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Gaurakshaks: How cow theft and cow vigilantism is more of law and order problem, not a communal one

India would not need Gau Rakshaks if people become empathetic towards cow stealing and smuggling and their illegal slaughter and call out the crime for what it is - instead of building false narratives for their international audience to play up the 'Muslims under attack' rhetoric.

Cow vigilantism has been painted as a “communal” issue where Gau Rakshaks (cow vigilantes) are depicted as rogue groups that attack “innocent” Muslims transporting cows to slaughter houses. The 2015 Dadri lynching case became one of the first most-talked-about case since Bharatiya Janata Party took charge at the centre in 2014.

It was claimed that Gau Rakshaks attacked a Muslim man named Mohammed Akhlaq and his son Danish after beef was found in their refrigerator. Akhlaq succumbed to injuries. Lynching is a crime and must be condemned. In a civil society, mob justice should not have any place. While reports claimed he was attacked for keeping beef in the refrigerator, he was accused of slaughtering a calf. The mob had attacked them after acting on a rumour that a calf in the neighbourhood had gone missing, and the same remains were found outside Akhlaq’s home.

While the family had claimed the meat in question was mutton, the final report on the same confirmed it was from a cow. Cattle smuggling is a criminal menace where smugglers, often working in tandem with butchers, steal cows, sometimes even stray cows, for slaughter. In India, most slaughterhouses are halal slaughterhouses, which means most butchers are Muslims; subsequently, cattle thieves also tend to be Muslims.

In short, it was not that Akhlaq was murdered because of his faith or his personal food preference which outraged the entire village the way the mainstream media painted it. He was murdered because villages in India generally have violent histories and contexts regarding cattle theft.

A crime was given a communal angle just to fit the ‘intolerance’ narrative. This is why, despite knowing deep in their hearts that Modi would return to power in 2019, the ‘liberals’ smouldered as the BJP crossed the majority mark.

The emotional shock when cattle are stolen by smugglers

Cattle are source of livelihood for millions in the rural India and are loved as their family members. Cows, especially, are also considered holy by Hindus and slaughtering them is a sin.

Speaking to OpIndia, Bittu Bajrangi of Gau Raksha Bajrang Force said, “The first impact on any person who loses his cow or bull is on the emotional state. It is equivalent to losing a family member. Imagine if someone kidnaps your sibling or parent, and later you find out that the sibling or parent has been killed. It is the same feeling. The emotional impact on the person is unbearable.”

It takes time for the family to understand the economic impact of the loss. The immediate reaction is always linked to the emotional value of the bond between cows, bulls and their owners.

The economic ramifications of cow theft

In rural India, animal husbandry is one of the primary occupations of people, along with agriculture. For millions of Indians, cow and buffalo breeding and selling products such as milk is their primary source of income. Cows, therefore, are not just holy for Hindus; for many, their livelihood depends on them. When someone steals a cow or a calf, it could lead to severe economic loss for the person.

Speaking to OpIndia, Dr Surendra Jain, Joint General Secretary, Vishwa Hindu Parishad, said, “Many farmers have small land pieces. It is not possible for them to use tractors in such fields. They often use bulls to plough the land. When these bulls are stolen, those cows that they have kept for personal consumption or to sell milk are stolen, directly impacting their income source. It breaks the backbone of the housing economy.”

The need for Gau Raksha groups

India has over 80 crore Hindus. The majority of Hindus worship cows, and in many states slaughtering a cow is a criminal offence. Despite strict laws, the Gau Raksha groups operate in almost every region to save cows. The question arises when there is a law, why Gau Raksha groups? There are several reasons behind it.

First of all, no matter how vigilant the police department is, they cannot be present at every nook and corner of their region to catch cow thieves. It is not just about the innocent cows and bulls roaming on the streets, as there have been countless reports where cows and bulls were stolen from farmers and from those who keep cows for personal milk consumption.

Bittu Bajrangi said, “There are many police officers helping save cows. However, some corrupt officials do not take action in such cases. This is one of the main reasons we must take matters into our hands.”

Furthermore, no matter how much the police department has changed and progressed, especially in developing communication with the public, people, in general, avoid interacting with police officials, let alone filing a complaint in cases of atrocities against cows and bulls. They feel much more comfortable informing Gau Raksha groups about the incidents.

VHP’s Dr Jain gave the example of Mewat in Haryana. He said, “There are villages in Mewat that are 100% Muslim. Some villages have as low as 10% of the Hindu population. Most of the cow smugglers of the area live there. Police think multiple times before raiding such locations. Even if they go, in many cases, they were severely attacked by the criminals.”

Cross border cattle smuggling and terrorism

Cattle smuggling is also one of the major crimes that takes place in border areas, especially near India-Bangladesh border. There have been reports where Bangladeshi cow smugglers have tied explosives to the neck of cows and thrown them in the river to discourage the BSF from intercepting. A lot of such smuggling and income generated from it goes towards terrorism on Indian soil.

However, things are improving at the border lately. Dr Jain said the Border Security Force (BSF) has curbed cow smuggling to a large extent. Praising the central government for swift action against international cow smugglers, he said, “The work that BSF has done is commendable. It is all about leadership. If the leadership is strong, the forces will not hesitate before taking strict action against the culprits.”

While the situation has improved at the international borders, the situation at the state level has a lot of scope for improvement. Due to the political pressure, the culprits manage to escape the law which needs a fix, and it can be achieved only when state-level and central agencies work together to curb smuggling and stop cow smugglers from stealing ‘Gau Dhan’ (cow wealth).

Hence, it is important to see cow vigilantism as a law and order issue and not a communal one. As said earlier, in India, most of the slaughterhouses are halal slaughterhouses and as per Islamic laws, only a practicing Muslim can be allowed to slaughter an animal as prescribed in their holy book for it to be ‘allowed’. Cow slaughter is also banned in various states of India. Since practicing Hindus who consider cow holy do not consume beef, the consumer of such illegal meat, are Muslims. For that, those who commit the crime of stealing cow for illegal slaughter, also tend to be mostly Muslims.

Owing to votebank politics and general police apathy, cow, cattle smuggling as a crime is often ignored but when vigilantes take law in their own hands to rescue the cows and cattle, they are made to be bigger criminals rather than the ones who committed the original sin of stealing a cow.

The elites of India writing commentaries from the comfort of their homes would not have same views if their puppy was stolen. They will cry hoarse to get dog meat banned. But somehow, cows are a free pass. Protesting against illegal cow slaughter becomes a ‘Hindutva agenda’ but protesting at India Gate against dog meat festival becomes activism. The barometers are different when it comes to cows because these are the same elites who would not think twice before throwing the ‘gau mutra’ jibe for Hindus, the way Islamist terrorists do.

India would not need Gau Rakshaks if people become empathetic towards cow stealing and smuggling and their illegal slaughter and call out the crime for what it is – instead of building false narratives for their international audience to play up the ‘Muslims under attack’ rhetoric.

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B.Sc. Multimedia, a journalist by profession.

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