Holy Cow! Inside India’s Cattle Census Post Protection Laws, Ban and Vigilantism

Despite 15 years of RTI implementation, governments do not feel any responsibility towards providing information

6 min read
Hindi Female

A new book based on historical research, careful collation of other data, Right To Information(RTI) applications to 11 states around the cow called, “Who Will Bell The Cow? Beef Ban: Decoding the Cultural, Social and Economical Aspects in India” by Shruti Ganpatye, an independent Mumbai-based journalist, covers the many aspects of the rise of cow politics in India, especially after 2015.

It connects the history of the many movements around the cow with the goings-on now. It makes sense of the ongoing violence in the name of the cow, the impact on food habits and other implications, economic and social, of the beef ban. Ganpatye found that there are no public government statistics about either deaths and violence by lynching, and no exact data is available on cow slaughtering.


She filed 90 RTIs in cow violence-affected states of Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Bihar, Karnataka, Chhattisgarh, Punjab and Rajasthan and sought data from 2009 to 2020. A separate set of queries sent to the Centre did not get any reply. She has self-published her book on the basis of the wide lense she has put on the problem.

Seema Chishti caught up with her on her work recently. Here are some edited excerpts of the conversation:


No Account of Cow Slaughter Data 

What drew you towards tackling this thorny subject in the first place?

In 2014, Maharashtra also saw a change in power as the BJP-Shiv Sena formed the government. There was an obvious curiosity as a journalist about the initial decisions and announcements being made by the new government. Among very early decisions, the government declared a ban on the slaughter of cow progeny i.e. bulls and bullocks much before the BJP at the Centre became vocal about the issue.

Underestimating the larger socio-economic implication of the decision, the government approved the decision in 2015 and implemented it. For the first time, many restaurants and small slaughter shops displayed boards of “No Beef ” in the city. In the same year, the first case of mob lynching took place on 22 September 2015 in the small town of Dadri in Uttar Pradesh. This incident sparked a series of lynchings across the nation which was very disturbing and never thought of before.

The word ‘cow’ rocked the country and vigilantes emerged in every state beating, and terrorising people from Muslim, Dalit and marginalised communities. The journey helped me to connect the dots and the popular cow narrative started falling piece by piece before me. This was the point I decided to write a book and share my work with others who were too not supporting the violence.

Sorting out the huge data and understanding Hindi used for official work and other regional language scripts required experts. Jharkhand was the only state that replied in detail where I could see a clear pattern of how the cases under the cow protection law increased after 2014.

Haryana was another state that gave a complete reply about cases filed related to cow protection. Uttar Pradesh government denied data citing “confidential information”, Bihar too raised “security” concerns and Gujarat said no citing information under “intelligence and security.” Many other states did not even bother to reply. When the people are being killed by a mob in the name of the cow, how can the issue be called as “confidential?”

Despite 15 years of implementation of the RTI, the governments do not feel any responsibility towards providing information. The online RTI system does not work properly and is not at all accountable to reply.

No Uptick in Cattle Numbers After Protection Laws 

You have found that the livestock census numbers do not reflect the idea that the bovine population is getting more attention i.e. there is no real rise in numbers despite a bid to drastically curb slaughter by laws and vigilante drives.

The cow protection movement has a long 150 years of history and hence the cow numbers should have grown in that proportion. I have taken cattle census figures from 1951 to 2019 in which the cattle (cow and bulls) population grew barely 23.76 per cent, the cow population by 49.63 per cent while buffalo grew by a huge margin of 153.8 per cent and she buffalo by 161.9 per cent, which is double the cow.

It can be said that the slaughtering of buffalo has actually helped in growing their population. Buffalo slaughter has been, in fact, encouraged in the country because of its export value. The commercial value has helped in increasing the population compared to the holy cow.

If we go deeper, comparing the last two censuses i.e., 2019 and 2012, it shows the cattle population has a minor growth in states like Rajasthan (4.60 per cent) and Haryana (6.66 per cent) and overall India (1.34 per cent). However, there is a drop in the cattle population in Karnataka (11 per cent), Maharashtra (9.63 per cent), Madhya Pradesh (4.34 per cent), Gujarat (3.50 per cent), Uttar Pradesh (2.74 per cent) and Kerala (1.0 per cent). Most of them are cow states.

In comparison, West Bengal has seen the highest growth (15.52 per cent) where cow slaughter laws are not strict. When specific details of female and male cattle populations are checked in the above states, it shows that the female population has increased marginally but the male population has drastically reduced in all states and at all Indian levels too.

The bulls and bullocks are missing from 17.12 per cent to a huge 57.79 per cent. The only conclusion could be that the bulls are out of farming and now also from the food chain. Their utility value is zero for humans and hence we are pushing them towards extinction. We are either killing them early or starving them to death. These numbers also raise questions about vigilante, the efficacy of the stricter laws and punishments.

You visited gaushalas – both private, community-led as well as government gaushalas. What did you see?

The government provides only Rs 20 as a subsidy for cattle per day while the actual expenditure is Rs 120-150 per day for fodder, water and medicines occasionally. Many cows are,therefore, not looked after properly in government-run gaushalas. In some community-run gau shalas, the cattle were in better condition. However, we do not have access to gaushalas at large and there is no audit mechanism to check the plight of the cattle inside. There are reports often that cattle die due to negligence. There is no account of funds collected in these gaushalas, land purchases or activities inside the gau shala. Tall claims about gau shala are hard to believe because financially it is not viable to run with old, useless and unproductive cattle.

Instances of Planned Violence Prominent

Lynching related to incidents of beef eating or transport of cattle have made headlines, especially since 2014 in northern and western India. What does your research tell you about possible patterns? Or were they mostly spontaneous?

The available data and my RTI replies clearly indicate that violence increased after 2014, especially in BJP-ruled states. The violence is based on mere perception without any data so it is deliberate and pre-planned. There is a definite ideology, literature, infrastructure and volunteers involved in violence. A support system includes police and politicians. Even the targets are constantly monitored and chosen. And culprits of this violence are not punished. There is a huge support system that works to run this agenda at various levels. Nothing is sporadic but a well-planned strategy of Hindutva forces.

Cow Protection: Hindutva’s Favourite Colonial Carryover

The first time that Parliament was attacked in 1966 on the question of cows, many people died and it also led to the resignation of Gulzari Lal Nanda. You mention someone in the book who was part of the mobilisation then and is now a gau rakshak. How much do you think politics before 2014 affects the present?

Cow protection became a ‘movement’ with the rise of Hindu nationalism at the end of the 19th century. Today’s violence is a repeat of what happened in the past. The anti-cow slaughter narrative was built between 1880 and 1920 as a part of the Hindu nationalist movement. Although cow protection was initially aimed against the British’s beef-eating habits, it turned towards Muslims who were the butchers. Even the 1857 Revolt began with a rumour of the use of cow and pig fat in the grease of cartridges. The cow was used as a political symbol in Hindu nationalism and its narrative sharpened with time.

The 150 years of the history of the movement has a definite link with the current scenario. Larger Hindu minds are trained to assume cow as a holy animal. A huge literature is made available praising cow, highlighting selected part from Hindu scriptures, gau shalas have been built across the country supporting the cause and funds are being raised. The vigilantes or the gau rakshaks are ready to work for the cause any time and go to the extent of lynching people. The groundwork for today’s violence was done in these 150 years. Cow protection is one of the sharpest weapons of Hindutva forces that can be raised when required.

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Topics:   Beef ban   cow vigilantism   lynching case 

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