Vigilante groups in India are beating up and sometimes killing people they suspect of slaughtering cows. They have, among other violent acts, assaulted Muslim men and women in train stations, stripped and beaten Dalits, force-fed cow dung and urine to two men, and raped two women and killed two men for allegedly eating beef at home. Research consultant Jayshree Bajoria speaks to Philippa Stewart about the violence blighting the country.
Can you tell me what’s happening in India and why people are being attacked over cows?
The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and groups affiliated with it have been whipping up Hindu nationalism for votes. Since many Hindus consider cows to be sacred, these groups decry the slaughter of cattle for beef or leather. Most states in India already have laws that protect cows, but this political campaign is centered on claims that not enough is being done to protect cows.
Not only have some BJP leaders repeatedly called for cow protection and banning the consumption of beef, in some states we’ve seen BJP officials voicing support for these so-called cow protection groups.
This kind of political support has enabled these vigilante groups to attack cattle traders and people they suspect of slaughtering cows and sometimes bulls or buffaloes. They believe, sometimes rightly, that they will not be held accountable for these violent crimes.
How bad are these mob attacks?
These groups killed atleast 44 people between May 2015 to December 2018, 36 of them Muslims. Muslims and Dalits (formerly “untouchables”) are frequent targets of the violence because many of them run butcher shops, and Dalits have traditionally skinned the carcasses for commercial purposes such as leather. I met one distraught father who watched his young son being beaten to death. He said he was helpless, because he was outnumbered. If he had tried to save his son, he would have been killed too.
So, is it only minority religions and people who eat beef who are affected?
Absolutely not. These laws and the violence by these groups are harming the rural economy at a time when India has its highest unemployment rate in 45 years.
Before these tougher policies and the violence, even Hindu farmers would sell off old or unproductive cattle because they couldn’t afford to keep them. Now they just abandon them. This has led to a huge increase in the numbers of stray cattle across the country. It has become a serious issue: they pose a traffic hazard in towns and cities; in villages, they get into people’s farms and destroy crops.
Farmers have started locking stray cattle in empty schools, government buildings, whatever they can find, and many state governments have had to put millions of dollars into building more cow shelters.
Can you talk more about how political rhetoric has enabled this violence?
These vigilante groups doubtlessly feel that the authorities are on their side because there have been comments and actions, largely from elected BJP officials, aimed at showing Hindu nationalists that the government takes cow protection seriously. In some cases, BJP leaders have even publicly justified the attacks.
For example, in December 2018 in Uttar Pradesh, a police officer who tried to confront a Hindu mob was shot and killed. The response from the BJP chief minister immediately after this attack was to call it an “accident.” He also warned that “illegal slaughtering, and not just cow slaughter is banned in the entire state,” which seemed to some to be condoning the violence.
The police said they were going to focus on the people who killed the cows, which led to the mob attack and the murders. The exact quote was: “The cow killers are our top priority, the murder and the rioting are on the back burner for now.”
You mentioned the police, what is their role in all of this?
In most cases that we investigated, we found the police either stalled investigations, or in some cases were even complicit in the cover-up of murder. In quite a few instances police filed cases under cow protection laws against the victims or their families and associates. Sometimes witnesses decide not to testify after this.
A case that sticks in my mind is the story of Akbar Khan, a 28-year-old man. In July last year he and an associate, Aslam, were returning from Rajasthan after buying two cows when they were attacked. Aslam managed to flee but saw the men brutally beating Akbar.
Later it was revealed that police took three hours to take Akbar to the hospital, which was only 20 minutes away. He was alive when the police picked him up and was dead on arrival at the hospital. The man who tipped the police off was a member of a local ‘cow protection’ group. He told the media the police stopped to drink tea before taking Akbar to the hospital and were arranging for someone to look after the cows while he was lying injured in their car.
There was widespread condemnation of the incident, and one policeman was suspended, and four others were transferred. Three people were arrested for the attack, but a BJP lawmaker demanded their release and called for Aslam’s arrest under cow protection laws.
Is it typical that the people committing the violence don’t get punished?
There have been only two cases, both in Jharkhand state, where people have been tried and convicted for serious crimes related to cow violence. In the first case a man named Alimuddin Ansari was killed and a fast-track court convicted 11 people and sentenced them to life. They appealed their case and the court released them on bail pending a final verdict. The first thing they did was go to the house of a BJP leader, a minister in the central government. He welcomed them, placed garlands around their necks, and told the media he had legally assisted them. He said they were relieved they would get a fresh trial.
The second case is that of the 12-year-old boy I mentioned earlier. The vigilantes killed him and a man and then hanged their bodies from a tree. His father and the other man’s brother were eyewitnesses. In December a court convicted eight men of the killings.
Lawyers say that one reason both these cases led to convictions was the strong eyewitness testimony. The witnesses stood their ground and testified.
Besides the threat of violence, what kinds of punishment do people in the beef and leather industry face?
In Gujarat you can get life in prison for killing a cow, which is the same punishment as killing a man or woman.
In several BJP-ruled states, the government expanded existing laws protecting cows, and in many cases increased the punishments.
Then in January, there was a deeply troubling development when the Uttar Pradesh government applied the National Security Act against three men arrested for cow slaughter in December. The newly formed Congress Party government in Madhya Pradesh did the same thing in February.
The National Security Act is designed to stop someone from committing a serious crime against national security in the future. You can be held without charge for up to a year. The justification for using this repressive law was that it would prevent people from killing more cows.
So, the police are stalling investigations into murders, or even covering them up. At the same time, they are filing cases against victims of cow vigilantes.
Who is trying to address this rising violence?
There are many groups in India that are working to support victims of cow vigilantes, especially to provide legal aid. There are also some groups working on documenting these crimes better, to bring them to the public’s attention. Unfortunately, the government does not collect data on these specific crimes. So civil society groups and the media have taken on that responsibility.
What more needs to be done, especially by the government?
India’s Supreme Court has already issued directives about what needs to be done to address these mob killings. It said the state governments should assign a senior police officer in each district to prevent the violence and ensure there is prompt prosecution, and that victims and witnesses are safeguarded.
There’s a pending law on communal violence – that is, violence committed across ethnic or religious lines – that should be passed after ensuring that it is compliant with international human rights standards.
Most of all, the government needs to make it known that those involved in vigilante violence will be fully prosecuted and that government officials and political party leaders will no longer protect them.