Out to Save Holy Cows

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After police turned up with VHP activists to arrest local butchers for slaughtering cows, a Muslim group in a Gujarat village launched a cow protection campaign
“There is going to be a speech,” observed one of three youths outside a mosque, leaning against his Hero Honda. In an adjacent lane, plastic chairs were being arranged in two rows facing each other. A nearby vendor supplied tea for the gathering. Though unsure of why the village square was abuzz, the trio hung around.

The evening of 2 December wasn’t typical of Nabipur, a village in Gujarat’s Bharuch district. The chill of November had receded for a brief while, ready for a colder return. As people emerged from the mosque after their last namaaz for the day, few made their way home. They waited in twos and threes in the narrow alleys around the masjid, the bigger of two in this Muslim-majority hamlet.

At the heart of the hubbub, Haji Dilawar Yakub, resident of Bharuch city, readied himself for his much-rehearsed speech. Even as he smiled through the empty courtesies with village elders, 48-year-old Yakub was conscious of the fact that word of the event hadn’t got round as well as he’d hoped. It was a hastily put together addressal, a let- down after the previous day when a crowd of over 2,000 had gathered at Valan village chowk.

At around 8.20 pm, Yakub’s associate Ibrahim Baji cleared his throat to speak. Slowly, a hush came over the crowd of a hundred-odd men. A woman in hijab emerged with her daughter onto a balcony overlooking the street, and mohalla shopkeepers peered through curtains of shampoo sachets and chip packets, or leant over their counters, for a better view.

“Friends, we know of what happened in Sansrod village on Eid,” said Ibrahim, referring to a communal scuffle set off by an incident of cow slaughter in the village 13 km down the highway. “We are here to ensure that such episodes don’t happen again.”

A day after the Sansrod incident, every newspaper in Gujarat had reports of a violent mob clashing with armed cops. The write-ups had disturbed Yakub. He rang up some of his friends and acquaintances with his concerns. Together, they decided to visit the hamlet and examine the tension at its source. At Sansrod the next day, an eerie silence awaited them. Policemen stalked the streets, knocking on every door, demanding answers and explanations. Several men had fled the village, they were told, and their wives and children were refusing to open doors.

“There is a [reference] in Macbeth,” Yakub tells me later. “It’s called ‘Coming Events Cast their Shadows Before’ [a la Thomas Campbell]. In the days leading to Eid, I had felt increasingly anxious at reports of Muslims transporting cattle being harassed by gaurakshaks (cow-protectors). After coming back to Bharuch, we decided that there was only one way to end the constant harassment.”

On 26 October, after much deliberation, they formed the Gau Hifazat Samiti, a 15-member committee of Muslims with Yakub at its helm. Ever since, they have been hopping from village to village and educating people on the consequences of cow slaughter (undertaken for beef consumption).

Since their first ever session in Pariej village of Bharuch, the Samiti has come a long way. The talk in Nabipur was its 37th, and it was Baji who spoke first, introducing himself and his fellow members: Mushtaq Gaurji, Maulvi Lukman Bhutia and Samiti President Yakub. They had a one-point agenda, he said: to promote harmony between Hindus and Muslims.

“You cannot please Allah by hurting those around you. Hindus consider the cow a holy animal. Even if we don’t sacrifice a cow, we have alternatives in goats and buffaloes. All we say is, ‘Don’t eat, don’t sell and don’t slaughter’,” said Yakub, wrapping up the speech. “Now I would like to know what you think about this...”

Two months earlier, on the morning of 16 October, a loudspeaker on a minaret in Sansrod sprang to life. Clerics of the only mosque in this village in Vadodara district had begun their Eid- ul-Azha prayers. There was an air of festivity all around as locals hugged one another and prepared for their traditional feast of meat. Not far from the mosque, off the opening of a lane leading to Sansrod, a slaughterhouse was all set for qurbani—the ritual sacrifice in commemoration of Prophet Ibrahim’s own.

Roughly 20 km from Sansrod, in a part of Karjan taluka, about 40 policemen assembled in the courtyard of the local police station. Two teams led by 24 armed cops then set off down National Highway 8 for the festive village. Tailing their vehicles was Jatin Vyas, a self-appointed gaurakshak of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP).

The raiding team reached Sansrod around 9.30 am and the policemen marched straight to the slaughterhouse. They didn’t have to look too hard for what they’d been tipped off about. At the entrance lay the carcasses and entrails of two calves. The police stormed in and took the butchers into custody.

According to newspaper reports, a livid mob clashed with the cops, six of whom were injured even as one of their vehicles was torched. At the end of the mayhem, 76 cows were rescued and 125 villagers booked for rioting, claimed the reports. The village was combed for the next couple of days for troublemakers. In the official version of events, the defiance of locals would appear to be the cause of the violence.

Most agree on what happened up till the point that the butchers were taken into custody. Beyond that, however, the narrative differs depending on who you speak to.

Sudarshansingh Vala Karjan, circle police inspector, tells me that the police took utmost caution not to injure anyone, even though the villagers attacked them with ploughs and swords.

Abdul Quiyum, an elderly ‘masterji’ who is general secretary of the Gujarat chapter of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, an organisation that works for Muslim welfare, says that “things soured once the mob spotted Vyas” (of the VHP). “When the police reached the slaughterhouse, the policemen dragged the butchers out and rained lathi blows on them,” he says, “A few villagers returning home happened to see this. They moved closer to take a stock of the situation. The police hit them too.” As tempers flared, an alert villager of Sansrod informed Quiyum, a resident of a closeby town called Palej. Within minutes, he had kicked his motorcycle to life and rushed to the village.

That cows had been slaughtered was not news to the villagers, claims Quiyum, but when the police started beating some of them up, it provoked anger. Word spread that the policemen were roughing up even innocents, and the Eid mood was replaced by the rage of a swelling mob. The police lobbed tear gas shells to disperse them, but the mob was furious with the VHP’s role in the raid. “A few days earlier, Vyas had himself sold about 160 cows to the butchers,” alleges Quiyum, “People know of his reputation. That’s the strategy of gaurakshaks, to make money and target Muslims at the same time. He makes deals seated in an auto on the highway, and then comes to ruin our festival, [protesting] cow slaughter.”

The Jamiat leader hands me a folder full of letters he has written to various government authorities and law-enforcement agencies of the state and Centre. The letters are rife with incidents of the harassment of Muslims on the pretext of cow slaughter, apart from the involvement of gaurakshaks and Hindu right-wing outfits like the VHP and Bajrang Dal in such activities.

Time and again, the practice has been used to stoke communal sentiments across India. It is an issue that Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi has often raked up in his rhetoric over the years. Whether at a BJP rally in Mangalore in May, Nandgaon of Rajasthan and Khandwa of Madhya Pradesh in November or Gandhinagar in February, the saffron party’s battlecry rings much the same: of a Congress trying to bring about a ‘pink revolution’ to appease minorities.

For Modi, it has long been a point of ideology, and Gujarat’s attitude to the practice has been particularly stiff for decades. Right from 1954, the state has had a complete ban on cow (and calf) slaughter under the Gujarat Animal Preservation Act. In August 2011, a group of Maldharis staged massive protests against the continuance of the practice. Maldharis—literally, ‘owners of livestock’—are an indigenous tribe of Gujarat, and they had alleged that culling was taking place in cahoots with the police. In October that year, after two months of their agitation, the Act of 1954 was amended to raise a six-month sentence to seven years, hike the top fine from Rs 1,000 to Rs 50,000 (on a scale depending on the gravity of the offence) and ban the transportation of animals for slaughter.

Its impact on cow slaughter, however, was observed to be minimal. “Nobody is really interested in cow protection,” Ram Puniyani, a prominent human rights activist, tells me over the phone. “Organisations like the VHP and Bajrang Dal try to extort money in the name of gauraksha. When the law was passed, religion was only used as a pretext. There were a range of political and economic reasons behind it.” He says that Gujarat’s reduction in cow slaughter has not been more pronounced than in any other Indian state.

According to Puniyani, who has extensively researched the issue, there have also been instances of Muslims being accused of killing cows that were simply found dead. Word-of-mouth propaganda and pamphlets on bovicide allegedly committed by minorities is used to polarise the electorate. “It’s a case of vote-bank politics,” he says, “Most of the gaushalas (cow shelters) across the country are ill-equipped. A person running one once told me how several shelters themselves give away the cows they cannot accommodate. But these communal forces only target Muslims. As a result, they are always on the defensive.”

A scrap dealer by profession, Jatin Vyas has had a chequered past. Accused in a couple of cases of extortion and kidnapping, he is best known for his stance against cow slaughter. As far back as 2002, three days before the Godhra riots, he had accompanied the police to arrest cow slaughterers in a village called Tankaria. That, too, was on the eve of Eid.

“Before you ask me anything, tell me, are you going to take a positive or negative angle?” Vyas asks over the phone. It’s the third week of November, and I have only introduced myself and the scope of this article. “I ask because people speak to butchers and print wrong things,” he says, citing a regional newspaper.

Based in Vadodara, Vyas has been active on the issue for the past 15 years. To him, gaurakhsa is a voluntary activity motivated by the goodness of one’s heart. Most vehicles with animals being ferried to their death enter Gujarat from Rajasthan, he says, which is why most crackdowns take place on highways near the state border. It’s a common practice for volunteers to tip the police off on any lead they get and accompany them to the spot, claims Vyas. “The police stop the trucks we [point out]. Almost always, we find that there are some 20-40 cows packed in these vehicles.” The rescued cattle are then escorted to animal shelters, panjrapols.

“But how do you know they are being carried for slaughter?”

“But this is still a case of animal cruelty. Then we ask the drivers if they are taking them to a qatalkhana (slaughterhouse). They say, ‘yes’. That’s how we know.”

I express disbelief at the ease of the exercise. “Try coming to the field and you will know,” he replies.

Vyas denies any possibility of a racket in which the police, cow shelters and gaurakshaks are hand-in-glove, calling this calumny against those working for the cause. “There might be corruption in other areas, but there just cannot be any when it comes to cows,” he reasons, “A cow is a mother.”

For all his denials, numerous locals and activists say that the modus operandi of the racket is ‘common knowledge’, even if few efforts have been made so far to document it. “I have received numerous complaints from activists of gaurakshaks being involved in such incidents,” says Deputy Superintendent of Police Sandip Singh, who oversees rural Vadodara. “While our investigations are ongoing,” he says of the Sansrod case, “the application has been filed based on hearsay. With Jatin Vyas, we are taking his criminal past into consideration. However, the petitioners don’t have any proof to back their claims.”

Over the years, DSP Singh has acted upon numerous cases of cow slaughter. In recent times, he says, the number of cases filed has shown a significant decrease. “One of the reasons such incidents take place is ignorance of the law,” he says, “Those involved are mostly lower middle-class. Their livelihood is based entirely on such activities. So when there is a crackdown, they resist it.” The police officer denies any knowledge of gaurakshaks secretly egging the practice on.

On the banks of the River Narmada, Bharuch lies adjacent Vadodara district. Though famous for its salted peanuts, it’s an industrial town that houses a population of over 400,000. On its outskirts, Dilawar Yakub runs a scaffolding business in a nondescript building near a noisy railway intersection.

For my first meeting with the Gau Hifazat Samiti president, I find him waiting for me with four other members, all dressed in skullcaps and kurta-pyjamas in varying shades of white. They are professionals, working for insurers, at municipal schools and so on. They let Yakub do most of the talking, with a nod or murmur of assent every now and then. An engineer by qualification, he is visually impaired. This does not keep him from reading and occasionally quoting some shayari or Shakespeare to make a point.

“It’s no secret. In Gujarat, the ban on cow slaughter is only as effective as the liquor ban,” he says. “This issue remains pertinent because no matter which quarter supplies cows for slaughter, there is always a Muslim at the end of the supply chain. The community of butchers are almost all Muslim. Our religion regards beef as halaal (legitimate), so there is always a market among our community folk.”

In rural India, cow and bullock ownership has been losing its economic rationale ever since the Green Revolution. Cattle-owners have traditionally been farmers who use cows for milk and bullocks for transport and land-tilling. As tractors and trucks took over the latter jobs, the value of bullocks fell to what slaughterhouses would pay.

Locals say that cow slaughter is not just about blatant disregard of the law. On a visit to Panoli, a village 30 km away from Bharuch, a 36-year-old farmer called Hanif Haslot tells me that it’s a simple case of a mismatch in demand and supply. Muslim households are under a religious obligation to sacrifice an animal for Eid. In Gujarat, using a goat, bullock or buffalo is the standard practice. These are in very high demand for the occasion and their short supply results in festive prices peaking. Cow meat is illegal but cheap—a temptation for some. “During Eid, goat meat is available for Rs 400 a kg. On the other hand, bullock and buffalo meat come at Rs 120,” says Haslot. “You have to pick between breaking the law of the state and breaking the codes of religion. It’s not always an easy choice.”

The Samiti’s sessions, however, steer clear of placing the issue in the context of either economics or a racket. “That’s not the point of the sessions,” says Yakub. “The racket is common knowledge but we don’t have any evidence to prove it. We tell people what they should do, what they shouldn’t, and why it is for their own good.”

Have they ever tried to gather evidence beyond the verbal testimony of locals?

Yakub smiles wryly: “Mera munshi bhi qaatil hai, kya faisla dega woh mujhe?” (What kind of justice can I expect if my protector is a killer himself?)

At the Nabipur gathering, Yakub finishes his address by inviting other opinions. The village sarpanch seated in the last row stands up. “If [cow slaughter] happens, we will make sure that we call the police to take [the guilty] away.” There are murmurs of approval and a round of applause.

A day after the session, we are at his office again discussing the previous night and the way ahead. I ask him about sentiments palpable in the audiences he addresses. “The main problem is that Muslims are still afraid,” he says, “those who aren’t guilty, even more so, for they fear they might be picked up for something that wasn’t their fault to begin with.”

“Every now and then, people walk up to us and congratulate us for the message we are trying to spread. Often, they come from neighbouring villages and want us to come to theirs. We tell them it’s not possible for us to visit each and every settlement. When we go to a place, we expect those in attendance to tell ten more people, till it becomes a movement and Gujarat becomes a model state.”