When gau rakshaks attack: The indefensible violence of 'cow protectors'
Obviously caring for?the animal?isn?t inherently bad, but something vicious and dark?is taking place under the guise of cow protection. Photograph: (Getty)
First a word on what a “gau rakshak” is, because while it’s a growing phenomenon inside Northern Indian states, like Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, non-Indians will be shocked by it. They may be doubly surprised it is perpetrated by Hindus, often stereotypically associated with gentle things—vegetarianism, Gandhi pacifism, yoga.
Termed “cow protectors” or “cow vigilantes”, gau rakshaks often beat up or murder someone who seems to be either eating beef or working in the cattle trading business. They thrash and lynch. The victims are never upper-caste Hindus, who if they eat beef do so in expensive restaurants. They are Dalits (the lowest caste) or Muslims, and they are poor.
After the inevitable “wait, what the hell?”, other questions arise. Some of them: Are these just numerous but individual fanatics going rogue? How much public and government support do they have? Is this a problem with “lone wolfs” or society broadly? Is this a form of terrorism?
Each gau rakshak case can be unique, both in the attack and in the cause. Here is a likely incomplete list of attacks since 2014, and a brief description of what took place that is broadly characteristic of what happens.
The official response
The Muslim-baiting Bharatiya Janata Party, which has lately toned down its incendiary statements now that it is the main political party in the country and no longer limited to its Hindutva base, has condemned gau rakshaks in statements, and police do pursue the attackers, but their heart doesn’t seem into it.
One proof is how often government officials and police lay at least partial blame on the victims. Did they have papers to be transporting cattle? Were they in fact eating beef? These questions, notice, are irrelevant or at most very secondary; murder is illegal no matter how they are answered. There is no possible mitigating circumstance that makes assault and murder more OK. Not only are these questions asked by police and politicians, the victims sometimes have charges pressed against them. This is a travesty.
There are two parties, one who got beat up and one who did the beating—Is deciding whose side to take really difficult, or even a question? In India, yes. There is pressure to assign at least split blame. In a culture of strident Hindu nationalism, officials do not like the optics of prosecuting Hindus for defending cows, even if “defending cows” here really means murdering fellow Indians. So, for example, police will claim the victim had only eight permissions of the ten permissions required.
The reaction in the high-profile Alwar case is demonstrative. A group of men lynched a Muslim man and attacked four others, and ran away only when police came. As per the Hindustan Times report:
“Rajasthan home minister Gulab Chand Kataria justified the attack by ‘gau rakshaks’ saying that both parties were to be blamed for Pehlu Khan’s death. He said illegal transport of cows was banned in the state.
“However, the victims claimed that they had valid documents and were legally transporting cattle purchased from a market in Jaipur.”
The Indian Express reports that Khan was a dairy farmer who decided to buy a milch cow instead of a milch buffalo, and that’s why his killers saw him and some relatives transporting a cow in his pick-up truck. The attackers stopped the truck and for about 20-30 minutes beat them with sticks and belts nearly unconscious until the police came. For good measure, these “cow defenders” robbed them of 85,000 Rupees, or about $1,700 in Canadian dollars. Pious people indeed.
Now, police can’t ignore if people were indeed guilty of breaking the state’s laws concerning cattle trading and beef eating. Some states have such laws. But their disproportionate concern for this minor aspect of the law, rather than the assault and murder, betrays their bias. This is about Hindu politics.
That officials are mostly pretending to be only upholding the law is obvious when one remembers the victims are mostly innocent. They often do have permits to trade cattle, or it turns out they weren’t even eating beef, they were eating buffalo. Oops! That more effort is made to make the innocent victim seem guilty rather than simply condemn those whose undeniable guilt in the way worse crime says everything.
Hindutva--resurgent Hindu nationalism
Whether BJP members carefully direct and enflame gau rakshaks or strategically use an incident they didn’t at all cause, the fear gau rakshaks create helps spread Hindutva--the establishment of Hindu hegemony over the state. The Indian government can’t legally make a task force dedicated to beating the hell out of Muslims or Dalits, but they don’t have to because the gau rakshaks do it anyway. The Sangh Parivar, the loose umbrella group of right-wing Hindu nationalists, including fringe elements, isn't exactly furious about the beatings.
The government can’t explicitly support the gau rakshaks. Indian society is too decorous and attached to the idea of the rule of law for them to embrace breaking it. The violence they condone has to be permitted only tacitly, unspokenly. The government has a choice: Appear pro-law or pro-Hindu customs. They have chosen both.
While there’s been a spike in attacks under the BJP government, the previous Congress government also exploited cow politics. Say what you will about the BJP, cows and the gau rakshak phenomenon is larger than them.
But Indians must watch the growing violence and feel frightened for two reasons: A) Abstractly, religious dictates are superseding the rule of law in a country which until recently was proud of its constitution and secular character B) In a practical and immediate sense, minorities are getting beaten the hell out of.
One must ask: If their real interest is protecting cows, is this best served by beating up Muslims and Dalits? Does this protect cows at all? The answer is a resounding “no”.
In a bit of hypocrisy familiar to Indians but perhaps stunning to an outsider, India is actually the world’s largest exporter of beef. Countless cattle die because they eat plastic off the street. In cities, the stomachs of dead cows are found with mounds of street garbage. Where are the gau rakshaks cleaning plastic off the street? Where is their public service announcement not to litter, or to have dust bins installed in public, so people can deposit their plastic there instead of, essentially, inside a cow’s stomach?
Whether the love is of a pastoral type, religious or something else, the Indian attachment to cows is of course deeply entrenched, understandable and commendable. Obviously caring for the animal isn’t inherently bad, but something vicious and dark is taking place under the guise of cow protection.
Even if supposing that the Hindu dictates of cow worship should be enforced in an officially secular country, it is irrational and grotesquely disgusting to take this up via the assault and murder of marginalised people.
As a test, when reading an article on the topic try replacing the word “gau rakshak” with “terrorist” and see if there is any loss of meaning.