A recent incident in Jharoda village in southwest Delhi is no exception to what has been happening in the name of cow protection for the last three years in north India, especially in the Delhi-NCR region; Haryana, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and UP.
According to media reports, at least six men transporting buffaloes and calves were assaulted by members of a self-styled cow protection group in southwest Delhi on the ‘suspicion’ that the animals were being taken to a slaughterhouse.
Following the usual course in such incidents, a police complaint was registered against the ‘culprits’ (usually the transporters) and the animals, which could be cows or buffaloes, were ‘rescued’ and taken into police custody.
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Pattern of Violence
The usual storyline of such events does not tell us what goes on behind the scenes before and after the cows are taken into police custody or sent to the cow shelters.
This kind of reporting, no matter how critical it is against violence, establishes such violent groups as cow worshippers, protectors of Hindu beliefs and heroes in the eyes of those who follow their ideology.
This pattern of violence raises an important question: Is this merely a moral drive for the protection of cows that lead to violent attacks, validating the lynching and killing of people involved in a trade, or is there something else?
A series of ethnographic interviews with a few stakeholders – both Hindus and Muslims – involved in meat and associated businesses in Delhi/NCR tell us a different story.
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Rise in Vigilantism
By the legal definition, vigilantism means taking the law into one’s own hands and attempting to effect justice according to one’s own understanding of right and wrong. In other words, it means private enforcement of legal norms in the absence of an established, reliable and effective law enforcement body.
The cow vigilante groups claim that they are sharing the burden of the enforcement agencies as they have failed to implement the law.
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This brand of vigilantism started after 2000, with the rise in influence of Hindutva organisations and a number of other senas. The Rashtriya Gauraksha Sena with 2,700 members spread across 14 states, claims to have been in operation for the last 12 years, focusing on “illegal cattle trade” along India’s international borders.
The September 2015 Dadri incident, resulting in the lynching of 60-year-old Mohammad Akhlaq for allegedly possessing beef, became a landmark in the mushrooming growth of this kind of self-styled activism in UP and other parts of north India.
A number of self-styled vigilante groups have emerged in Delhi, UP and Haryana in the last two years. Over 200 cow-protection groups, with huge followings, work in the Delhi-NCR region. Now that the laws against cow slaughter in Delhi, UP and most northern states are very strict, the transit point for cattle trucks are the new targets for these groups.
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Animal Protection Groups
Trucks full of buffaloes and goats are also attacked by these groups. Raheemuddin (name changed), owner of a private slaughterhouse and a skin processing unit, said that initially most of these raids were conducted by members of Maneka Gandhi’s NGO, People for Animals (PFA), especially on the borders of Delhi. According to Raheemuddin, the so-called cow vigilante groups follow the same pattern of raids, police complaints and seizure of animals.
It is worth mentioning that the PFA, with a countrywide network, claims to work for the welfare of animals. The group recently came into the limelight when its activists intercepted a truck transporting 14 buffaloes to Ghazipur mandi on the night of 23 April 2017. The drivers were brutally assaulted and later arrested by the Delhi Police on charges of cruelty against animals. The bovines were retained by the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), Tis Hazari.
The PFA’s website also asserts that the organisation should “take direct action through units to protect animals and punish offenders.” The PFA has been actively working on these lines since 1998. According to its website, the group is quite concerned about the cause of cow protection and gau daan and it strives to promote vegetarianism.
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Strategy of Vigilante Groups
The respondents informed that the vigilante groups have a strong network of informers which may include vegetable vendors, cobblers, rickshaw pullers, ice-cream vendors, helmet sellers and others, working especially in the border areas.
The other set of informers could be brokers mediating between the animal markets and the transporters and people assigned specifically to keep an eye on the transporters in return for a commission.
These informers follow the transporters from animal markets and keep a record of their time schedule. They hand over this information to the cow vigilante groups active in the areas or routes possibly taken by the transporters. Raids are conducted on the basis of ‘suspicion’ or a tip of from these informers.
Social media has been a great way of networking for these groups. They make calls, share text messages and fake images to mobilise people and coordinate with their members. Social media has not only given them a means to mobilise a vast number of people by evoking religious sensitivities but has also provided an opportunity to propagate their so-called mission through videos showing cow rescue ‘operations’ and punishment to ‘offenders’.
It has established their credibility as cow protectors among the cow worshipers. At the same time, it has created a fear of lynching, intense violence and police cases amongst the transporters, making paying extortion money their only option for guarantee of life and safe transportation.
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Defying the Law
These groups work closely with the police and contact them whenever there is information about trucks with cattle crossing borders in Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Rajasthan or Madhya Pradesh. In some cases, it may work otherwise: Police officials involved in the extortion racket may give these groups a ring. The recent incident that took place in Jharoda village exemplifies it.
On the basis of information like this, a group of people ranging from 50-100 belonging to the nearest wing of these groups swings into action, they attack the trucks, conduct identity checks of the transporters and review documents – which they are not authorised to do. Even if the occupants present all government documents including the purchase slip, animal health check, and purpose of the possession of animals and so on, it doesn’t always make a difference.
These checks actually have no relevance in practice. Quite interestingly, even the police may question the authenticity of documents in possession of cattle traders, giving priority to the gau rakshaks and their version of events.
In fact, these checks are carried out to identify possible irregularities in documentation so that a ‘valid’ case could be filed. This is what happened in the incident on 23 April 2017 that took place on the Delhi-Gurugram intersection. The PFA activists filed a case on the basis of cruelty against animals.
In many cases, the occupants are physically abused alleging that possession of cows is ‘illegal’ and animals will either be smuggled or slaughtered. Although these groups claim that they first get in touch with the nearest police van and accompany the officers to the raid, it is usually not the case. Police is mostly called in during the latter phase after attacking the trucks.
(This is part one of the article on cow vigilante groups, based on the author’s PhD research project.)
(Nazima Parveen is a PhD scholar at the School of History, Philosophy, Political Science and International Relations, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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