The logic behind Haryana’s cow protection unit seems to be if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.
According to its website, the Love 4 Cow Club has 3,100 members scattered in different parts of the country. Wooing its visitors with the tagline “Aao gaye se pyar karein” (“Come, let us love the cow”), the Love 4 Cow Club offers a guide to the kind of cows you can find in different parts of the country (did you know West Bengal is home to a variety of cow known as Siri? Take that, Apple), a handy guide to the cow in Hindu scriptures as well as a resource centre that includes listicles titled “Why is Cow’s Milk Amrit?” and articles calmly copied off Wired without any credit given.
To those less bovinely-inclined, the Love 4 Cow Club, whose activities wound down in 2011, is simply amusing. Its conviction that that the Vishwa Hindu Parishad is on the money when it claims “In cow, there is panacea” is worth little more than an eye roll. But the Love 4 Cow Club is the benign face of bovine devotion.
With cases of vigilantes taking it upon themselves to punish those they suspect to be cattle traders mushrooming with alarming frequency, cow vigilantism has stopped being a joke and is now a serious law and order problem. Fuelled by a righteous rage, gangs of men in different parts of north India take it upon themselves to teach lessons to anyone who they think is taking a cow to be slaughtered. These lessons can range from beating their victims up to making them eat cow dung. Keeping in step with the times, many video these episodes and circulate them, oblivious to the criminal cruelty they’re putting on record.
A fertile breeding ground for cow vigilantism is Haryana, which has witnessed a string of incidents involving gau rakshaks attempting to enforce the law on their own. Last year, eight cases of violence by cow protection vigilantes were reported in Gurgaon alone. In June this year, two alleged beef traders were beaten up and forced to eat a concoction of cow dung, cow urine, milk, ghee and curd (called panchgavya) near Gurgaon. The video of the incident, which was circulated widely online, sparked considerable outrage.
The state has a new scheme to tackle the problem of these young men taking law into their hands. Cow protection vigilantes in Haryana will soon require police verification if they wish to aid the forces in preventing the slaughter and smuggling of cattle. This, according to Bharti Arora, IPS, in-charge of Haryana’s new cow protection unit, will be done only if gau rakshaks (cow protectors) can prove their worth to the police. “If we are convinced that there are some really committed people, we can take their [gau rakshaks’]help, after police verification,” she told Newslaundry.
Listening to Arora, the cow protection unit comes across as an attempt to establish the law without irking the vigilantes or those that side with them. She stressed that vigilantism, on the part of gau rakshaks, is unacceptable and that “on their own, they [gau rakshaks] can’t do anything”. She also said that the incident in which two alleged beef traders were made to eat panchgavya was regrettable. “These kind of things should not be done at all,” she said. She emphasised that the point of the cow protection unit was for the police to do the policing, rather than leave it to the hands of these self-proclaimed defenders of bovine dignity. “We will not encourage any naaka [check point] to be started by independent parties. Only the police can put up a check point, only the police can do checking,” said Arora.
Try telling the cow vigilantes what Arora said, and the reaction is disdain. Pawan Pandit, president of the Bhartiya Gau Raksha Dal (BGRD) and resident of Bhiwani, Haryana, described the government’s latest effort as “a way to take some credit, a way to stay in the timeline”. Pandit said that gau rakshaks had to take matters in their hands because the authorities had failed to check violations of the law, saying that “if the government did its job well, civil society need not be involved”.
Cow vigilantism, it turns out, actually has a method to it. Established in 2012, Pandit describes BGRD as “something like a federation”, which comprises of district and state level units affiliated to the apex body, headquartered in Delhi. In the four years since its inception, Pandit feels that BGRD’s efforts have ensured that “people are getting aware” of the importance of cow protection.
But there is a downside to BGRD’s work as well. Pandit said that since gau rakshaks had started going after smugglers, incidents of violence had gone up. “When things were going on smoothly, they [cattle smugglers] were getting away with it easily. But they don’t want to stop their work, so now they come well-armed. Now they’re always ready to fire,” Pandit said.
Over-zealous gau rakshaks have been on the receiving end of attacks by cattle smugglers. Just last week, a member of the Gurgaon Gau Raksha Dal was shot at while attempting to stop a vehicle transporting cattle, and sustained bullet injuries on his fingers. Under the circumstances, Naveen Sharma, general secretary of BGRD, who is based in Himachal Pradesh, agreed that “it’s best if the police does its work”. However, he believes vigilantism is inevitable because of the sacredness of the cow.
“Agar aapki behen-beti ka balaatkar ho jaata hai, tab aap kya karoge [If you daughter or sister gets raped, what will you do then]?” he asked. “And we consider the cow our mother!”
Pandit feels that going after cattle smugglers is important, even though he conceded the point that the people cow vigilantes grab are “mostly rented or hired people”. It still serves a purpose, according to him. “When they [smugglers] know that there is danger out there, that there are people on the lookout and they can’t cross the line, then their masters won’t get new recruits,” Pandit said.
Undoubtedly, Arora is bound to have her hands full with the vigilantes unlikely to back down. She said her officers would receive special training in order to prevent situations where the public takes the law into their hands, thus promoting vigilantism. “Lots of times law and order situations are created when we are not able to catch cow smugglers and the public catches them,” she said. “So we need to train our policemen about the Act. The modus operandi we adopt, the rules we follow, all these things will be shared with our policemen and they will be encouraged to catch such people more and more.”
It is doubtful that the gau rakshaks will be impressed with Arora’s efforts, despite her professed intention of working with them rather than against them. Even after passing a strict cow protection bill and having a dedicated cow protection unit, cow vigilantes have only distrust for the government. What is likely is that regardless of Arora’s cow protection unit, these groups will be out on the streets, setting up barriers, chasing vehicles, beating up smugglers and occasionally taking bullets, all for the love of gau mata.
The question is, can Arora enforce the law if this happens?