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The big-picture view of cattle related violence in India : It is more than what meets the eye

India has estimated 280 million cows but killing them for meat is legal in only 8 out of 29 states. Meanwhile, neighbouring Bangladesh where beef is in high demand suffers from a severe shortage of cattle.

According to the data from the Department of Livestock Services (DLS), Bangladesh requires 71 lakh tonnes of meat annually but can only produce 62 lakh tonnes.  Bangladesh’s slaughterhouses just cannot source sufficient cows from within the country.

Due to such high demand, cows from India fetch 5 to 10 times their price in Bangladesh. A cow that costs Rs 5,000 in India easily fetches up to Rs 50,000 in Bangladesh.

This has given rise to a highly profitable cattle smuggling business across India-Bangladesh border. An estimated 1.5 million to 2 million (15 lakh to 20 lakh) cows are smuggled across the border every year.

According to The Sunday Guardian, an estimated 60,000 cattle are smuggled out of India into Bangladesh, “every day”, which indicates the enormous scale of the trafficking. In monetary terms, this illegal cross-border trade is estimated to be worth Rs 5,000 crore to 10,000 crores (more than $1.5 billion) a year.

Many instances of cow smuggling across the border have been caught on camera and some such videos can be watched here, here, here and here. Short video reports on this issue are also published by India Today and German media DW

Millions of cows slaughtered in Bangladesh actually originate from India. Most of these cows are sourced by stealing them from some poor farmers of Indian villages in Rajasthan, Bihar, Haryana, Punjab or Odisha – whose livelihood depends upon these cattle.

Many instances of cattle being stolen are caught on CCTV cameras and some such videos can be watched here, here and here

Another market for such stolen cattle is illegal slaughterhouses within India. These are unlicensed abattoirs, not approved by the government, mostly set up under unhygienic conditions and do not follow any safety or hygiene standards for food processing.

Cows stolen from across the country are sold to these slaughterhouses at a premium who then sell their meat to make money. There are approximately 30,000 such illegal slaughterhouses across India.

As per a Hindustan Times report, in just 7 years period between 2009 to 2016, Rajasthan police registered over 3,000 cases of cow smuggling, arrested nearly 6,000 people for the crime and seized over 2,700 vehicles used for cattle smuggling. If there are “thousands” of such criminals in Rajasthan alone, then one can imagine the scale at the country level.

Hordes and hordes of cattle are stolen from poor farmers across the country every day, filled brutally in trucks, transported across the country to border areas in Assam and West Bengal and then smuggled to Bangladesh. Many cattle die during the transport itself and many die while being smuggled across the fence.

Like any other multi-billion dollars but illegal business, cattle smuggling is an organized crime syndicate, comprising of thousands of criminals who are armed, vicious and deadly. Anyone who obstructs the business anywhere along its supply chain is likely to be attacked and murdered.

While sourcing the cattle (stealing from poor farmers), if cattle owners try to stop the act, they are shot, stabbed or crushed under the vehicle and killed.

Then, while transporting the stolen cattle from villages to border areas, if they are stopped by police, they are also shot or rammed by trucks and killed.

Finally, when crossing the border, if caught by India’s Border Security Force (BSF), then they are shot or crushed by vehicles too (Times of India, The Hindu, Business Standard, Indian Express)

The mobs of meat mafia are fearless and these criminals show no inhibitions in violently attacking law enforcement officers, media personnel or animal rights activists if they try to inspect illegal slaughterhouses or even report against them (India Today, Deccan Herald, Times of India, FirstPost)

Recently in UP, two temple priests reported ongoing illegal slaughters in their neighbourhood. The smugglers tied them to a cot, chopped off their tongues and then slit their throats to send a message to anyone who reports to police and this is a recurring theme.

Under these circumstances, farmers in many villages across India have now formed groups to protect their cattle from theft. In order to protect themselves from armed gangs of smugglers, most such people act in organized groups called “gau-rakshaks” (protectors of cows).

So, does this write-up intend to justify mob violence in the name of cow protection? No, absolutely not.

Violence in response to violence will lead the society into anarchy. Such actions have no place in a civilized society. PM Modi has himself denounced it multiple times and, in many cases, “cow protectors” involved in mob violence have been sentenced to life in prison.

The intention of this write-up is to illustrate many dimensions of this issue that have not been fully analyzed or narrated at all. Indian mainstream media has mostly portrayed this as an issue linked to religion, which is not completely true.

In most cases, “cow protectors” confront people either when they are caught stealing the cattle or when they are seen transporting them. “Cow protectors” do not look for “Muslims” and start attacking them. The religion of the victim is incidental, and not the trigger for the event.

Also, in most cases, “cow-protectors” act as “police informers” and resort to handing the culprits to the police after catching them. But these do not get much media coverage.

Cases of uncontrolled mob fury where victims are killed are few and far between – but these are the ones which get highlighted. This presents a skewed picture of the issue instead of a holistic perspective.

Many elite Indian journalists in English language media have never stepped at any incident site or talked to people involved. Sitting in their ivory towers, they have simply passed the verdict that this is an “anti-Muslim” issue.

Indian journalist Barkha Dutt published an article in Washington Post on acts of violence by “Cow Terrorists” against Muslims. Atish Taseer painted Indian society negatively in NewYork times. Shekhar Gupta called India as Lynchistan. Another Indian journalist Sagarika Ghose has been maintaining a list of incidents on her Facebook page where “Muslims” have been attacked by a mob due to cattle related issues.

Number of lynching incidents in last 4 years according to Ms Sagarika’s list where the identity of victims was “Muslim” = 26

Unfortunately, nobody is maintaining any list of dead victims whose identities were –

  • Poor farmers trying to protect their cattle
  • Policemen performing their duty
  • BSF men protecting the borders
  • Law enforcement officers, animal activists and innocent citizens who reported such crimes

The above list, if created would contain thousands of names of people belonging to multiple religions.

Meanwhile, when a victim named Rakbar Khan died in one such incident in Rajasthan, the only aspect that got highlighted in most media coverage was his religious identity. Some other aspects of the incident that didn’t get enough attention were that –

  • he was transporting cows between 12 midnight and 1 am and not during the day
  • he had no papers about the ownership of animals
  • he already had one prior FIR against him for smuggling cows in 2014

In other words, he was most likely a repeat offender involved in cattle smuggling.

Unfortunately, violence due to cattle related issues has been painted as a religious issue due to political reasons and shows cow protectors only as fanatics looking to attack Muslims. In reality, it is a socio-economic issue where many such people are themselves in a struggle against an armed and dangerous mafia to protect –

  • their source of livelihood
  • their property
  • their children and their families

Government Actions and Status:

  • India’s BJP government since 2014 has started a crackdown on cattle smuggling. The government’s stress on completing the new fence along Bangladesh border by 2019 (about 2,800km is already complete) and tighter vigil by BSF armed with night-vision cameras and lasers have made smuggling tougher
  • About 5.32 lakh heads of cattle valued at about Rs. 350 crore have been seized since 2014
  • In 2017, “The Sunday Guardian” reported that Indian government efforts have brought a significant drop in cow smuggling along the border
  • With the effective elimination of cow smuggling, such confrontations between cow protectors and smugglers are expected to die down too

Possible Win-Win Solution:

Fencing and tighter vigil may bring down the scale of business but its lucrative potential may keep attracting cow smugglers. A better problem-solving approach is to address the root cause itself.

As per this CNN Report India is currently the world’s largest beef exporter with large quantities of beef (meat of water buffaloes) being exported to Vietnam, Egypt, Malaysia and Saudi Arabia.

Source: CNN

India should explore flooding the Bangladesh market with low price Buffalo beef. Legal export of buffalo beef would make low price meat available in the local market which would kill the demand for expensive smuggled meat and eventually prevent cattle theft from Indian farmers. At the same time, generation of export revenue for India would be an added benefit considering that current illegal cow smuggling market is estimated at $1.5 billion annually.

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Shashank Goyal
IIM-A alumnus, Software Sales Professional, Writes about business, economy and politics; Passionate about numbers, facts and analysis Tweets @shashankgoyal01

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