ON A SATURDAY NIGHT IN APRIL, at around 9 pm, I rode a motorcycle to the outskirts of Haryana’s Jhajjar town, 20 kilometres west of Delhi, accompanied by a photographer.
“Bhrata shree,” an enthusiastic Gau Raksha Dal, or GRD, activist had addressed me over the phone earlier that evening, using the Sanskrit word for brother. “Come whenever you want. We’ll start the gasht”—patrol—“once you’re here,” he said.
The location he had called us to was an unlit and isolated stretch of road, right before National Highway 334B, about a kilometre from Jhajjar bypass. I stopped the motorcycle after spotting a group of 20 men, all gau rakshaks, or cow-protection vigilantes, milling about near two parked SUVs—a Scorpio and a Mahindra Bolero. Close by, there was a police control room van with five uniformed policemen. Some of the vigilantes, too, were in a uniform of sorts: white T-shirts bearing the insignia of GRD Haryana—a bejewelled cow, framed by a pair of crossed daggers, and flanked on each side by AK-47s. Under this was a couplet: Apni laashon se gaumata ke gulshan ko aabaad rakhenge! Woh ladai hogi ki gaumata ke dushman bhi yaad rakhenge!—Our corpses shall keep the cow mother’s garden flourishing! We’ll give the enemies of cow mother a fight they’ll never forget!
After a quick round of handshakes, the leader of the group, 35-year-old Rinku Arya, whom I had spoken to on the phone, described the plan for the night. We would roam the state highways in a packed SUV, armed with lathis, rods, hockey sticks, baseball bats, stones and spike strips, looking for gau taskars, or cow smugglers. Each time Rinku brought up the prospect of catching a few, the group cheered him on, and described what they would do to their victims. “Chutade sek denge”—we’ll grill their asses—one yelled out from the crowd.
I asked some of the policemen for their names, but they refused to reveal them. My photographer, a Kashmiri Muslim, masqueraded as Cyril, an Israeli photographer who did not know a word of Hindi. He put the passing headlights to good use, herding the GRD vigilantes together for a photo op. They obliged with warlike poses.
The same lighting helped me catch a glimpse of a policeman’s name tag, which said “ASI Sonbeer.” “We have been working with the GRD for a while, especially since the BJP came to power in the state,” Sonbeer told me, reeking of whisky. He said his team had been deployed to coordinate with the gau rakshaks for the night.
“We put up checkpoints and wait. The volunteers”—the GRD vigilantes—“keep driving around, and call us when they find something,” Sonbeer said. “See, we have a hundred other things to think of beside cows. These guys do the job. It’s good, right? Prashasan bhi poora saath de raha hai ab”—now, the administration is also supporting them fully.
The volunteers then broke into two teams, one per SUV. Rinku asked me to park my motorcycle at the police post near Jhajjar bypass, and then travel with his team in the Scorpio—four in the back seat, four in the middle, the photographer and I huddled together on the passenger seat, with Rinku at the wheel. Thus, at about 9.30 pm, we set out into the night, on gasht with the gau rakshaks of Haryana.
COW VIGILANTES, such as Rinku and his gang, have become known for their penchant for violence. Tales of their brutality against those they pronounce guilty of killing a cow, or of even possessing the intent to do so, are available all over the Indian media. They often make videos of their barbaric exploits and upload them online.
One such video shows gau rakshaks force-feeding a pair of alleged cattle smugglers cow dung; in another, they can be seen thrashing and urinating on a group of men, including a physically disabled man, for the crime of transporting meat that may or may not have been beef. Armed with a skewed sense of justice, and a variety of weapons—sometimes even guns—gau rakshaks are not beyond killing the men they believe to be the enemies of the cow mother. Even as I was writing this piece, the national president of the GRD, Satish Kumar, was arrested on 20 August on charges that included rioting, extortion and “unnatural sex.” His team allegedly sodomised cattle traders in Punjab, after they refused to pay up Rs 30,000 in extortion money.
Numerous Hindutva groups across the country, such as the GRD, indoctrinate young men into deifying the cow, and into being willing to kill or die protecting it. The groups also provide arms, funds, cars and even salaries to these vigilantes, who then go about hunting the so-called cow smugglers. Often the victims of such vigilantism are outsiders to mainstream Hinduism, such as Muslims and Dalits, who do not share the religious sentiments associated with the animal. Since gau rakshaks are not equipped to ascertain if cows being transported are indeed meant for slaughter, or whether the meat they confiscate is actually beef, these vigilante patrols are often simply an absurd excuse for engaging in communal violence.
Historically, the evolution of cow vigilantism into what it has become today has run parallel to the rise of Hindu nationalism and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party since the late 1980s. Such extreme-right Hindutva groups have grown exponentially in strength and audacity after the BJP’s unprecedented success in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls.
While the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi have, at best, prevaricated on such hooliganism, recent events in Gujarat made the issue unavoidable. On 11 July 2016, a group of vigilantes in the state’s Una city stripped and flogged seven Dalits for skinning a dead cow, and uploaded the video of the incident online. The video went viral, and sparked one of the biggest protests by the Dalit community in recent times, as thousands of Dalits from across the state embarked on a massive rally, marching towards Una on 31 July.
As the protests snowballed, several media reports surfaced connecting cow-protection vigilantes to the BJP and the Sangh Parivar, headed by the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh. On 5 August, Times Now broadcasted a sting operation, showing interviews with five top leaders of the Vishva Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal—both prominent factions of the Sangh Parivar.
The footage showed the leaders admitting, and at times gloating over, the fact that their organisations fostered such vigilantism among their ranks, and that the GRD had the full support of the BJP government and the RSS.
The next day, Modi—in a town hall meeting—finally broke his silence on gau rakshaks, in an attempt to reach out to the Dalit community, among whom the BJP doubled its vote share in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, to 24 percent. But also reluctant to alienise his hardline Hindutva support base, and to contradict his earlier stated position on cow slaughter, he came up with a convenient distinction between “good” gau rakshaks and “bad” ones. He accused the latter of “running their own shops” in the name of cow protection, hinting at some of the sketchier dealings of gau rakshaks, such as running organised beef rackets and extorting cattle-traders. This seemed to be in line with a proposal being considered by many BJP state governments, including in Haryana and Gujarat, to legitimise “good” gau rakshaks by providing them with ID cards.
But several right-wing groups across the country protested Modi’s accusation, asking him to name or investigate such gau rakshaks, with the warning that such remarks might cost the BJP the next Lok Sabha elections, in 2019. Ironically, even as Modi appeared to condemn gau rakshaks, a report published in Hindustan Times on 9 August revealed how cow vigilantism flourished in Gujarat during his tenure as the state’s chief minister from 2001 to 2014. According to the report, apart from introducing tougher laws against cow slaughter in 2011, the Modi government increased the annual grant to the Gauseva and Gauchar Vikas Board—a state-run organisation whose main objectives are “to coordinate with groups involved in preventing slaughter of cow and progeny” and to ensure “effective implementation of cow protection laws”—from Rs 1.5 crore to Rs 150 crore. Moreover, between 2011 and 2014, the state government disbursed Rs 75 lakh in cash rewards to 1,394 gau rakshaks. It went on to say that “to provide further motivation to the cow protection volunteers, Rs 3.75 lakh was given to the ‘top performers,’ which included recipients of the biennial Best Cow Protector award.”
Even if one were to overlook Modi’s past, his comments seem mere rhetoric. After all, what is a good gau rakshak? Doesn’t the idea of a self-styled cow protector, acting outside of the law-enforcement system, inherently imply vigilantism?
Since the BJP came to power in Haryana, in October 2014, the state has emerged at the forefront of bovine politics, with stricter laws against cow slaughter being introduced and funding for cow-protection initiatives being increased. While reporting on the Haryana wing of the GRD, I found that they were working under the complete protection of the BJP government, receiving public funds, using state machinery and collaborating with the police. With the plan to further legitimise cow vigilantes by issuing them identity cards, gau rakshaks are now likely to function as an extended arm of the state.
THE PATROL I ACCOMPANIED in April mostly followed NH 334B, which runs north-east from Jhajjar towards Sonipat, about 60 kilometres away, near the Uttar Pradesh border. The vigilantes speculated out loud about potential clues that might give away a cattle cargo—such as number plates (they told me smugglers’ vehicles usually bore a UP or Rajasthan registration), sunken tyres (indicated a heavy or uneven load), dripping liquid (could be cow urine), the odour of dung, and so on. In the next three hours, at the slightest suspicion, we flagged down vehicles, or overtook them and forced them to stop. Our group would then rush out of the Scorpio, pull the driver out, and proceed to search the vehicle. The vigilantes would climb onto the backs of trucks, or beat the vehicles' sides with sticks to stir any hidden animals.
All the commitment to the cow mother aside, it was clear that this was the vigilantes’ idea of fun—cruising through the nights in their SUVs, hunting supposed cow-killers. When asked who they were, pat came the arrogant reply: “Gau Raksha Dal se hain ji”—not unlike the way FBI IDs are brandished in Hollywood films. Moreover, all the nine vigilantes in our car came from landowning households in Panipat, and money was not a major concern for them; however, owing to a lack of proper education, jobs and other avenues, finding a productive outlet for their energies beyond the crop cycles was. Thirty-two-year-old Ashok Arya summed it up from the back seat: “Accha kaam karte hain, aur bhaiyon ke saath hansi-mazaak rehta hai. Ghoomte-ghoomte timepass bhi ho jaata hai” (We do good work, and have a good time with friends. Roaming around helps pass the time as well). Plus, there were stipends for food, fuel and other expenses.
While driving, Rinku filled me in on recent happenings. “You should have come last night, bhrata shree,” he said. “We caught three trucks at Rewari, containing 53 cows and 17 smugglers. It was a big catch after a long time. You should have seen the action live. We even threw one of the smugglers off the roof of a truck, and smashed his face.” I asked him if the man was alright. “Must be in some hospital,” Rinku replied dismissively. He then showed me photographs on his phone from the previous night’s haul, which showed the GRD men standing on top of the seized trucks.
Rinku was recruited into the organisation 20 years ago, at the age of 15, by Azad Singh Arya—the 48-year-old leader of the Panipat chapter of GRD Haryana. He got married the year after, and now has three children. In the daytime, he works as Azad Singh’s driver, for a monthly salary of Rs 12,500. His wife doesn’t want him to go on the night patrols. “But this is my dharma,” he told me.
Besides the patrols, he said, he also contributed to the prachaar, or publicity, for the organisation. “We go to villages, schools and colleges, and tell everyone about the cow mother’s importance,” Rinku told me. “We are also supported by the local media. TV channels like Siti Cable broadcast our ads and phone numbers, while newspapers such as Dainik Bhaskar, Dainik Jagran, Amar Ujala and Punjab Kesari run our ads—paid by Azad-ji.”
The other eight volunteers—ranging in age from 19 to 40—had similar stories about how they were recruited. Many had been gau rakshaks for over a decade. The youngest was a 19-year-old, baby-faced Goliath called Vikram, who bragged that he had been associated with the GRD since the age of nine, when he first met Yogendra Arya—the current president of GRD Haryana. (Most activists of GRD Haryana are followers of the Arya Samaj movement, and have given up their last names, using “Arya” instead.) Vikram, too, was employed by Azad Singh, as a bodyguard, for Rs 8,000 a month, and was enrolled as a first-year student at Arya College, Rohtak. But when I asked him what course he was studying, he could not remember. After struggling for about a minute, he finally answered, “BA . . . Yes, BA!” Then he sheepishly added, “Thing is, I never go there. But I’ll get a degree.”
I proceeded to ask Rinku questions about the gau rakshaks’ work. What if someone they catch was just transporting his own cows from point A to B? “Get a permit from the government. No GRD member will touch you,” he said, before adding, “One can tell—an innocent guy won’t be a Muslim, for instance—aam banda hoga”—he would be an ordinary guy. “Also, they will be milk-giving cows, not old and dried-up ones—those are just carried for slaughter, to make leather or beef, at the illegal slaughterhouses across the UP border.” From the backseat, Ashok added, “Mostly, the smugglers are young Muslims looking to earn some quick money—and the occasional Hindu. Them, we beat even more for doing such dirty work.”
When I brought up the violence involved in the activities of the GRD, Rinku got defensive. He claimed that it was mostly the smugglers who attacked first and tried to run away. “They carry country-made guns, or stones,” he said. “Sometimes, they ram into us with their trucks.” Later, Rinku showed me a bullethole in the front bumper of the Scorpio. When I asked him whether they damaged the offending vehicles in turn, he replied, “Before the BJP brought in the new law against cow-slaughter, the vehicles were returned to the owners. So, we used to get angry and burn the trucks. Now, we don’t have to. The vehicles become government property. So we just hand them over to the police.”
Like everyone else I spoke to from the GRD, Rinku and his teammates were happy with the BJP government. Yet, he stressed, “We are not political, we only stand for the cow, and the nation. Aur jo bhi gai ki baat karega, woh hi desh pe raaj karega.” (Only the one who talks about the cow can rule this nation.) He then told me that he had met Manohar Lal Khattar, the chief minister of Haryana, several times while accompanying Azad Singh. “The CM is happy with our work, and we have his blessings and full support,” he said. “I even met Modi-ji once when he came to promote his Beti Bachao campaign.” Recalling the days of Congress rule, he said, “Before the BJP came to power, we used to have a lot of trouble—the police would arrest us in false cases. In September 2014, when Azad-ji protested against such behaviour, the police stripped him on the road and beat him up.” But now, times have changed, Rinku said. “Now, Azad-ji runs three schools and a college in Panipat. There are around 8,000 children studying under him, and he inspires them to work for the cow mother. Everyone respects him.”
THE GAU RAKSHA DAL currently has branches in nine Indian states and two union territories—Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Bihar, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Goa and Delhi. The GRD Haryana is among the biggest, with branches in each of the state’s 21 districts, and more than 5,000 volunteers, mostly between the ages of 18 and 40. Almost every night since 2011, armed GRD volunteers have been patrolling the state highways, with two or three teams per district.
On 9 February 2016, I met Yogendra Arya, the Haryana president of both the GRD and the Gaushala Sangh, or cow-shelter association. After a brief conversation on the phone, he invited me to the organisations’ headquarters at Dayanand Math, in Rohtak. Both the groups claim to follow the principles of the Arya Samaj movement, founded by Dayanand Saraswati in 1875.
I found Yogendra, dressed in a track suit, sipping chai at a white plastic table with matching chairs on the front lawn of Dayanand Math—a sprawling, tranquil ashram, with blocks for residence, worship and other activities, as well as an artificial reservoir. The beefy, 34-year-old, long-haired brahmachari—a man who has taken a vow of celibacy—hails from Kinana village in Jind district. During our two-hour conversation, he often played with his tresses, while talking in a mix of Sanskritised Hindi and Haryanvi, like the GRD vigilantes, with stray English words thrown in. Yogendra told me that the gau raksha movement could be traced to the efforts of a self-styled godman named Baldev Maharaj, whose disciples include the yoga entrepreneur Baba Ramdev and Yogendra himself. Baldev had passed away on 28 January, two weeks before my conversation with Yogendra.
In 2011, Yogendra was elected the national vice-president of the GRD, and the president of its Haryana wing, as well as of the Gaushala Sangh. He has also been one of the 12 non-official members of the state’s Gau Seva Aayog, a government body devoted to the welfare of cows, since its inception in January 2013 under the previous, Congress government in Haryana, led by Bhupinder Singh Hooda. In November 2015, the BJP chose new members for the Aayog—nine of whom had associations with the RSS, VHP or Bajrang Dal, including the chairman and vice-chairman.
When I spoke to local journalists and politicians from Rohtak, all of them claimed they hadn’t heard of Yogendra until the last couple of years. “It’s only after the BJP government that these things have started, and people like Yogendra are becoming strong—of course, they are supported by the government and the Sangh,” Sunit Dhawan, who writes for The Tribune, said. Anand Singh Dangi, a Congress MLA, echoed him: “Where were these gau rakshaks before 2014?”
At Dayanand Math, Yogendra told me that the strength of the organisation lies in its volunteers. “We tell them about the importance of the cow mother, and show them pictures and videos of how Muslims and foreigners torture and kill cows for meat. We make them realise it is their prime duty to protect the gauvansh”—or cow dynasty—Yogendra explained.
Once indoctrinated, volunteers take up patrolling. “We have a huge network of volunteers and informants,” Yogendra told me. “As soon as someone sees something fishy, they call us up, and we then inform the volunteers of the relevant district, and the local police, who then set up joint nakas”—checkpoints—“to catch the smugglers.” He added that GRD activists usually reach the spot before the police. “Police can’t do what we do, they have to follow the laws. They don’t have the resources and network we have,” he said. “Besides, our boys work with great religious zeal.”
ON 5 AUGUST, I met Swami Agnivesh—a former president of the World Council of Arya Samaj, the highest body of the Arya Samaj movement—at his office in Jantar Mantar, in Delhi. He told me that such “overzealous” tendencies in the name of cow protection in Haryana could be traced as far back as the late 1960s, when Baldev was still under the tutelage of Swami Omanand, the leader of an Arya Samaj sect in the state. According to Agnivesh, these sects had perverted the teachings of the Arya Samaj. “Dayanand Saraswati never invoked emotionality with regard to the cow, and never used the words‘gau mata,’” he said. “He only spoke of the animal’s importance in economic and scientific terms. Moreover, he always wrote ‘gau, adi’”—cow, etc. “That is, he never excluded other domestic animals like sheep, goats and buffaloes. For Saraswati, cow was more of a symbol, but these people interpret him literally.” He also said that things had become worse over the years due to “large-scale infiltration of RSS into Arya Samaj. They have diluted Saraswati’s teachings and propagandised them for issues like Ram temple and cow protection. This is not the real Arya Samaj.”
Agnivesh said that the Una incident was similar to an incident in Haryana that took place nearly 14 years ago. He recalled the lynching of five Dalit youths by a mob for purportedly skinning a dead cow, on 15 October 2002, at a police post in Jhajjar’s Dulina village. According to the Indian Express, this was one of the earliest reported instances of cow vigilantism in India. There were protests back then as well, but after the arrest of five of the gau rakshaks on 13 November 2002, the VHP and the Bajrang Dal, along with the local khap panchayat, organised a demonstration against the police that brought Jhajjar to a standstill—resulting in closure of all schools, colleges and shops. Baldev, who was then heading an organisation called the Gauraksha Samiti, played a prominent role in the protests. Things finally returned to normalcy a week later, on 19 November, when the local administration negotiated a compromise with the agitators. Fourteen years later, the perpetrators, who were awarded life sentences by a lower court, are out on bail. They have challenged the verdict in the Supreme Court.
ON 16 MARCH 2015, the Haryana state assembly unanimously passed the Gauvansh Sanrakshan and Gausamvardhan Bill—five months after Khattar, a former RSS member, took over as chief minister, in October 2014. The new law banned the slaughter of “cow”—an umbrella term that included “bull, bullock, ox, heifer or calf and a disabled, diseased or barren cow.” It also banned the sale, consumption and storage of its meat within the state, and made offences punishable by between three and ten years’ imprisonment and a Rs 30,000 to Rs 100,000 fine. In addition, Section 16 of the Act stated that only a “police officer not below the rank of Sub Inspector or any person authorised in this behalf by the Government” had the authority to “enter, stop and search any vehicle” or premises, and seize cows over suspicion of illegal slaughter or export.
While unveiling the party’s manifesto for the 2014 assembly polls, the Haryana BJP president Ram Bilas Sharma had vowed to make the punishment for cow slaughter the same as that for murder. After coming to power, the BJP government set up “cow task forces” of the Haryana Police under the supervision of the IPS officer Bharti Arora, and the superintendent and special cell of each district. Comprising a PCR van, one officer and three constables from every police station, these task forces work in tandem with GRD vigilantes. As I witnessed during the patrol, there was free exchange of information, infrastructure and manpower.
On 7 June, I spoke to Rahul Sharma, who was appointed the superintendent of police of Panipat after the BJP came to power in the state. “I don’t have the exact figures, but many cases have been filed and we have caught many gangs,” he bragged. “We have even recovered cows and vehicles from places in UP, such as Muzaffarnagar and Meerut.” On the coordination between the police and the GRD, he said, “We ask all the SHOs and DSPs to remain open to information, and make joint teams with GRD volunteers. We have also asked the GRD to inform the police as soon as possible, so we can send a PCR from the nearest checkpost. But of course, if they take the law into their hands, they too will be punished.”
Bhani Ram Mangla, the chairman of Haryana’s Gau Seva Aayog, had similar views. He, too, was happy about the cow-protection initiatives taken by the government, pointing to the increasing number of stray cows in the state. It didn’t matter that these are mostly sick, emaciated animals abandoned by their owners because there was no profit in caring for them—and with the new law, they could not even be sold for slaughter.
Mangla added that the Aayog would soon set up a toll-free “cow helpline,” where people could report cows in trouble. He went on to boast about a number of other cow-protection policies the state had adopted since 2014. Regarding the support of the Sangh Parivar, he said, “We have the same objective. Their means are social, while ours are political.” But, he, too, questioned the zeal of gau rakshaks: “Where were these people two years ago? Now that the government is all about cow protection, these people have come forward for money and politics.” However, when I pointed out that the GRD president was also a part of the Aayog, Mangla replied, “Yogendra-ji sahi se kaam karte hain”—Yogendra-ji works through proper means. “None of his gau rakshaks are criminals.”
“SOMETIMES OUR BOYS MAKE MISTAKES,” Yogendra told me at Dayanand Math. “They bash up the drivers without looking, or else they break the windows, or burn the vehicle or something. So, there were a few cases filed against us. But now we have police cooperation, so we manage to sort the trouble without much hassle. Plus, we have our own lawyers now. And it’s all for a bigger cause.” I asked him whether there had been times when it turned out that the seized consignment was not cow meat. Instead of answering my question, he said, “The problem is that we don’t have proper labs for testing. So, we’ve sent a proposal to the Gau Seva Aayog to set up labs in Mewat and Gurgaon.”
Yogendra claimed that all of the GRD’s funding came from donations, which he called “gau-daan,” collected from supporters across the state, or from the government. At the time, he said, the GRD was in talks with the government for a grant of RS 5 crore and at least 50 acres in each village for gaushalas as part of a gau abhiyaan, or cow mission. For the moment, Yogendra told me, apart from the purchase and maintenance of vehicles, fuel and volunteer stipends, funds were mostly spent on the upkeep of cows at the various shelters.
On 11 June, I spoke to the mahamantri, or secretary general, of GRD Haryana, Sarvamitra Arya, who expanded upon the logistics of the organisation. “We don’t get much donation,” he repeated a few times during the interview, before finally giving me some numbers. Each year, the GRD receives between Rs 10 lakh and Rs 15 lakh and several cars as donations from individual supporters, he said. As for the state government, he claimed that this year the organisation had so far received Rs 7 lakh from the Haryana government, along with an additional Rs 3 lakh as a fuel subsidy. At present, he told me, the GRD owns between 60 and 70 gun licences, and around 60 cars—on each of which they spent Rs 30,000 a month for fuel and maintenance—making for a total expenditure of around Rs 2 crore each year on the vehicles. He refused to answer how much the organisation paid in taxes, saying that the GRD was trying to push for tax-free status.
On the subject of the Gaushala Sangh, Sarvamitra told me that, at present, Haryana had 428 registered gaushalas, sheltering around 3.5 lakh cows. “It’s all thanks to Baldev Maharaj,” he explained. “When he became our leader in 1998—we were called Gauraksha Samiti back then—there were around 80 cow shelters in Haryana. By the time Yogendra took over in 2011, we had 350. We have only carried forward the work.” He told me that when the Gau Seva Aayog was set up in 2013, the government had promised an annual sum of Rs 5 lakh for each shelter. Gradually, the number was raised to the current annual sum of Rs 150 per sheltered cow, which comes to over Rs 5 crore for the aforementioned 3.5 lakh cows. As I probed into the details of the expenses incurred by the organisation, Sarvamitra gave me figures on the fodder needed for the upkeep of cows, that, when I later calculated for all the sheltered cows, came to a total of more than Rs 1,000 crore. Thus, there seemed to be a massive discrepancy between the organisation’s reported expenses and sources of revenue. When I called up Sarvamitra later, he clarified that most of the fodder came from Hindu farmers as donations.
But during our conversation, Agnivesh seemed to have an alternate explanation. “Who are selling these cows to the butchers in the first place? Hindu farmers!” he said. “And these gaushalas—how much money do they earn, how many cows pass through their hands? There are never any records. In fact, in some places, it is these very gau rakshaks who first take the seized cows to a gaushala, and then quietly sell them for slaughter.”
On 5 August, Firoz Khan—a gau rakshak and gaushala-owner based in UP’s Sambhal district—spoke to me over the phone, claiming that the majority of gaushalas operating in Haryana, Punjab and Rajasthan were running a clandestine beef racket. He echoed Agnivesh. “They accuse us Muslims, but who is bringing the cows to UP slaughterhouses? If not Hindu farmers, it is these pseudo-gau rakshaks themselves,” he said. “And RSS, VHP and all these holy men—none of them actually care about the cow—it’s just politics and business in the name of gau mata.”
Over the next couple of days, he sent me several news clippings from Hindi newspapers such as Dainik Jagran and Hindustan over WhatsApp, which seemed to affirm his claims about beef rackets. In April this year, the Haryana police busted a gang of “fake cow protectors,” who extorted Rs 8,000 from each vehicle transporting cattle in Hisar district. On 7 August, the Indian Express also reported on how gau rakshaks in Punjab were running an extortion racket, targeting cattle traders, by charging fixed amounts for safe passage.
AS SEVERAL GRD LEADERS told me, the organisation devotes a good deal of attention to spreading its propaganda. One of Yogendra’s assistants handed me a 12-page brochure for the GRD, meant to be distributed across Haryana. The information inside is also freely available on the GRD Haryana website, which opens with a paean to the cow mother that copies a Bollywood song from the 1968 movie Raja Aur Runk, with the word “gau” strategically inserted into the lyrics. The cover showcased the same bejewelled cow, along with pictures of Hindu gods, and of course, AK-47s and daggers.
The brochure had graphic photographs of cows supposedly being trafficked or slaughtered, a district-wise list of around 500 GRD members along with their phone numbers, and photographs of 18 senior members. A call for donations on the final page exhorted, “What sort of a Hindu are you? You spend thousands on petrol, cigarettes, tobacco, alcohol. Can’t you save 20 rupees each day for the cow? If you can, donate 500-600 rupees each month at a cow shelter so that the COW DOES NOT GET BEHEADED.”
The back cover reiterated the point with details of a Punjab National Bank account, along with photographs of five young men listed as “gau shaheed,” or cow martyrs. Yogendra told me that they had died on the job during patrols and raids. He then described some of his own encounters with the cow-smuggling bogeymen, involving 100-kilometre-per-hour chases, vehicles ramming into each other, and flying bullets and stones—“just like in the movies.”
Yogendra told me he had no plans to enter electoral politics. “Politicians do these things for votes, we do it for faith. We only support those who stand for the cow mother,” he said. “If tomorrow, Khattar does not defend the cow, we will protest against him as well. We belong to the Arya Samaj. We don’t play caste or religion games. We don’t believe in anything but humanity and the Vedas.” Hearing this, I brought up the Dadri incident, where a man was lynched for allegedly consuming beef. “It’s unfortunate,” he replied, nodding gravely. “But then it’s for the cow mother. Some sacrifices will have to be made.”
ON THE NIGHT OF THE PATROL, at a little past midnight, we arrived at a police checkpost in the city of Kharkhoda, Sonipat district. Here, the GRD activists first chatted up some of the policemen, and then began stopping vehicles, even as the policemen sat and watched.
Suddenly, a truck bearing a Himachal Pradesh registration number rammed through the barricade, and escaped even as the police and the GRD vigilantes hurled lathis, stones and hockey sticks at it, shattering its windshield. A frenzy ensued as all of us scrambled to get back into the Scorpio. After a brief chase, where we touched 100 kilometres per hour, the truck pulled over.
The gau rakshaks rushed and dragged the driver out. The truck, however, turned out to be empty. Apparently, the driver was drunk and, at the sight of the police, got scared that he would be fined or his vehicle impounded. The activists let him go after a bit of scolding and shoving. Rinku turned to me and said, smiling, “He was a poor guy. The police would have fined him. So we spared him. We only care about the cow mother.”
At around 1 am, we retired to a dhaba in Jharoth village, Sonipat, for dinner. About half an hour later, as we were finishing, Rinku received a call from a volunteer in Panipat. Apparently, people in Alukpur village had seen some men gather a few stray cows into a pick-up van, which was now believed to be heading towards UP via Sonipat. Rinku immediately dialled 100 to inform the police, before we started driving towards the Gauri Pul border-checkpost—one of the main exit points for cattle smugglers, I was told, and our last stop for the night.
IN ANCIENT TIMES, according to many historians, such as DN Jha and Romila Thapar, beef was a part of the diet of most communities living on the subcontinent, including Brahmins. Cows, among other animals, were also sacrificed for many Brahminical rituals. The popular sentiment against cow slaughter began to reify in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with the emergence of Hindu nationalism. By the early twentieth century, organisations such as the Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS had started using the cow as a political tool to mobilise Hindus.
In late 1948, during the constituent assembly debates, a few members of the assembly demanded that cow protection be made a fundamental right. However, among others, BR Ambedkar, the chairman of the drafting committee, opposed the idea, preventing India from becoming the first country to provide a fundamental right to an animal. Eventually, a compromise was reached, as a ban on cattle slaughter was declared one of the Directive Principles of State Policy—guidelines to be kept in mind by central and state governments while framing laws. The resulting Article 48 of the Constitution reads, “The State shall endeavour to organise agriculture and animal husbandry on modern and scientific lines and shall, in particular, take steps for preserving and improving the breeds, and prohibiting the slaughter, of cows and calves and other milch and draught cattle.”
Through the 1950s and 1960s, the cow mother motif was used by Hindutva groups to rouse religious sentiments among the Hindus.
On 7 November 1966, a movement for a nationwide ban on cow slaughter, led by these organisations, culminated in a massive demonstration, when a crowd of nearly 125,000 descended upon Delhi. It was an unprecedented attack on the Indian parliament. (It would be 35 years before the next one, orchestrated by Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed in 2001.) The procession started from Roshanara Garden, Red Fort and Ajmal Khan Park. According to archival news reports from The Tribune, around midday, as the mobs neared the legislative centre—with “saffron-robed sadhus” carrying swords, spears and trishuls in the vanguard—“a day of violence and vandalism” began to unfold as the demonstrators laid siege to the surrounding areas of Connaught Place and central Delhi, attacking two electrical substations, Irwin Hospital, the Government of India Press, Delite and Odeon cinemas, and other establishments.
The “focal point of the demonstration,” however, was right before the Parliament House, where “the demonstrators, who filled the mile-long Parliament Street, were addressed from a huge platform by leaders of the organising parties, Members of Parliament and religious leaders.” At around 1.25 pm, the demonstration took a violent turn after a “highly inflammatory speech” by the Jana Sangh MP Swami Rameshwaranand, who at the time had been suspended from the Lok Sabha for unruly behaviour. Incited by his call to surround the parliament, the crowd rushed to break the police cordon, hurling stones and other missiles. The police resorted to using tear gas and lathi-charging, before finally opening fire to keep the demonstrators from entering the building.
The foiled mob then again went on a rampage, throwing lit petrol-soaked rags at neighbouring buildings, such as those housing All India Radio, Press Trust of India, Press Information Bureau, Transport Bhawan, Shram Bhawan and Gol Dak Khana. According to The Tribune, there was “extensive damage and destruction,” so that by 3 pm, “there was hardly a building in Parliament Street or Connaught Circus which did not bear evidence of vandalism.” Government vehicles, including a mail-van and four buses; an Indian Oil petrol pump; and several milk booths belonging to Delhi Milk Supply Scheme were set on fire, and “even traffic lights were not spared.” In addition, the houses of the then Congress president, Kumarasami Kamaraj, and the then union minister of supply and technical development, Kotha Raghuramaiah, were attacked.
Though the situation was officially declared under control by 7.30 pm, the army and the Central Reserve Police Force were called in to help guard important government buildings, and localities around central Delhi. “By the evening the army was patrolling the streets, for the first time since the dark days of 1947,” Ramachandra Guha noted in India After Gandhi. Additionally, a 48-hour curfew was announced under Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code, which deals with “unlawful assembly,” and was finally lifted on the morning of 9 November, since no untoward incidents were reported in the preceding 24 hours. According to a UNI report, dated 8 November, over 250 private cars and two-wheelers were damaged the previous day, mostly within a two-mile radius of the Parliament Street police station, at a loss of about Rs 90 lakh. The report also mentioned that no compensation would be paid to the owners since rioting was not covered under comprehensive insurance. Another PTI report stated that 830 persons—mostly sadhus—had been taken into custody, including Rameshwaranand.
On 9 November, the then home minister, Gulzarilal Nanda, resigned after his colleagues in the Congress demanded that he do so during a meeting of the Congress parliamentary party executive.
The next day, the minister of state for home affairs, Jaisukh Lal Hathi, released an official statement, according to which, out of the 40-odd persons who received gunshot injuries, eight had died, including a constable. Opposition leaders, especially those belonging to the Jana Sangh, demanded a judicial inquiry into the killings. Atal Behari Vajpayee, then a Jana Sangh MP, lamented that “the undesirable elements, who resorted to violent activities in the demonstration against cow-slaughter, had done a great harm to the pious cause.” Even now, half a century later, a rally is held each year in November at Ramlila Maidan in Delhi to commemorate the 1966 demonstration. This year, the VHP plans to organise a mega rally to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the occasion, and to renew the call for a nationwide ban on cow slaughter.
At present, the export of cow meat is prohibited in India, while most states have restrictions of varying degrees on cow slaughter. Only eight out of 29 states in India freely allow cow slaughter—Kerala, West Bengal, Sikkim, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Mizoram and Tripura. In April, a Times of India report noted that Uttar Pradesh, despite a ban on cattle slaughter, has 126 slaughterhouses—thus attracting cattle traffickers, especially from Haryana, given the large number of stray cows there.
AT AROUND 3 AM, the Scorpio reached the Gauri Pul border checkpost in Sonipat. Apart from six policemen, the Bolero team had also arrived there, along with another Sonipat-based GRD team. As the policemen watched, the gau rakshaks laid out spike strips and barricades, before walking around with their weapons, stopping and checking vehicles at will. At the checkpost, Assistant Sub-Inspector Baljeet Singh and Constable Vinod Kumar from Rai Thana, Mirkpur, told me that cow smuggling was rampant till the end of last year, but now it had been reduced significantly. Singh, like the other policemen, stressed, “There are uncountable trucks. Who can check them all? So, we provide supervision while the GRD boys use their fervour to do the job.”
We could not find the pick-up van with the stray cows, and the patrol was finally called off at around 4 am. By this time, the volunteers had stopped and searched at least 30 vehicles. All of them were either empty or carrying buffaloes. Towards the end, out of boredom and for a few laughs, some of the volunteers began to enact what they would have done to the smugglers with their hockey sticks, if they had found any. The sinister pantomime occurring by the light of passing headlights made me feel relieved that no one was caught. “It’s a wasted night,” Rinku lamented, the disappointment visible on his face.
This, then, was the usual life of a GRD volunteer from 8 pm to 6 am. “We conduct the patrols for three, four nights at a stretch, and then take a day off to catch up on sleep. During the rounds, we sleep in the daytime for a few hours. Now, we’ll finally head home after three days,” said Surinder Kumar, a 23-year-old resident of Dikadla village in Panipat. I asked the volunteers whether there would be a party to celebrate the previous night’s catch at Rewari, and they grinned. “Yes, definitely,” Rinku said, “We’ll get 20 litres of milk from a gaushala, and mix dry fruits worth 1,000 to 1,500 rupees in it—and we’ll eat good vegetarian food.”
The conversation then moved on to the benefits of cow products. The volunteers believed, among other things, that American scientists had proved that cow urine can cure cancer. Ashok explained how cow-urine therapy works: “Each morning, collect the first urine of the cow. Then, strain it through a cloth, and drink a 30 ml shot on an empty stomach. Your body will never go wrong.” Surinder showed me photographs on his phone of seized cows and vehicles, and smiling group shots with leaders such as Ramdev and Khattar.
Half an hour later, the photographer and I were on our way back to Jhajjar after a series of hitched and hired rides on the deserted night roads. We finally reached the police post after daybreak, and proceeded to ride back to Delhi via NH 9.
A couple of days later, Surinder added me to a WhatsApp group called “Gau Bhagat.” On 2 June, I skimmed through 500-odd messages on it. They mostly contained details about rallies, orders, patrols and achievements, apart from sundry jokes and nationalistic propaganda, with dubious arguments and statistics. There were also images, videos and songs hailing the cow mother. Most of the messages ended with “Jai Gau Mata Ki.” A few weeks thence, Surinder changed the name of the group to “Gau ma da ladlaa,” or beloved son of the cow mother. Recently, on 9 August, reacting to the prime minister’s comments against gau rakshaks, one of the members posted a poem in Hindi:
Ek arab ki umeedon ne
Tumko vahaan bithaaya tha
Saare desh ke gaubhakton ne
Milkar jor lagaya tha
Abhi samay hai, maafi maang lo
Varna desh ki gaddi se
Ab tumhein utaara jaayega
Patna toh tum haar chuke,
ab UP haara jaayega
(The hopes of one billion people
Got you the PM’s seat
The country’s cow-devotees
Had all put in the effort
There is still time, apologise
Or else, from the country’s throne
Now you shall be uprooted
You’ve already lost Patna
Now you’ll lose UP).
An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to a Mahindra Scorpio as a Tata Scorpio and the village Mirkpur as Meruthpur. The Caravan regrets the errors.