India appears to be divided between the choice of Cattle protection versus Cattle slaughter. Cow vigilanstism is just an opportunistic movement arising beccause of this division.
In February 2014, a team of top Uttar Pradesh police officials in Rampur became (in) famous for something they wouldn’t have probably wished for. They were put on a job to trace the seven stolen buffaloes of powerful Samajwadi Party leader Azam Khan. The cops managed to find the buffaloes but not before Khan, Samajwadi Party and Uttar Pradesh police got some dose of mockery from the literati sitting in metro cities or news anchors in studios. Jokes and memes did the rounds on social.
A cartoonist even painted the SP leader as ‘Buffalo-e-Azam’. Amidst the laughter, however, we missed many critical things that the sensible members of civil society need to discuss. And it is not just about how a police force, that is notorious for inaction on crime against humans, got active to trace cattle.
Cattle theft in Uttar Pradesh, or for that matter in several other states of the country, is a common problem faced by the poor and every poor person is not Azam Khan. That stolen cattle are used as fodder for the mushrooming illegal slaughterhouses and even smuggled to countries like Bangladesh is a common knowledge in villages. The crackdown on illegal slaughterhouses by the present UP government is aimed to stop this.
In the absence of police action against cattle thieves and their refusal to even lodge complaints in most of the cases, we do not have a proper data to show the number of cattle stolen in the last few years. But several media reports have highlighted the cattle theft issue at regular intervals. In May 2013, The New York Times reported how criminals used to round up around 40,000 cows from the streets of Delhi and sell them to illegal abattoirs in Uttar Pradesh. “Criminals round up some of the roughly 40,000 cattle that wander the streets of this megacity and sell them to illegal slaughterhouses located in villages not far away.”
Not just in Delhi or UP, cattle theft has been prevalent in several other states in the last few years. In March 2016, ToI reported Nagpur residents as saying that their 60 cattle had gone missing in a year. They suspected a big gang behind the theft of their cattle and alleged police were involved in the theft.
Last year, India Today exposed an organised gang of smugglers engaged in sending thousands of stolen cows to Bangladesh.
Cattle theft has affected even Rajasthan, which is now in news for the death of a Muslim man because of an alleged attack by cow vigilantes in Alwar. Last year in July, Rajasthan police had busted an interstate gang of cattle smugglers. The gang was involved in cattle theft in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat. Police had also recovered 38 buffaloes from the gang.
The ban on illegal slaughterhouses in Uttar Pradesh has been interpreted by many as an attempt to impose Hindutva, and end people’s right to chose their food, on all by the ruling BJP. Such interpretation, however, doesn’t stop local cattle rearing people across Uttar Pradesh from supporting the ban. It is their votes and opinion that matter the most, not the city elites.
In crores of rural household in India, cattle continues to be a source of livelihood. When their cattle is stolen for slaughter, anger breeds. Present day, self-appointed cow vigilantes get moral support for their acts because of the prevalent anger against cattle theft and slaughter. No matter, how much hue and cry we make in the Parliament or on social media, the rural cattle-dependent population always end up supporting the cow vigilantes, who take law in their hands. Most of the times, they do it for money.
The shocking killing of a Muslim man, who was a dairy farmer, by alleged vigilantes in Alwar is not something out of the blue. While it is not acceptable for someone to behave like the law, we must also not forget that Alwar, like many other parts of the country, has been raging against cow slaughter issue for years. Even in September 2016, several right-wing groups had almost created a riot-like situation by looting and ransacking several houses on the suspicion of cow slaughter.
So what is the solution? People speaking against the cow vigilantes demand a strict crackdown on them by the law enforcement agencies. But, will that suffice? As I said earlier, cow vigilantism gets its fuel from people’s persisting anger against cattle theft and slaughter.
While police can try to stop theft, slaughter cannot be entirely stopped. A question that India has failed to answer till now is: Which cattle should be slaughtered? An argument goes that cattle of any age should be slaughtered for meat and skin. Another argument says cattle are more useful when alive. Union minister and animal rights activist Maeneka Gandhi had written in 2012: “Cows provide approx 100 million tonnes of dry dung a year costing Rs 5000 crores which saves 50 million tonnes of firewood which again means that many trees saved and more environmental damage prevented. It is calculated that if these 73 million animals were to be replaced, we would need 7.3 million tractors at the cost of 2.5 lakh each which would amount to an investment of 180,000 crores. In addition 2 crore, 37 lakh and 50 thousand tonnes of diesel which would mean another 57,000 crore rupees. This is how much we owe these animals, and this is what we stand to lose by killing them.”
India is now divided between the choice of Cattle protection versus Cattle slaughter. Cow vigilantism is just an opportunistic movement arising because of this division. To sort out this issue, the government needs to draw a comprehensive animal husbandry policy that would address both issues of cattle rearing and slaughter. Cow vigilantism would die itself then.