities such as Muslims, Dalits and Adivasis are mainly two-pronged – one is physical and the other is legal. The physical attacks are being perpetrated by the armed Gauraksha Dals or cow vigilantes, who have organized networks with active members stationed at key points to engage in criminal acts. They enjoy complete impunity and protection from the police, and in the name of cow protection, they target minorities in various forms such as murder, assault, sexual violence, stripping, arson, vandalism, seizing of animals and vehicles, extortion, harassment, humiliation, forced closure of meat shops and eateries etc. The majority of the victims are Muslims and Dalits, whose livelihoods are related to cattle and beef. Slaughterhouses and meat shops are mostly run by Muslims, and Dalits traditionally carry out jobs to dispose of cattle carcasses and skin them for commercial purposes. According to Human Rights Watch, between May 2015 and December 2018, at least 44 people were killed across 12 Indian states; among them, 36 were Muslims. Over the same period, around 280 people were injured in over 100 different incidents across 20 states. Again, based on media reports in English and Hindi as well as fact-finding reports, PUDR documented 137 such incidents across 22 states between January 2016 and March 2018. Among these, 121 have occurred in the 14 states held by the BJP either independently or in coalition between 2016 and 2019. Total 20 instances of reported deaths are documented in which 29 persons died. Among the killed, nearly 90% are Muslims. The number of people killed has gone up from 12 in 2016 to 16 in 2017. The role of the police is clearly suspicious as they had mainly taken action against the victims. Large number of attacks on Dalits are reported in Gujarat, mostly due to their participation in Una Movement, culminated on 15th August 2016 as a reaction of the 11th July incident in Una, where upper caste cow vigilantes brutally attacked four Dalit youths. Some 20,000 Dalits participated in the protest march and took a pledge to give up their traditional jobs and demanded five acres of land. The protest march witnessed a remarkable unity between Dalits and Muslims against brahminical tyranny.

The second form of attack is the enacting of laws and policies by the state governments in order to restrict the buying and selling of cattle. Undoubtedly, the primary motive is to destroy the livelihoods of small-scale Muslim businessmen and Dalits. The prohibition of cow slaughter as a part of the Constitution, under Article 48, has a direct conflict with Article 47, which says that – “The State shall regard the raising of the level of nutrition and the standard of living of its people and the improvement of public health as among its primary duties”. The alternate meat being expensive, beef remained as the affordable meat and source of protein for the entire lower strata of people, mainly comprising Dalits, Muslims, Christians and Tribals. However, BJP is interested only in the zealous implementation of the anti-cow slaughter part of the Article 48. As of August 2013, 24 states/UTs had already strict laws that either prohibited the slaughter of cows completely or banned killing cattle under a certain age. After BJP came into power in 2014, these laws took more stringent forms in BJP-ruled states such as – Maharashtra, Hariyana, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh. Interestingly, the attack through these licensing regulations does not affect the large beef businesses which produce buffalo meat / carabeef for export, in mechanised, licensed abattoirs. Thus, along with the communal side, the economic and class dimension of the attacks are also very clear.

The cattle-owning farmers and the laborers belonging to the leather industry are deeply affected. Farmers, who are now unable to sell their unproductive livestock to slaughterhouses, are forced to continue feeding and caring for them. Many have simply abandoned the animals, which in turn has caused problems for them with stray cattle destroying their crops. Even if we ignore the serious economic repercussions of such policies, the question of fundamental right of choosing what to eat still persists. Unfortunately, the people who are just fighting to protect the democratic and constitutional rights are also becoming the victims of state-sponsored attacks. The recent arrest of Jeetrai Hansda, a Santhali theatre artist, adivasi activist and teacher at the Jamshedpur Co-operative College, for a two years’ old Facebook post asserting his right to eat beef, is the latest example of that.

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