The Choudhary clan was making its way back to the Valley for the summer. The usual seasonal migration, however, turned into a violent nightmare for the family of five.
On 20 April, the family was travelling through Reasi district – roughly 63 kilometres from Jammu – when a mob shouting “Jai Sri Ram” slogans laid siege to their convoy that was transporting cattle, including their sixteen prized cows.
A video of the attack that later went viral shows the family, including two women and a nine-year-old girl boxed into a makeshift structure. The mob is seen tearing down the corrugated tin sheets while the family begs for mercy. The police tried to intervene but are outnumbered.
The video ends with the head of the family, 70-year-old Shoaib Choudhary, attempting to save the women, being beaten to the ground unconscious with sticks and rods.
Cow Smugglers or Cattle Herders?
The 34-lakh strong Gujjar-Bakkarwals are a nomadic tribe that herds cattle for a living.
They inhabit the jungles of Kashmir and migrate to Jammu in the winter. Exhausted by the yearly 365-kilometre journey, a sizeable number of these traditionally nomadic families have however, chosen to settle down in Jammu.
“The government fears a demography change because of us settling down in one place. That’s why they make our lives miserable and make us run from one place to another,” 36-year-old Shakoor Ali, a member of the Gujjar tribe tells The Quint.
However, the Minister for Forest Choudhary, Lal Singh rebuffed the allegations and told The Quint that no one is being harassed for belonging to a particular community.
A majority of Gujjars are Muslims. As more Muslims settled in this region of Jammu, construction of mosques and other outward symbols of religion became a regular feature. This social change, as the spate of violent attacks on Gujjars and Bakkarwals in the last two years prove, has upset certain political elements who accuse the Muslims settlers of harbouring separatist sympathies.
Mockery of Justice
The police were forced to take action after the video of the attack on Choudharys went viral on social media. Three days after the incident, on 23 April, eleven people were booked under Sections 323 (Punishment for voluntarily causing hurt), 325 (Punishment for voluntarily causing grievous hurt), 147 (Punishment for rioting), and 148 (Rioting armed with deadly weapon).
But there were a lot more than eleven people who can clearly be seen in the video.
“Some of those who are in the video are yet to be arrested. They have been identified, but are not being arrested deliberately since the police fears violence by saffron outfits backing these cow vigilantes,” a police official said pleading anonymity.
The violence and the subsequent arrests have cooked up a storm in Reasi. On 24 April, an agitated mob comprising ABVP, Bajrang Dal and VHP activists surrounded the Reasi police station and threatened to resort to violence if those arrested were not set free. Fearing the situation may spiral, the police promised not to object to the bail pleas of the eleven accused in court.
Meanwhile, a counter-FIR was also filed against members of the Chowdhary family under Section 18 that deals with the prevention of unlawful activities. The youngest, nine-year-old Saima, failed to understand why she and her family were forced inside a jail while her attackers were set free.
She repeatedly asked her 70-year-old grandfather about insaf (justice).
Later, both parties agreed on a compromise and the accused on both sides were let out on bail.
When the Police Became Victims of the Gau Rakshaks
After their release, the livestock that was being transported was returned to the Gujjar family. The family requested that they be granted a police escort, and were given two trucks.
When this convoy began their journey, another video was shot and shared on social media by ABVP leader Raghav Kesar, ostensibly showing cow smuggling being backed by the police.
Within minutes of their leaving the police station, another batch of cow vigilantes intercepted the trucks near Salal morh in Reasi, instigated by the news of police allegedly facilitating cow smuggling.
The mob not only demanded papers from police officials, who were escorting the truck, but also abused and kicked them, calling them Pakistani agents, anti-nationals and scoundrels. Within minutes, a huge crowd gathered at the site. It was only after two senior police officers reached the spot that the situation was brought under control and Gujjar family was allowed to proceed.
Not the First Time
The Reasi incident may have made national headlines, but attacks on nomadic herders by self-proclaimed cow vigilantes are a routine affair in Kathua, Samba, Jammu and Udhampur districts.
A TWO-YEAR HISTORY OF VIOLENCE AGAINST TRIBESMEN
- In September 2016, a mob set ablaze a truck carrying cattle towards Kashmir from Rajouri.
- In December 2015, two vehicles transporting cattle were set on fire at Kalakote, after being intercepted by a mob.
- In October 2015, three people, including a policeman, received burn injuries after a Kashmir-bound truck carrying cattle was attacked with a petrol bomb at Udhampur.
- In November 2015, a truck carrying cattle was torched near Nagrota on the Jammu-Srinagar national highway.
Painting a Target on the Tribe
The Gujjar-Bakkarwal tribes believe that they are being systematically targeted by the government and recent incidents of cow vigilantism are symptomatic of that. Many of them have held demonstrations against Jammu and Kashmir’s Forest Minister Choudhary Lal Singh who belongs to the BJP. They claim the minister views the tribes as “a threat to the environment and ecology of the Jammu region”.
If the tribes don’t pay heed to eviction notices, it is common for the Forest Department to forcibly remove their enclosures. Speaking to The Quint on the condition of anonymity, a Forest Department official says :
They have grabbed several kanals of forest land in this pattern. This is a serious threat to the ecology of Jammu. They are a threat to the security of the state as well. Cases have been reported of Gujjars acting as guides for terrorists, so we have to remain cautious.
But this isn’t about cows or land, says Khaliq Choudhary, a tribesman.
Simply by virtue of being Muslim, we provoke our neighbours and friends to attack, humiliate and force us out of our birthplaces. Their motive seems to be to strike fear in our hearts so we run away, leaving behind our cows, buffaloes, goats and sheep, which carry high commercial value.
“The government should take note of this new disease that has come to Jammu and Kashmir,” cautions noted Gujjar activist Javed Rahi.
We are nationalists to the core, but it seems that the same is being taken for granted. This won’t be tolerated for long. They cannot teach us cow protection. Those who are behind these cowardly tactics should realise that even before they were born, our forefathers were serving cows. We have protected this race more than anyone else.https://www.thequint.com/videos/2017/04/28/jammu-cow-vigilantes-attack-on-nomads