When Mohammed Iqbal (36) left his home in Hapur on the morning of 6 February 2017, he was carrying 40,000 rupees in cash. A cattle sales middleman by trade, his destination was the Bulandshahar cattle market — a weekly cattle market about 40 kilometres from his home — and his objective was to buy two buffaloes which he would sell onwards to a slaughterhouse in Hapur. This had been his routine every Monday for the last eleven years. “It was supposed to be routine,” Iqbal told us. “But, it turned out to be anything but that.”
After having bought the buffaloes from the market, as he was driving back to Hapur, he noticed two large SUVs parked on the road, blocking his path. Around ten men stood outside the SUVs and waved their hands frantically in the air, gesturing — commanding — Iqbal to stop. He could not not stop. “As soon as I stopped, they pulled me outside the tempo and started beating me. They were accusing me of transporting cows for slaughter. I kept trying to tell them that I only transport buffaloes, but they were not listening,” Iqbal recounted. “They said they were from the gau raksha dal and can do anything to protect the cow.”
Some members of the gau raksha dal that had stopped Iqbal, climbed into the back of the truck to check for its contents. “Obviously, they did not find cows. But, they continued beating me anyway,” he said. Iqbal was thrown to the ground and the men surrounded him. He was punched, kicked and hit with bamboo sticks. “Thankfully, they did not kill me,” Iqbal added. He sustained two broken ribs, a fractured wrist, a fractured ankle, and a dislocated shoulder.
Seven months later, he has almost fully recovered — he still walks with a limp. But, he has been unable to muster the courage to go back to his trade. “I have left it. I simply cannot do it. I cannot put my life in danger,” he said. Iqbal has now set up a small clothes shop in the wholesale clothes market of Hapur.
But, he is unable to earn the kind of livelihood that he earned in his previous trade. “I am new to the cloth business. The learning curve is steep. Also, there isn’t the kind of margin that was there in cattle trade,” said Iqbal.
Over the last few years, various gau raksha dals have been active in Western Uttar Pradesh, as in other parts of the country. Balraj Dungar, Uttar Pradesh convenor of the Bajrang Dal and de facto head of several gau raksha dals, explains the modus operandi of these teams. “We receive tip-offs from our workers and sympathisers who notice a suspicious vehicle,” Dungar told The Kashmir Walla. Suspicious vehicles are those that appear to be carrying a heavy load discernible by sunken tyres, or liquid dripping from the vehicles which could be cow urine, or the smell of cow dung, or ‘suspicious’ looking drivers, Dungar explained.
As soon as the tip-off is received, Dungar ‘activates’ the nearest gau raksha unit, and within minutes, groups of workers, usually in SUVs numbering not less than two, are out on the road ready to intercept the ‘suspicious’ vehicle. “We also inform the police, and sometimes it takes the police a few minutes to reach at the spot. So, our boys hold on to the vehicle and the occupants till that time, then these criminals are handed over to the police,” Dungar said.
He does not entirely brush aside allegations of man-handling of drivers and occupants of these vehicles by his team. “As long as it is possible, we remain within the law and just hand over these people to the police. But, sometimes matters get out of hand. Sometimes, our boys have to act on the spot and there may be a scuffle. But, it is never one sided,” claims Dungar.
“Who else will it be? You tell me. Who else is involved in the meat trade? Only Muslims are doing it. They have had a good time for many years. Now, it is our time to set them right even if it means breaking the law.”
One of Dungar’s aides, a tall burly man who has been a part of several gau raksha patrols, is more candid, though he prefers to remain anonymous. “You know these cow killers need to be taught a lesson. They have been hurting Hindu sentiments with impunity for far too long,” he said. He is not shy to clarify that by ‘they’ he means Muslims. “Who else will it be? You tell me. Who else is involved in the meat trade? Only Muslims are doing it,” he shot back. “They have had a good time for many years. Now, it is our time to set them right even if it means breaking the law.”
Dungar is relatively more guarded and measured in his view. “Well, you know, the minority has duties too. They need to respect the sentiment of the majority population in the country. The cow is sacred to the Hindus and the Muslims need to respect that,” he said.
The slaughter of cows is banned in Uttar Pradesh by The Uttar Pradesh Prevention of Cow Slaughter Act, 1955. However, Dungar is of the view that cows are still slaughtered in the state. “They do it illegally, in their homes. The law is there, but you need to implement it too,” said Dungar. According to Dungar, the police cannot do it alone, and needs assistance, which is what the gau raksha dals provide.
However, the slaughter of buffaloes is not illegal in the state. In fact, UP, which is the largest producer of meat in the country, produced 23,899 lakh kilograms of buffalo meat between 2008-09 and 2015-16 according to data provided by the State Animal Husbandry Department.
Clearly, Mohammed Iqbal was well within his rights to be transporting buffaloes for slaughter, as have been numerous others like him who have been targeted by the gau raksha dals even when they were not transporting cows for slaughter.
At first, Dungar denies that his teams target those who are not transporting cows. “We don’t target those who are transporting buffaloes. Some other groups must be doing it,” he said. But, he quickly jumps to defend the ‘other’ groups by highlighting the virtues of vegetarianism. “Par jo bhi ho raha hai sahi ho raha hai (Whatever is happening, is happening for the best). You tell me is it right to eat another living being? Our vedas explicitly mention the dangers of eating animals. You become what you eat. If you eat beasts, you will become a beast. You should eat green leafy vegetables and pulses. Halka khao, swasth raho (Eat healthy, stay fit),” said Dungar, before breaking into a hearty laugh. “I have a thyroid problem,” he explained in response to our inadvertent glance at his ample paunch.
Over the last few years, and especially since the BJP stormed to power in Uttar Pradesh, the state’s meat sellers or traders and slaughterhouse owners have suffered significant losses. Faheemuddin Qureshi owns a slaughterhouse in Bulandshahar — about 70 kilometres from Delhi — that employs 400 people when it operates at full capacity. It was dealt a body blow last November after demonetisation, as the shortage of cash meant that Qureshi could not buy buffaloes from the cattle markets. “Because credit cards don’t work in mandis,” he explained. Qureshi was forced to shut down his slaughterhouse for two months, before reopening in January when the cash situation started turning back to normal. “All my labour comes from rural Bihar and West Bengal, and they had gone back home. I asked them to come back, convincing them that it will be business as usual now,” he said.
It was business as usual for two months, until the BJP came to power in the state in March and started fulfilling its election promise of closing down illegal/non-mechanised slaughterhouses. “My slaughterhouse was not shut down by the authorities as I had all the required licenses. But, the supply of buffaloes had stopped. Farmers stopped bringing their cattle to the mandis because they were too scared. So many people have been targeted by the gau raksha dals for transporting buffaloes. There is a sense of fear,” Qureshi said.
Once again, in March, Qureshi was forced to shut down his slaughterhouse even though his slaughterhouse was one of the few in the state that was not sealed by the government. “It remained completely shut for another three months. Then, we slowly found other avenues of getting supply of animals and we started operating again. Although, we are only operating at 30 percent of full capacity. But, the fixed costs remain the same, so I can’t operate like this for long,” he tells The Kashmir Walla.
The fear that Qureshi spoke about is echoed by most meat-sellers across the state. At the centuries old meat-market in Gudri bazar of Meerut, Khaleel Ahmed sat on the platform outside his meat-shop sharpening his knife. “Just yesterday, the Bajrang Dal boys roughed up a cattle trader who delivers buffaloes to me. He is now scared, and says he will not be able to do this any longer. The sense of fear is very much there and business is suffering because of that,” Ahmed said. “We don’t slaughter cows. I do not understand what the problem is when the slaughter of buffaloes is permitted.”
Balraj Dungar is quick to dismiss the fear mentioned by those in the meat industry. “There is no fear. And accusing us of spreading fear is just absurd. Our job is to protect the rights and prevent Hindu sentiments from being hurt. And for that it is vital that the cow is protected. No one can deny that these people slaughter cows,” he said. “And you should see the conditions in which these cows and buffaloes are transported. They are in ill-health, their legs are broken, and they are stuffed together in small tempos where they get injured further during transportation. We take these cows to our gau shalas and bring them back to good health.”
We asked Dungar to take us to some of these gau shalas. He agreed, rather reluctantly. After visiting four gau shalas that Dungar took us to in Baghpat and Meerut, we failed to find a single ‘rescued’ cow in poor health being nurtured back to good health, as had been claimed by Dungar. Most of the cows we found were in the pink of health (pun unintended), prompting a European journalist, who was with us for one of the trips, to comment, “I have not seen such healthy cows in Europe.” Dungar, meanwhile, was uncharacteristically lost for words.
Back in Hapur, Mohammed Iqbal tries to make sense of the debate around cow protectionism. “I understand that the cow is sacred for Hindus. I respect that, as should all Muslims. And Muslims have respected that over centuries and that is why we have been able to live in harmony. Siyaasat paane ke liye neta log Hindu aur Musalman ko baat te hain, aur hum bewakoof hain jo batt bhi jaate hain (Politicians try and divide Hindu and Muslims for political gains, and we are stupid that we get divided),” he lamented.
Kabir Agarwal is an independent journalist whose writings have appeared in The Times of India, Mint, Al Jazeera English, The Wire and The Caravan.