Beef consumption by minority groups has provoked violent attacks by Hindu extremists in India. Photo: iStock

On April 21, five members of a family, including a 9-year-old girl, were seriously injured in an attack by a large, illegal gau rakshak (“cow protection”) vigilante group in the Reasi district of Jammu & Kashmir. The nomadic tribal people were herding their livestock, including 16 cows and calves, when they were intercepted near the Talwara area and assaulted with iron rods.

The group belonged to two important front organisations of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volutereeer Association) and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The tribesmen reported that the attackers absconded with their goats, sheep and cows. The nine-year-old girl suffered multiple fractures and one of the children went missing. Even the elders were beaten up. Their attackers also threatened to throw them into a nearby river.

Jammu & Kashmir is home to a large number of nomadic tribal herder groups that travel between Jammu’s Himalayan mountains every year for grazing.

This particular group had the necessary permit from the forest department, but the police demanded a district magistrate’s permit. The local magistrate, however, told the media that the permit from the forest department was sufficient.

The police said they had identified five of the attackers, but no arrests were made.

“Cow vigilantism” can be traced to the inauguration of the BJP government in New Delhi in May 2014.

In a major case in September 2015 in Dadri in Uttar Pradesh, Mohammad Aklaq, who was accused of storing beef in his home, was lynched in public. The assailants, who were honored by the ruling BJP, were not punished.

On April 1,  Pehlu Khan, 55, a Muslim dairy farmer who was accused of cattle smuggling, was lynched by a gang of well-dressed and heavily armed young cow vigilantes in Alwar in the western state of Rajasthan.

Since 2015, there have been six cases of cow vigilantes killing people in the country, and anti-cow slaughter violence by non-state actors continues unchecked.

Writing in The New York Times on April 17, Aatish Taseer observed that the lynching of Pehlu Khan was the majority’s way of sending the message to the cow-herding minority that the law cannot protect them. The police arrested the alleged cow smugglers, but let off those believed to be responsible for the murder of Khan.

The BJP’s home minister in Rajasthan said the case was merely one of “man-handling” and not a deliberate murder, which it clearly was. The minister even said the killers deserved sympathy.

“Cow vigilantism” can be traced to the inauguration of the BJP government in New Delhi in May 2014.

Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, the BJP’s parliamentary affairs minister in New Delhi,  claimed that no such incident had taken place.

Prime Minister Modi and Rajasthan’s chief minister, Vasundhara Raje, remained silent.

Modi later said that the men responsible were criminals by night and cow protectors by day. He did not say if any steps would be taken to combat illegal cow vigilantes.

During his election campaign in 2014, Modi criticized what he called the “pink revolution,” which was allegedly advocated by his political opponents to promote cow slaughter and beef exportation.

On April 19, a land rights agency held a mass demonstration in New Delhi demanding that Khan’s killers be brought to justice.

The agency said the situation under chief minister Vasundhara Raje in Rajasthan amounted to a breakdown of law and order. The state government had failed to arrest any of the real culprits in the heinous murder of  Khan, and no compensation was awarded to the family. The state’s home minister, Gulabh Chand Kattaria, appeared to be supportive of the killers.

The agency also said the cow had become a symbol of communal extremist politics under the Modi government. The killing of Khan was part of a conscious effort by the Hindu “communal forces” to promote hatred and intolerance, and divide the people to serve their political agenda.

The agency said cattle protection was not a religious issue or a Hindu-Muslim/Hindu-Dalit matter but an agrarian one with serious implications for the peasant economy.

Laws passed by BJP-led state governments governing cow protection affected the cattle-trading rights of the peasant community, which has had dire consequences for the rural economy.

Under the Directive Principles of State Policy, which cannot be enforced by any court, the Indian constitution provides for the prohibition of cow slaughter. However, the so-called “cow belt” states of India, including Uttar Pradesh, are seeking to enact a law on cow protection, but with no mechanism for its implementation. So the self-appointed gau rakshaks (cow protectors) are taking the law into their own hands.

With the coming to power in May 2014 of the right-wing BJP, which is obsessed with India’s glorious past, the issue of eating beef has acquired unprecedented importance in Indian politics.

Historian DN Jha, author of the acclaimed book The Myth of the Holy Cow (2009) points out that beef consumption was quite common in ancient India, but was gradually given up by the Brahmins. In the medieval period of Muslim rule, the practice of killing cows for food came to be associated with Islam.

In the 19th century, the cow increasingly came to be regarded as a mark of Hindu identity: Bharat Mata (Mother India) came to be closely associated with Gau Mata (Mother Cow).

In the early 20th century, Dayanand Saraswati used the Gau Mata concept to mobilize the masses during India’s freedom struggle. This led to many Hindu-Muslim riots. The cow became a political animal. However, the greatly admired Hindutva ideologue, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar (1883-1966), was not a cow protection enthusiast.

The contemporary politics of the cow sprang from the concerns of the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh (National Volunteer Association), the ideological fountainhead of the ruling BJP. Prime minister Narendra Modi had begun his political career as a hardline RSS activist and has remained one. Former prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee also was an RSS activist but had a softer touch.

There is no unanimity of thinking among Hindus on killing and eating cows, which is common in both northeast India and the south, especially Kerala.

The state has no authority to interfere with citizens’ food preferences. Banning beef consumption is shortsighted and undemocratic. Beef is a comparatively cheap source of protein for the rural poor. Furthermore, a ban on beef affects the livelihood of people involved in the meat industry and has various ramifications for the Indian economy.

The increasing incidence of violence arising from compulsory cow protection mandated by the ruling establishment in India, which does not represent all sections of Indian society, promotes intolerance and poses a grave threat to the stability and security of the state.

The increasing alienation and isolation of the minority Muslim and Dalit (an “untouchable” caste) communities is a problem that Modi seems unwilling or unable to address.

This amounts to an open invitation to global militant groups such as Islamic State to violently intervene.

Kadayam Subramanian

Kadayam Subramanian is former director of the Research and Policy Division of the Indian Home Ministry and former director general of police in northeastern India. He is the author, among others, of Political Violence and the Police in India and State, Policy and Conflicts in Northeast India.

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