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Cow Vigilantism: Crime, Community and Livelihood (January 2016 to March 2018)

People’s Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR) is releasing its report Cow Vigilantism: Crime, Community and Livelihood- January 2016 to March 2018. The report undertakes an analysis of cow-vigilantism based on data collated from the Hindi and English media and fact finding reports between January 2016 to March 2018. We have documented a total of 137 cases since January 2016, twenty of which are of murder in which 29 people have been killed. The report is the outcome of the increasing attacks against Muslims and Dalits from 2015 onwards, as part of an on ongoing phenomenon of an aggressively communal and casteist agenda of the RSS and the BJP. Given the political prominence and social impact of the issue the task of documenting vigilantism becomes a necessary exercise for understanding repression in the name of the cow. Our report comes on the heels of a conviction by the trial court in the murder of AliuddinalaisAsgar Ansari, a beef trader murdered by gaurakshaks including a BJP leader. The trial court conviction is the first in the twenty incidents of vigilantism in which 29 people have been killed (See Table, Licence to Kill, pg 16). Our documentation and analysis brings into perspective the significance of the case, and the widespread nature of cow vigilantism, as 136 cases amongst which 19 are of murder, still await justice.

Cow-vigilantism is a crime which specifically targets Muslims and Dalits, and thrives on active state patronage and police collusion. Of the 106 cases (out of a total of 137) where we could ascertain the identities of victims, 75% were cases where Muslims were attacked, while in another 12%  casesDalits were targeted. Our data brought to the fore the widespread nature and dimensions of cow-vigilantism. We found that vigilantism takes diverse forms ranging from murder, assault and stripping, to harassment, detention, extortion, seizure of vehicles and cattle, forced raids and closure of shops among others. All these acts of interception and co-ercion are carried out by gaurakshaks- organised or unorganised, acting on behalf of the police or otherwise- on suspicion of transport and slaughter of cows, trade of cows and beef, and sale, possession and consumption of beef. The physical assaults that comprise vigilantism are criminal acts under the IPC eg sections on spreading hatred amongst communities, not to mention assault, yet they go unattended which makes the state a party to this criminality. At a less obvious level the documentation brought out that the vigilantism constitutes an economic assault in targeting occupations in which a large percentage of Muslims and Dalits are engaged. One of the conclusions we arrived at was that the anti-slaughter cow legislations meant to protect the cow actually provide a legal sanction to vigilantism. The laws thus multiply the power derived by gaurakshaks from cow protection ideology. Our report analyses the social, legal and economic structures of violence underlying cow-vigilantism. Unlike the restricted and confined account of cow vigilantism which focus predominantly on murder, assault and degradation, we offer a comprehensive analysis of the political economy of cow vigilantism and its multiple dimensions.

1.      The victims

We have documented 137 incidents of cow vigilantism. The list is indicative, not exhaustive. In 75% of the incidents the victims were Muslims and in another 12% Dalits were targeted. These percentages are based on the 106 incidents where the community of the victims could be ascertained. Muslims participating in the cattle economy who have been attacked include, farmers, cattle and meat traders, milk-suppliers, butchers, tanners, drivers, herders, among others. Cow vigilantism follows different trajectories against Muslims and Dalits. The attacks against Muslims target existing occupations, especially trade in meat, transport of cattle and beef which provide their livelihood, and eating habits. Vigilantism against Muslims has an obvious communal character as part of a Hindutva agenda.

Vigilantism against Dalits in four cases has been in the context of skinning carcasses, a caste-based occupation. The allegation made by vigilantes were those of theft and slaughter. Four incidents are against those who have rejected caste based work of clearing carcasses as a protest, or aspire to or have moved away from such caste based work through pledges, education or a shift to non-caste based occupations. (See Table: Caste Vigilantism: Attacks on Dalits, pg 31-32)

The circumstances of the attacks and the forms of attacks against Dalits reveals cow vigilantism as a means to maintain caste-based oppression, especially in the face of Dalit resistance and assertion. The casteist attacks seem to receive more acknowledgement with cases being booked under the SC/ST Atrocities Amendment Act; however, from the legal status of the most significant incident of a brutal assault against four Dalits in Una which resulted in mass  protests gives little hope. 43 people were arrested of whom 32 were out on bail by September 2017. The CM had assured that the accused would be tried before a special designated court and be over in 60 days, but no such court has been set up and the case drags on in the Sessions Court.

2.      Political  Contexts

2.1 Electoral Politics. The co-relation between BJP’s coming to power and the spread of cow vigilantism becomes apparent from the fact that  of the 22 states where incidents of vigilantism have taken place,  the BJP has been in power in 14, at various points between 2016 and 2018. At least 93 of these incidents have when the BJP has formed the government either independently or in co-alition. (See pg 1 and Table: Lawlessness, Laws and State Governments, pg 3 and 4).

The highest number of attacks against Muslims, have taken place in the strongholds of the BJP – UP, Rajasthan, Haryana, Gujarat, MP. UP where the largest number of incidents have occurred seems to be an anomaly as  24 of the 32 incidents in the state occurred before the BJP formed the government. UP illustrates that the roots of cow-politics date far back with the RSS having been active in the state since 1966, and reproducing itself through organisations such as the Hindu YuvaVahini founded in 2002 by Yogi Adityanath, who is now CM. (See pg 1). Of the 13 attacks against Dalits, eight have been in Gujarat, the BJP’s laboratory for Hindutva, establishing the casteist character of cow vigilantism and the Hindutva politics of which it is a part. The politics of cow-vigilantism however are not strictly defined by electoral politics alone with vigilante attacks having occurred in West Bengal which has a non- BJP government and where there is no blanket ban against cow-slaughter and beef.

2.2   Laws amended : Cow protection legislations have been actively amended in BJP ruled states like Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, etc. with punishments becoming more severe, and increased prohibitions of which animals can be slaughtered, trade etc. (see pg 2). The Madhya Pradesh law was amended in November 2017 and introduced a new criminal offence –that of abandoning a non –productive cow. The amendments actively aid vigilantism. Sec 7 of the Maharashtra and 16 and 17 of the Haryana Acts as amended by BJP in 2015 empowers not just the police but any person authorised by the police” to enter, search, stop, seize vehicles used for or intended to be used for export of cows and also seize the cattle, thus ‘legalising’ vigilantism. The impact is visible in the very high incidence of forced stoppages, seizure of cattle and vehicles, detention by gaurakshaks, and the explicit co-ordination between the police in incidents of “tip-offs”( See pg 8)

3.       Vigilantes and Vigilante Acts

3.1. Who are the vigilantes:The vigilantes in most of these incidents have come across as organized groups though some incidents of Hindu local mobs attacking victims have also come to light. In many incidents of assaults and vandalism prima-facie involvement of right wing groups like VHP, Bajrang Dal, Hindu YuvaVahini (UP), YuvaSena (Odisha), GauSamvardhanaSamiti (Maharashtra) among others was reported. All of these operate as criminal gangs, (See Repercussions, pg 8). The vigilantes are predominantly Hindu elites.

3.2   Vigilante Crimes:

  • Killings 20 incidents in which 29 people killed. Encounter deaths arising out of an exchange of fire are part and parcel of vigilante justice which go unaccounted eg August 19, 2016 in Mahendragarh, Haryana (See Table on Deaths , pg 17)
  • Assault At least 60 incidents of assault and three of sexual assault.
  • Arson, Vandalism, Theft: Arson, vandalism of vehicles, shops, homes, theft of valuables are recurring aspects of vigilantism. Arson often accompanies protests and rioting by gaurakshaks.
  • Stripping and tonsuring: We came across four incidents of stripping across 2016 and 2017, and one of tonsuring in January 2018. The allegations were theft and slaughter. Some of these ‘punishments’ such as tonsuring of two Dalits  for alleged theft and stripping are extremely cruel feudal and casteist forms of punishment.
  • Humiliation and co-ercion; These include incidents  where Muslim victims have been forced to eat cow dung and  drink urine, forced to say Jai Shri Ram, sprayed with urine. to ‘purify them,  and punishments by caste panchayats as atonement for  accidentally killing calves (pg 7).
  • Forced closure of shops and eateries.
  • Extortion. 
  • Seizures of cattle and vehicles. Seizure of cattle by gaurakshaks and police is reported  in a number of cases. In some instances reports mention that the cattle was sent to gaushalas, in others the cattle has either been directly appropriated by the vigilante or been handed over to them by the police. Several of these are incidents of “tip-offs.”

4.      Laws and Livelihoods

The  nature of the physical attacks perpetrated by gaurakshaks also have a long term economic impact as they target livelihoods. Moreover, the anti- cow slaughter and beef laws provide legal sanction to cow-vigilantism. In criminalising the slaughter and transport of cow and its progeny, and possession, consumption and sale of beef and cattle, these laws recast all those engaged in the cattle economy such as small farmers, cattle and meat traders, or small shop owners, drivers, tanners herders as criminals, thus turning the victims into the accused. Read and implemented arbitrarily these laws further vigilante justice

4.1  Criminalising Trade and movement of Cattle. Largest number of vigilante attacks- at least 53- have been during transport and movement of cattle. Of the 20 deaths we have documented, 15 incidents in which 21 people were killed are those related to transport and trade in cattle, On the basis of the cases where identities are known, 90% of attacks were against Muslims. Transport of cattle is a routine part of the agrarian economy as part of buying and selling. Many of these attacks have occurred during transport of cattle to and from animal markets, along established routes of cattle trade. The allegation in these cases is always of   “smuggling”, of cattle being transported with intent to, slaughter, thus criminalising everyday activities and those engaged in them. The bogey of smuggling allows for the harassment even of small herding communities and the seizure of their cows. (See pg 11 and 12).

4.2  Punishing cattle slaughter and Trade in Beef: Cattle slaughter is banned in all but eight states. Buffalo slaughter is allowed in all except Jammu and Kashmir, HP and Chhattisgarh. However a large number of incidents are in cases where the animals slaughtered are those like buffaloes, ox, and bullocks in states where their slaughter is not prohibited. However its not the fine print of the law but the identity of the victims that matters to the vigilantes, and from their acts of omission if not commission - to the police. Slaughter as an excuse for vigilante attacks was apparent in  incidents where assaults and arson have taken place when cattle has been run over in an accident. Gaurakshaks have beaten up the drivers, set fire to their vehicles and then the victims have been slapped with cases. The eating and trade in beef too has been targeted in the case of both Dalits( four incidents) and Muslims, with several attacks close to Eid. (pg 10 and 14).  There have been several reports of stoppage of trucks by vigilantes on the routes between Karnataka and Goa as beef was being brought into the state which pushed up the prices of beef thus effecting smaller eateries and the minority  communities who consume beef. (pg 14 and 15)

4.3 Caste, Occupations and Cow vigilantism: Cow vigilantism here is a strategy to ensure caste dominance and prevent caste assertion as mentioned earlier. Dalit skinners and tanners who form the bottom rung of the leather industry  have been attacked while skinning cows, on charges of theft and slaughter as also those trying to move away from caste based occupations: As the bottom rung of the leather industry skinners are fundamental to the industry,  but for them their occupation is not so much a matter of choice as of the non-availability of other means of livelihood and the decree of the upper castes. Four of the incidents are those where Dalits have refused perform their traditional caste occupation to carry away carcasses, as part of protests against cow-vigilantism and the attacks on Dalits. Cow vigilantism in several of these has been met with resistance, either through a persistence in filing cases or in organised political resistance, the latest being that by the Madiga community in a case of cow-slaughter in Telangana in January 2018 (See Table, pg 32).

4.4 The legal face of vigilantism: Licensing and other administrative Rules: Licensing laws have severely affected those in the meat trade and in cattle transport. These have a clear class and communal dimension. The closure of illegal slaughter houses in UP has hit the Qureshi community who work as butchers and sell meat. They cater to a local demand for buffalo meat  with  the closure of these slaughter houses effecting the food consumption of the poor as buffalo meat is consumption habits of the poor. The licensing laws have no repercussions for beef exporters who own mechanised abattoirs and provide 50% of India’s exportsNew Rules of Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act was brought in May 2017.The Rules which banned sale for slaughter at cattle markets was an attempt by Hindutva organisations to introduce a country wide ban on slaughter through the back door. Its roll back comes on the heels a PIL by the Beef Exporters Association against the central notification.  Significantly the ban on illegal slaughter houses has not been withdrawn or modified (pg 20).

5.      A Criminal Economy

The documentation brings out how the criminalisation of routine occupational activities through laws and licensing and the impunity given to gauraksaks, has generated a parallel criminal economy. Extortion and theft are the most overt features of this criminal economy, with an immediate and a domino effect. The increasing extortion such as between Goa and Karnataka have been reported as also several others all over India where gaurakshaks who carry identity cards stop and board trucks and ask for payment to let the trucks pass (pg 23).  A less obvious feature is of seizures, especially through tip-offs, where cow-vigilantes stand to benefit, and in which the police colludes actively (pg 24). This criminal collusion is being entrenched through acts of commission and omission where the police chooses to not intervene such as in the case of gaurakshaks seizing 51 heads of cattle from a milk supplier, in October, 2017 in Alwar (pg 24).Gaurakshachowkis manned by police which have been set up in Rajasthan ostensibly to check smuggling have emerged as new centres for corruption, extortion and repression. The more recently set up UttarakhandGovanshSanrakshan Squads have police personnel as members, are part of the collusion between police and gaurakshaks. The empowering of Gaurakshak through licensing was apparent in a January 2018 (pg 21) incident in Bihar where a truck driver was beaten up by vigilantes on suspicion of carrying beef, while the police proceeded to raid a nearby meat factory on the charge of its being unlicensed. Cow vigilantism is thus not just an ideological Hindutva project but a criminal economic enterprise Muslims as primary targets and the state as patron. Cow-vigilantism’s long term agenda is the pauperisation of Muslims and maintenance of caste oppression.

6.      State collusion:

Vigilantism prospers through active collusion of the police and the granting of impunity to vigilantes while further victimising the victims through embroiling them in cases.  Our documentation shows that the criminal acts of vigilante groups have been allowed a free reign by the police and larger state administration. The figures of some kind of action including FIRs, raids, detentions etc remain provisional as they are based on initial reports, and as the cases of deaths show have changed considerably subsequently, but the documentation does affirm a marked disparity where the action taken against the victims far exceeds that against the vigilantes.

The disproportionate legal action against the victims of vigilante violence as compared to the crimes of vigilantes, narrate a story of administrative connivance. Major examples that underline the blatantly prejudiced attitude of the police are those where the victims have charges slapped on them while the vigilantes either go scot free or are all out on bail as in the case of Pehlu Khan where all those named by him have been exonerated while the two surviving victims and the truck driver and his father have recently been charged with smuggling. In the murder of Ibrahim and Rashida in August 2016 and the gangrape of two young women from their family the CBI has rejected the allegation of rape and also the involvement of cow vigilantes turning the murders into the work of a local criminal gang.

More common cases are those where the police has detained Muslims on the word of the gaurakshaks eg the detaining of four Kashmiri students of Mewar University  beaten up by the VHP and handed over to the police on false allegations, which the police passed off as a ‘misunderstanding’ when the allegations were found false, or raids carried out on suspicion of beef being sold in the canteen at AMU or the shutting down of Hotel Hayat Rabanni and arrest of two workers in March 2017 on allegations of sale of beef which later turned out to be chicken (see pg 7)The police echoes the vigilantes declaring that sellers had been caught with “prohibited meat” even before it was tested. (pg 26).

The Supreme Court has made attempts to check the growing cow-vigilantism through ordering state governments to undertake administrative measures such as dedicated police forces to act against gaurakshaks, but to no avail. The cow vigilantism juggernaut rolls on.  Seven  incidents including one of death have already taken place till March 2018,  the Rajasthan government has recently declared that it will amend the Rajasthan cow protection  act to formally include seizure of vehicles suspected to be engaged in ‘smuggling’ which the police had in any case been doing but the amendment gives it a legal footing. Cow vigilantism is a virulent attack on citizens’ rights to life and livelihood, freedom of occupation and religion, of justice and equality which needs to be opposed and checked before the damage to our democratic polity becomes irreparable. This report, and PUDR’s continuing documentation on cow vigilantism is an effort towards it.

Shashi, Shahana

Secretaries, PUDR

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