Sa­cred Chow

In In­dia, Hindu vig­i­lantes are at­tack­ing Mus­lims in the name of pro­tect­ing cows. So why won’t the govern­ment stop them?

Newsweek - - NEWS - MIR­REN GIDDA @Mir­rengidda

in a barn in haryana, a state in north­west In­dia, more than a dozen men are pre­par­ing for a night they might not sur­vive. Around them stand in­jured heifers, many with bro­ken limbs. The air reeks of urine and fe­ces, and in a bowl on the ground, mag­gots writhe in rot­ting flesh a vet has cut from one of the cow’s wounds.

The men, how­ever, are un­fazed. They call them­selves the Gau Pu­tra Sena, or the Son of Cow army, and their life’s mis­sion is to pro­tect cows. In front of them stands their leader, a Hindu mil­i­tant named Sam­pat Singh. Tonight, he’s dressed in white and show­ing me two snub-nosed pis­tols un­der the dim lights. Soon he and his group will clus­ter along the nearby high­ways, stop­ping and in­spect­ing trucks that might be car­ry­ing cows to slaugh­ter. If the driv­ers refuse to co­op­er­ate, the vig­i­lantes will chase them down and force them to stop—even if it means open­ing fire.

Do­ing so, Singh says, is sim­ply a mat­ter of up­hold­ing the law. In Haryana, as in most of In­dia, it’s il­le­gal to kill cows, an an­i­mal sa­cred in Hin­duism. The state even for­bids driv- ers from trans­port­ing cows to le­gal slaugh­ter­houses else­where in the coun­try. Singh won’t tell me whether his men have ever shot any­one, but he says smug­glers have de­lib­er­ately run over and killed five of his men. As the sky black­ens, Singh and his men head for their cars. They’re ready to com­bat the smug­glers. “Jai shri Ram,” they chant. “Vic­tory to the god Rama.”

In­di­aspend re­ported that vig­i­lantes had killed at least 28 peo­ple since 2015. Many of the vic­tims, the mobs claimed, were plan­ning on killing or eat­ing cows. Two months af­ter In­di­aspend pub­lished its find­ings, a crowd killed two Mus­lim men who were trans­port­ing the sa­cred an­i­mals.

Of all the vic­tims killed by the vig­i­lantes, more than 80 per­cent are Mus­lim. Un­like Hin­duism, Is­lam doesn’t pro­hibit eat­ing cows, and among Hindu ex­trem­ists, ru­mors have spread that Mus­lims are se­cretly killing the an­i­mals. Be­cause Mus­lims dom­i­nate In­dia’s buf­falo meat in­dus­try, the largest in the world, Hindu ex­trem­ists say they are us­ing the fa­cil­i­ties to slaugh­ter cows—some­thing the slaugh­ter­houses deny.

Decades of blood­shed between fol­low­ers of the two re­li­gions have only added to the ten­sion. And as the cow-re­lated vi­o­lence has in­creased, or­ga­ni­za­tions in­clud­ing Amnesty In­ter­na­tional and Hu­man Rights Watch have con­demned In­dia’s govern­ment, say­ing it has en­cour­aged the vig­i­lantes by over­look­ing some of their crimes. The groups al­lege that some of­fi­cials within the rul­ing, Hindu na­tion­al­ist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) con­done and sup­port what the vig­i­lantes do.

The BJP swept to vic­tory in 2014, un­der the lead­er­ship of cur­rent Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi, who er­ro­neously ac­cused the pre­vi­ous govern­ment of ru­in­ing In­dia’s dairy in­dus­try by pro­vid­ing sub­si­dies to peo­ple who slaugh­tered cows. He promised to pro­tect the coun­try’s beloved bovines, and his rhetoric seemed to res­onate with some vot­ers. A year af­ter his vic­tory, the vig­i­lante killings be­gan, and they’ve wors­ened.

One of the most bru­tal came on April 1, when a Mus­lim dairy farmer named Pehlu Khan was driv­ing home to Haryana with two milk­ing cows in tow. Vig­i­lantes stopped him and ac­cused him of tak­ing the an­i­mals to slaugh­ter. Ig­nor­ing his pa­pers, which showed he had per­mis­sion to trans­port the an­i­mals, they at­tacked Khan and his two sons. Armed with belts and hockey sticks, they beat him so badly they broke 12 of his ribs. Footage taken by wit­nesses dur­ing the as­sault ap­pears to show one of the at­tack­ers re­peat­edly kick­ing Khan in the head as he lay on the ground. Some of the vig­i­lantes grabbed a can of gaso­line and pre­pared to set him on fire be­fore po­lice ar­rived and pre­vented a pub­lic burn­ing. Two days later, Khan died in hospi­tal.


On our way to the check­point in Haryana, Singh, the vig­i­lante leader, re­ceives a call from an­other mem­ber of his group. They’d seen a truck, the man says, that ap­peared off bal­ance, a sign that it might have been car­ry­ing an­i­mal cargo. The vig­i­lantes tried to wave the ve­hi­cle down, but the driver had sped past, caus­ing Singh’s men to chase af­ter him and then block his path. Singh or­ders his driver to head to­ward the truck, which is parked by the side of the road near the check­point.

Within min­utes, we ar­rive to see the sweat­ing driver stand­ing in front of it, sweat­ing, sur­rounded by the vig- ilantes. They shine their flash­lights in­side the truck. Seven buf­faloes peer back—four adults and three calves crammed in between the van’s walls.

Singh walks over to the driver and ques­tions him about the an­i­mals, ask­ing for his iden­ti­fi­ca­tion pa­pers. Af­ter a few min­utes, Singh lets him go. “Next time you load them, do it care­fully,” Singh adds, ges­tur­ing to the truck. “We wouldn’t want to have to re­act.”

The driver gets away, but oth­ers haven’t been so lucky. Cow vig­i­lantes have beaten up peo­ple for legally tak­ing buf­faloes to slaugh­ter, and even stolen the an­i­mals. Oth­ers have al­legedly de­manded bribes to al­low driv­ers to pass. The re­peated as­saults have led to a re­duc­tion in trade at In­dia’s buf­falo mar­kets, be­cause driv­ers are afraid of vig­i­lante vi­o­lence.

De­spite the threat they pose to this multi­bil­lion-dol­lar in­dus­try, In­dia’s cow vig­i­lantes of­ten con­tinue to act with im­punity. In Haryana, where Singh op­er­ates, his men carry out their searches with of­fi­cial ap­proval.

At a sec­ond check­point we visit, two po­lice­men wait along­side the vig­i­lantes, the blue lights of their pa­trol car flash­ing. They don’t seem both­ered that the vig­i­lantes are armed, and they do noth­ing to in­ter­rupt their work. “All the check­points are de­signed with the help of po­lice,” Singh says. “The Haryana po­lice depart­ment com­pletely sup­ports us in this.”

Some­times the au­thor­i­ties play an even more ac­tive role. Right af­ter the at­tack on Khan, po­lice charged him and his two sons with il­le­gally trans­port­ing cows and caus­ing them harm. (Of­fi­cers later filed charges against Khan’s at­tack­ers, ar­rest­ing seven men, five of whom are out on bail.) A se­nior BJP of­fi­cial even tried to place some blame on the dead man. Gu­lab Chand Kataria, the home min­is­ter for Ra­jasthan—the state where Khan

Armed with belts and hockey sticks, they beat Khan so badly they broke 12 of his ribs.

died—falsely ac­cused him of be­ing a cow smug­gler and de­scribed the vig­i­lantes’ ac­tions as mere “man­han­dling.” Af­ter heavy crit­i­cism, Kataria said the vig­i­lantes were wrong to use vi­o­lence but had good in­ten­tions.

Prime Min­is­ter Modi has crit­i­cized the cow-re­lated vi­o­lence. But he has been care­ful not to men­tion the high num­ber of Mus­lims tar­geted in the at­tacks. His op­po­nents say this omis­sion is rem­i­nis­cent of the Gu­jarat ri­ots when Modi was chief min­is­ter of that state. On Fe­bru­ary 27, 2002, a train fire killed 57 Hin­dus, which Modi blamed on Pak­istan’s se­cu­rity ser­vices. Soon Hindu mobs ram­paged through the state, at­tack­ing Mus­lims. Around 1,000 peo­ple died in the vi­o­lence, for which many said Modi bore some re­spon­si­bil­ity. (The U.S. State Depart­ment banned him from en­ter­ing the U.S. in 2005 be­cause of his al­leged role in the ri­ots.) In 2013, Modi gave a con­tro­ver­sial in­ter­view to Reuters in which he said he felt sad­dened by the at­tacks in the same way one would if he were in the pas­sen­ger seat of a car that ran over a puppy.

Now that he is prime min­is­ter, Modi might be choos­ing his words more cau­tiously, but crit­ics say his an­tipa­thy to­ward Mus­lims is ap­par­ent. (Modi did not re­spond to re­quests for com­ment.) In May, the govern­ment de­clared a na­tion­wide ban on the sale of cat­tle for slaugh­ter—a def­i­ni­tion that in­cludes cows, buf­faloes and camels. (Op­po­nents of the ban say the lat­ter two an­i­mals were in­cluded so the BJP wasn’t ac­cused of pass­ing a re­li­gious law.) Two months later, the coun­try’s Supreme Court blocked the leg­is­la­tion, say­ing it would af­fect the liveli­hoods of too many peo­ple— most of them Mus­lim. In re­sponse, the BJP an­nounced it would re­draft the bill and try to pass it again.

Crit­ics of the ban say the govern­ment wrote it to ap­pease its hard-line Hindu sup­port­ers who would like to see the de­struc­tion of In­dia’s meat in­dus­try and the Mus­lims who profit from it. Th­ese Hindu na­tion­al­ists helped Modi to vic­tory in 2014. Now ru­mors are spread­ing among lo­cal me­dia that Modi might hold In­dia’s next gen­eral elec­tion in 2018, bring­ing it for­ward a year to cap­i­tal­ize on his strong ap­proval rat­ings. If he does, he’ll be re­ly­ing on his con­ser­va­tive base to carry him to an­other vic­tory.

In Haryana, Modi can count on one man’s sup­port. It’s 3 a.m., and Singh re­mains at the check­point, wait­ing with his men as the trucks con­tinue to roll past. He’ll stay out for an­other hour be­fore re­turn­ing home to his wife and his 4-year-old daugh­ter. Of all of In­dia’s po­lit­i­cal par­ties, Singh be­lieves only the BJP un­der­stands why he stays out till dawn. They are the only ones who will pro­tect their sa­cred cows, and the peo­ple who de­fend them.

MIR­REN GIDDA re­ported from In­dia for Chan­nel 4’s doc­u­men­tary se­ries Unre

ported World. The episode on In­dia’s cow vig­i­lantes airs Oc­to­ber 20.

THE FOR HEIFER WAR Mem­bers of a vig­i­lante group on a pa­trol for smug­glers in Ram­garh, In­dia, in Novem­ber 2015.

OW IN IDEN E Of all the vic­tims killed by the vig­i­lantes, more than 80 per­cent are Mus­lim. Un­like Hin­duism, Is­lam doesn’t pro­hibit eat­ing cows.

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