Beware the Cow Boys and Girls

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Cow vigilantes come in all shades—from a man who maintains peace with Muslim neighbours to a woman who gave up a glamorous career for it

THERE IS A LARGE puddle in the middle of the narrow road that leads to Shankar Gaikar’s row house. It stands at the dead end of the alley. All houses here have tall gates, but whereas the others are shut, Gaikar’s open gate swings back and forth in the wind. A Bullet motorcycle is parked on the porch, a shoe rack at the far end has slippers and shoes. The house is unfrilled within—two sofas, a TV set, a framed painting of the coronation of Chhatrapati Shivaji and photographs of various gods and goddesses. And also, a photo of Gaikar himself, seated and holding a tiger on his lap.

Fifty-four-year-old Gaikar is the head of the Bajrang Dal for the western region. Given the reputation of the organisation and its penchant for violence, one expects an angry man. But he is tepid and collected, living a quiet life with his banker wife Smita, 14-year-old son Atharva and 75-year-old mother Rahibai in Khoparkhairne, Navi Mumbai. Gaikar has been spearheading anti-cow slaughter agitations in Maharashtra for nearly three decades and claims to have, along with fellow activists, rescued at least 25,000 cows from death in slaughter houses. “Despite our efforts, there is cow slaughter. Gaumata (cow) is the mother of this country, of all of us. My blood boils when I see any harm being done to the Gaumata,” he says.

All of Gaikar’s neighbours are Muslims from various parts of the country. “I am surrounded by them and I know they eat beef. We let them be. We do not go attacking them without proof of the same,” says Gaikar. Though he has a network of informants who maintain a vigil on cow traffickers and slaughter houses across Maharashtra, Goa and Gujarat, when it comes to his Muslim neighbours, he is a man of contradictions. “I believe everyone has the right to eat what they want and live the way they want,” he says. There is no interaction between the Gaikar family and their neighbours, but there is no tension either. The Bajrang Dal activism is kept out of his own neighbourhood.

Gaikar’s love for the cow started when he was a child. He had been left in the care of his sister and grandmother in Brahmanwada village in Maharashtra’s Ahmednagar district while his parents lived in Mumbai. A cow given to his mother as a wedding gift from her grandparents became Gaikar’s as he grew up and he venerated her like a surrogate mother.

Gaikar believes in the curative power of cow dung, cow urine and cow’s milk—all of which are extensively used by the family. “I use cow dung for nicks and cuts. It is the best medicine. Cow urine is a great stomach purifier and a good digestive. I ingest it often,” he says, reminiscing about a time when he went on a pilgrimage to the Ashtavinayak Ganesh temples in Maharashtra and though he walked bare feet it was because of cow dung that his feet remained unscathed by blisters. “Wherever I saw cow dung I would walk into it and coat my feet with it. My feet remained soft and without blisters at the end of the yatra. Those with me suffered through the pilgrimage,” says Gaikar.

Imported Jersey cows are not well protected in the nationalism based hierarchy of animals that deserve such care

Sentiments like Gaikar’s towards the cow are common across the country. They may have taken a more violent turn now, but anti-cow slaughter agitations have a long history in India even in their modern political form.

As far back as 1882, there was an organised cow protection movement in India which gained momentum with the support of Swami Dayananad Saraswati, founder of the Arya Samaj. Along with his followers, Saraswati travelled across the country and established cow protection societies in various regions of India. At the peak of this movement, violence broke out at Mau in Azamgarh district in 1893 and turned into full-scale riots across northern India, spreading all the way to Bombay. The Mau riots went on for three days before the government could control them. Hugely attended meetings were held in Nagpur, Hardwar and Benares to denounce beef eaters then—about 40-45 communal riots left107 people dead over six months.

The first Gaurakshini Sabha or ‘cow protection society’ was established in Punjab in 1882. Bengal, North India, Bombay, Madras and other Central Provinces saw such societies come up subsequently. Gaushalas or cow shelters were built to look after cows that were found wandering around. Charity organisations which came up in North India funded the gaushalas by collecting rice from people. These would be sold off and the money used for the upkeep of cows in these shelters. Leaders of the movement also demanded a nationwide ban on the practice of cow sacrifice.

In post-independence India, Hindu organisations started an agitation in 1966 demanding a ban on cow slaughter. The Shankaracharya fasted, and on 7 November 1966, Hindu groups stormed into Parliament Complex and met Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. She did not concede to the demand and a 48-hour curfew was imposed in Delhi to contain the ensuing violence which took the lives of some sadhus.

In the present, too, there have been violent attacks on Dalits, Muslims and Christians across the country by cow vigilantes. Gaikar says a majority of these attacks are not carried out by the Bajrang Dal. “We are against cow terrorism. We never do sporadic activism, we always plan what we have to do,” he says.

About 300 km away from Mumbai, in the pilgrimage town of Shirdi, lives 29-year old Suvarna Udawant. Four years ago, inspired by the animal rights activism of Maneka Gandhi, Udawant, a former air hostess and hospitality professional, decided to devote her life to rescuing cows. She says receiving threats have become a way of life for her. Sometimes it is from the butchers whom she has filed complaints against or from those whose cow trafficking rackets she has busted. “I don’t own a car. I have a two-wheeler. I go around looking for trucks with cows on my two-wheeler,” says Udawant, speaking on the phone from Shirdi.

Gaumata is the mother of this country. My blood boils when I see any harm being done to the gaumata

Her joint family of mother, father, siblings, uncles, aunts, grandparents and cousins were not comfortable with her choice of activism. “My dad was against it. He warned me against the dangers of being a cow protector. The neighbours would provoke him by saying that it is not the job for a girl,” she says. Udawant’s mother, a home maker, supported her. “No one asks their mothers what ambitions they harbour. In a joint family, a woman cannot even dream of an ambition. So maybe through me my mother is living her dreams,” she says.

Udawant, who is studying law, is not connected to any political party. She starts her day making calls to informers. Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays are busy since these are bazaar days when cows and bullocks are brought to be sold and butchers converge in large numbers to buy them. She and her small team lie in wait for animal trucks on the main roads. She chases them on her two-wheeler and forces the trucks to stop. “I always do it in crowded places. I never stop them on lonely roads. Twice I was saved from physical harm and I have learnt the valuable lesson of stopping them only at public places,” she says. The toughest part for her is to convince the police to take action.

“First of all, the police don’t listen and if you are a woman; they just turn deaf. Protecting a cow is so difficult,” she says. Her appointment as an animal welfare officer by the Maharashtra government has given her some leverage as “they now listen to me”. Udawant carries pepper spray in her purse. Each day, after leaving home, she calls up her mother at regular intervals. She claims to have rescued about 1,000 cows and taken them to cow shelters but is not happy with how the animals are treated there.

What is to be done with a rescued cow is often a problem. There are said to be 400 gaushalas across the country and some of them, it is alleged, are subject to corrupt practices like the pocketing of subsidies offered by the government while the animals are kept in dismal conditions. Some, like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad- run gaushalas at Thane, give the rescued cows to farmers who cannot afford to buy them but take a bond in writing that the animals will not be sold or sent to a slaughter house. But there have been cases when farmers have reneged and sold their cows. According to the Swadeshi Jagran Manch, an affiliate of the Sangh Parivar, there are about 4,000 slaughterhouses across the country and 25-30 million cows are slaughtered every year.

Gaikar says his own relatives in villages send their cows and even calves to slaughterhouses for a hefty price. He has cut off all ties with them as they do not listen to him. He pays for the monthly upkeep of five cows at a gaushalas. Udawant has 25 stray dogs, two bullocks and one cow—all rescued—at her residence in Shirdi. She has decided to stay single in order to dedicate herself to her activism. “It is difficult to find a husband who will support what I do. Sooner or later, my critics will get to him and my work will suffer,” she says. Both Udawant and Gaikar aver that cow terrorism, and incidents like that in Una, Gujarat, where four Dalits were beaten up for skinning a cow that a lion had killed, are giving activists like them a bad name.

I never stop trucks carrying cows on lonely roads. Twice I was saved from physical harm and I have learnt the valuable lesson of stopping them only at public places

STRANGELY, SUCH ACTIVISTS adhere to a nationalism- based hierarchy on the matter of which cows deserve to be protected. Jersey cows, that are thought to be imported, are not so well protected. Many protectors believe that the numbers of indigenous cows are steadily falling due to Jersey cows which are preferred for the extra quantity of milk they give. “The original Indian cow, our gaumata, has been replaced by Jersey cows who are milk machines,” says Gaikar. According to the Cow Census, about 40,000 cows are slaughtered daily in India and there has been a 30 per cent fall in the population of indigenous breeds.

Another fallout of cow vigilantism is that those who have bought cows for their farms find it difficult to transport it since tempo drivers are unwilling. Ajay Madwekar bought two cows of the Gir variety for Rs 40,000 at an animal fair in Nashik. He wanted to bring them to his farm in Beed but cannot get any transporter to do so. “I am stuck with them now. The farmer refuses to take them back and I cannot transport them. The drivers are scared,” says Madwekar.

Butchers feel that cow vigilantism is aimed at the Muslim community. “Hindus are the biggest beef eaters and Muslims get blamed. I have delivered beef to so many upper-caste Hindu houses. I still get calls from them asking me to smuggle some meat to them,” says Ashraf, a butcher. “Why does the Government allow beef to be exported and not allow it to be sold in the domestic market?”

Leaders like Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar, who have their own brood of cattle, have opined that a farmer must not be burdened with an old cow because it would be a burden on his scant resources. Despite sustained campaigns by the VHP, Bajrang Dal and other right-wing groups, the economic circumstances of poverty-ridden farmers force them to sell cows that are no longer useful as farm animals. A slaughterhouse pays them at least Rs 5,000 for a cow, depending on its age and physical health, while gaushalas do not pay anything.

Meanwhile, even as some like Gaikar demand strict punishment for those who terrorise others under the guise of cow protection, an increasing number of cow vigilantes are organising themselves. A WhatsApp group of 150 members called Vande Gaumataram connects many of those who need to know more about cow protection. It is ironical that social networking should be used for what many would consider an obscurantist idea going back thousands of years, but then that is characteristic of so many hardline faiths in India.