(New York) – Indian authorities should promptly investigate and prosecute self-appointed “cow protectors” who have committed brutal attacks against Muslims and Dalits over rumors that they sold, bought, or killed cows for beef, Human Rights Watch said today. Instead of taking prompt legal action against the vigilantes, many linked to extremist Hindu groups affiliated with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the police, too often, have filed complaints against the assault victims, their relatives, and associates under laws banning cow slaughter.
Many Hindus consider the cow to be a holy animal, and slaughter is forbidden in most parts of Hindu-majority India. Since May 2015, a violent vigilante campaign against beef consumption has led to the killing of at least 10 Muslims, including a 12-year-old boy, in seven separate incidents of mob violence. In July 2016, in Gujarat, vigilantes stripped four Dalit men, tied them to a car, and beat them with sticks and belts over suspicions of cow slaughter. In a number of cases, the attackers have also robbed their victims of cash and cellphones, and damaged their property.
“Self-appointed ‘cow protectors’ driven by irresponsible populism are killing people and terrorizing minority communities,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director. “The government should condemn this violence and take prompt action against those responsible for these attacks or face allegations of complicity.”
In one recent case, on April 21, 2017, in the Jammu region of Jammu and Kashmir state, a mob brutally attacked five members of a nomad cattle-herding family, including a 9-year-old girl, on suspicion that they were taking their cows for slaughter. A video posted on social media showed a group of men chanting slogans commonly used by BJP supporters, breaking down the family’s shelter, beating an elderly man with rods and sticks even as women begged for mercy, and finally setting the shelter on fire. Several policemen can be seen in the video while the mob carries out the attack, but they appeared to be outnumbered and stay back when the mob pushes them back. Police have arrested 11 people for the assault.
On April 22, in New Delhi, purported animal rights activists allegedly belonging to People for Animals, which is led by a BJP official, beat up three men in a truck for transporting buffaloes. Initially, the police failed to arrest anyone for the assault or investigate the role of People for Animals, which denied involvement in the attack. Instead, the police arrested the three victims under a law preventing cruelty to animals after the injured victims were taken to a hospital. The men were released on bail a day later. Two days after the incident, the police arrested a Delhi resident who claimed to be a member of People for Animals. The police were informed of the incident by another member of People for Animals who was allegedly part of a “raid team” that regularly stops vehicles to see whether they contain cattle. People for Animals, which started as an animal rights group, said that since 2014 it has shut down some of its city units, including in Delhi, due to allegations of vigilantism and extortion against its members.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, when he was chief minister of Gujarat state and during the 2014 national election campaign, repeatedly called for the protection of cows, raising the specter of a “pink revolution” by the previous government that he claimed had endangered cows and other cattle to export meat. BJP leaders have attempted to portray the majority Hindu population as victims, whipping up fear of Muslim men who they say kidnap, rape, or lure Hindu women into relationships as part of a plot to make India into a Muslim-majority country. In the period leading up to the Uttar Pradesh state elections in 2017, a BJP lawmaker, Yogi Adityanath, the current chief minister, raised fears of a Hindu exodus in western Uttar Pradesh, which has the largest concentration of Muslims in the state.
Since the BJP came to power in May 2014, extremist Hindu groups supporting Modi and his party have led vigilante mob attacks across the country to enforce “nationalism.” Senior BJP leaders, including elected officials and leaders of various groups who claim to promote Hindu rights, have instigated hate crimes. Self-appointed cow protectors are increasingly conducting raids and attacks, claiming the police don’t take adequate action against those slaughtering cows. There have been numerous incidents in which they have allegedly assaulted, harassed, threatened, and extorted money from Muslims and Dalits. Dalits, so-called “untouchables,” are equally vulnerable as they traditionally carry out jobs to dispose of cattle carcasses and skin them for commercial purposes.
Among the largest cow protection networks is the Bharatiya Gau Raksha Dal (“India Cow Protection Group”), an umbrella organization registered in 2012. Its leader, Pawan Pandit, told Human Rights Watch that the network is affiliated with about 50 groups across the country and that their 10,000 volunteers have a presence in nearly every state. “Now the entire India is a cow protection group because people are angered by such cruelty to animals,” Pandit said, adding that even the BJP government was not strong enough on cow protection. He denied allegations of violence by his members, saying those were spontaneous acts by local residents angered by the ill-treatment and slaughter of cows.
“The mild admonitions from BJP leaders when Muslims and Dalits are lynched over cows sends a message that the BJP supports this violence,” Ganguly said. “Instead of a government that took office on the promise of universal development, it now appears to be one unwilling to protect those most vulnerable.”
Recent ‘Cow Protection’ Cases and Concerns
Government Silence and Denial
On April 1, 2017, a mob in the northwestern state of Rajasthan brutally assaulted a 55-year-old dairy farmer, Pehlu Khan, and four others with sticks and belts. Khan died two days later from his injuries. Three of the six accused have been arrested. The state’s BJP-led government did not condemn the killing, and its minister for parliamentary affairs denied that the attack occurred. Rajasthan’s home minister sought to defend the so-called cow protectors by blaming the victims: “People know cow trafficking is illegal, but they do it. Gau bhakts [Cow worshippers] try to stop them. There’s nothing wrong with that but it’s a crime to take the law in their hands.”
Instead of filing a complaint against the attackers, the police first registered a complaint against Khan and the other victims under the Rajasthan Bovine Animal (Prohibition of Slaughter and Regulation of Temporary Migration or Export) Act, 1995, for exporting cattle and showing cruelty to the animals, which carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison. The police waited two hours before filing a complaint against the unidentified mob. Khan’s son alleged that the police filed the case against the family even though they had receipts showing that they purchased the cattle legitimately in Rajasthan. Mohammed Yusuf, the brother of one of those injured in the attack, told Human Rights Watch that the attackers also stole 35,000 rupees (US$540) his brother was carrying, his cellphone, and three cows worth 75,000 rupees (US$1,150). He no longer wants to be part of the dairy business. “We have decided that we are not going to have anything more to do with cattle,” he said. “If we can’t keep milk cows, if we now need permission to drink milk, why should we keep cows?”
On April 23, several former civil service officers wrote to the state’s chief minister demanding that all the accused members of the mob be immediately arrested, saying that failure to take prompt action would be a “mockery of good governance, causing minorities to lose faith in the government’s ability to protect their rights.” Two days later, the chief minister finally broke her silence and said, “such activities won’t be tolerated in Rajasthan.”
States Prompting Cow Protections
Even as BJP leaders failed to condemn attacks on Muslims and other minorities, they have announced new policies for cow welfare and made strong statements about the need to protect cows. Their policies and statements have facilitated abuses by cow protection groups in BJP-ruled states of Rajasthan, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh.
In March 2017, the Gujarat government made slaughtering a cow punishable by life in prison. In Chhattisgarh, the BJP chief minister said, “We will hang those who kill cows.” In 2016, the Haryana government decided to give licenses to some cow protection groups to help the police keep a check on alleged cow smuggling. Group members are often seen patrolling the streets, especially highways, at night, stopping vehicles, checking them for cattle, intimidating drivers, and reacting with violence if they find cows. These vigilantes have also physically assaulted legitimate cattle transporters even when they are transporting other animals, such as buffaloes.
There have been reports in the media of cow protectors allegedly assaulting Muslim men and women in trains and railway stations in Madhya Pradesh, stripping and beating Dalit men in Gujarat, force feeding cow dung and urine to two men in Haryana, raiding a Muslim hotel in Jaipur, aiding police in checking roadside food stalls and restaurants for beef in Haryana ahead of the Muslim festival of Eid, and an alleged gang rape and murder in Haryana of people the attackers claimed were eating beef at home.
The Haryana government has set up a 24-hour helpline for citizens to report cow slaughter and smuggling and appointed police task forces to respond to the complaints. Rajasthan’s government has had a dedicated department for ensuring the welfare of cows since 2013. In April 2017, the state government imposed additional taxes for “conservation and propagation of cow and its progeny.”
Soon after the BJP appointed Adityanath, a Hindu cleric, as chief minister of India’s largest state of Uttar Pradesh in March, he cracked down on slaughterhouses and meat shops, mostly run by Muslims. He contended that he was shutting down illegal establishments, but the businesses said they were forced to close without notice or due process. Cow protectors and members of an extremist Hindu group, Hindu Yuva Vahini, founded by Adityanath in 2002, aided the police in some of these operations.
Several members of the group, including Adityanath, face criminal charges for inciting violence, attempt to murder, rioting, carrying deadly weapons, and promoting enmity between two religious groups. The group has used violence, threats, and intimidation to shut down meat businesses, news reports say. But the state’s deputy chief minister and BJP state party president told Reuters that members of Adityanath’s organization were acting as responsible citizens and rejected allegations that they were acting “as a parallel administration.”
The authorities have largely ignored the young men roaming streets and beating up Muslims and Dalits in the name of protecting cows, and have targeted instead the peaceful critics of such actions. At least seven people – including a poet, a filmmaker, and a student – have been booked on criminal charges for criticizing Adityanath on social media. The charges range from hurting the religious sentiments of a community to promoting enmity between groups.
On April 22, members of the Bajrang Dal and Vishwa Hindu Parishad, groups affiliated with the BJP, attacked two police stations in Uttar Pradesh to protest the arrest of their colleagues for allegedly beating up and robbing a Muslim man. The police said that the men, from Bajrang Dal and Vishwa Hindu Parishad, threw stones at the police stations, beat up a policeman, set fire to his motorcycle, and took his service revolver. A senior police officer told the media that men from Hindu Yuva Vahini were also part of the mob that attacked the stations.
Inadequate Response to Killings over Cows
Prior to Pehlu Khan’s murder on April 1, at least nine other people were fatally beaten or lynched by Hindu mobs over suspicions that they were trading or killing cows for beef.
Rajasthan, May 2015
Abdul Ghaffar Qureshi, 60, who ran a meat shop in Birloka village in Nagaur district, was beaten brutally by a mob with sticks and iron rods on May 30, 2015. He died the following day. The mob also vandalized his home and shop. Two years after the incident, the police have filed murder charges against three accused in the attack, while six are yet to be arrested. The case is pending in court.
Uttar Pradesh, August 2015
A mob beat to death three men suspected of being cattle thieves – Anaf, Arif, and Nazim – in the Kaimrala village of Dadri town on August 2, 2015. The mob also set their truck on fire after they found two buffaloes in it. A farmer who witnessed the incident told Frontline magazine that the police arrived after the men were already dead. He said, “When a cow is killed, passions get ignited and these things can happen.”
The police filed a case against the dead men for theft, trespass, and attempted murder, alleging that they opened fire first. The superintendent of police did not respond to questions from Human Rights Watch about whether there was any case against the villagers for killing the men.
Uttar Pradesh, September 2015
On September 28, 2015, a mob in Bishara village in Dadri town beat to death Mohammad Akhlaq, 50, with bricks and critically injured his 22-year-old son. The attack came after an announcement at a nearby Hindu temple that Akhlaq had slaughtered a calf. The police arrested six people but also seized the meat from Akhlaq’s home and sent it for a forensic exam to determine whether it was beef. The villagers protested the arrests by damaging vehicles, including a police van, and setting a motorcycle on fire.
The Uttar Pradesh government, then led by the Samajwadi party, announced compensation of 10 lakh rupees (US$15,500) to Akhlaq’s family and the chief minister ordered district officials and police to provide full protection to his family. However, a senior BJP leader and minister in the central government called Akhlaq’s killing an “accident.”
Another BJP legislator from the state, Sangeet Som, already facing charges for allegedly inciting communal riots, visited Dadri following Akhlaq’s killing to show solidarity with the accused, one of whom is the son of a local BJP leader. Som did not condemn Akhlaq’s murder and instead criticized the state government for not taking legal action against Akhlaq’s family. In Haryana, the neighboring state, the chief minister, from BJP, called Akhlaq’s killing a “simple misunderstanding” and said, “Muslims can continue to live in this country, but they will have to give up eating beef.”
In December 2015, the Uttar Pradesh police filed charges against 18 people. Nearly a score of hearings have been held since then, but there has been little progress in the case. Meanwhile, Akhlaq’s family relocated to Delhi because of concerns for their safety.
Jammu and Kashmir, October 2015
On October 9, 2015, a right-wing Hindu mob in Udhampur district of Jammu and Kashmir allegedly threw gasoline bombs at a truck driven by Zahid Bhat, an 18-year-old trucker, because they suspected him – wrongly – of transporting beef. He died of his injuries at a hospital 10 days later. Two others traveling with him were also injured. Bhat was found to be transporting coal in his truck.
His death led to violent clashes between protesters and security forces in a south Kashmir village where he had lived. The state’s chief minister, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed of the People’s Democratic Party, condemned the killing and announced compensation but the family refused to accept any money, saying they wanted justice.
Five people were arrested for murder, rioting, conspiracy, and use of explosives.
Himachal Pradesh, October 2015
A Hindu mob at Sarahan, a village near Simla, allegedly beat to death Noman, 22, a resident of Uttar Pradesh, on October 14, 2015, over suspicions that he was smuggling cows. The mob also beat up four other occupants of the truck. Police immediately arrested the four occupants, booking them under laws banning cow slaughter and preventing cruelty to animals.
Later, police also registered a case of murder and said they would investigate whether members of Hindu militant group Bajrang Dal were behind the attack.
Jharkhand, March 2016
A Muslim cattle trader, Mohammed Mazlum Ansari, 35, and a 12-year-old boy, Mohammed Imteyaz Khan, were found hanging from a tree in Jharkhand on March 18, 2016. Their hands were tied behind their backs and their bodies bore signs of mistreatment. The police arrested eight men, including a couple linked to a local cow protection group. The case is still pending in court.
Ansari’s brother, who runs a small shop in the village, told Human Rights Watch he had already spent 200,000 rupees (US$3,100) on the case and was determined to see it to the end but was not hopeful. “I don’t think we will receive justice,” he said. “The government is theirs. They are rich, they are powerful, the police is also theirs.”