Mumbai: Targeted killing of Muslims in the name of cow slaughter is regularly making news ever since Narendra Modi became Prime Minister.
However an in-depth report published by news agency Reuters has unearthed the economic angle behind the entire game, providing the first in-depth look at how the actions of cow vigilantes are leading to further economic marginalization of the country’s Muslim minority.
In northern India, the leadership of just two of the main organizations of “gau rakshaks” – right-wing Hindu cow vigilantes, or literally “cow protectors” – said they have taken about 190,000 cows since the year of Modi’s election, some in the presence of police and almost every single one of them from Muslims, the reporting shows.
Separately, Reuters surveyed 110 cow shelters or farms, known as “gaushalas,” across six Indian states that were led by BJP chief ministers from before or just after Modi’s 2014 election win. The survey found an increase of 50 percent in their cattle holdings - from about 84,000 head before Modi came to power in 2014 to more than 126,000 today.
The report said, of the 110 cattle facilities surveyed by Reuters, all but 14 said they receive cows from the Hindu vigilante groups. About a third said they sell or give cows away, nearly all to Hindu farmers and households.
In a separate survey, Reuters found that only three of 24 cow facilities in four states not ruled by a BJP chief minister said they sold or gave away cattle - mainly to Hindus - after receiving them. While cattle stock has risen about 40 percent in these gaushalas since Modi took office, only a small part of the increase was due to vigilantes. In many of the cases, cows were donated to the shelters for religious reasons or purchased from cattle markets for fear they would be slaughtered.
It is hard to put a value on the seized cattle because the price of cows ranges from zero for animals near death to 25,000 rupees (about $385), if not more, at cattle markets for healthy milk cows. But taking the average of those two points, just the 190,000 cows captured by the two vigilante groups in northern India would be worth more than $36 million.
That is a significant amount of money in India, where some 270 million people live on less than $1.90 a day. In rural areas, home to about 70 percent of the nation’s population, a family’s milk cow is often its most valuable possession.
People involved in snatching cattle from Muslims speak with a triumphant sense that their moment in history has arrived. “Everyone in this world is born Hindu. They are turned into Muslims when they are circumcised and Christians when they are baptized,” said Dinesh Patil, a district head of the Bajrang Dal group in the southwestern state of Maharashtra.
At the complex he manages, Patil said that almost every one of the 1,700 cows grazing outside was “rescued by the Bajrang Dal” from “these Muslim slaughterers.” Patil described how a degree of law enforcement sanction is conferred on the cattle seizures: His group takes the cows and hands them over to the police, who then deliver the cattle to his facility.
“The entire investigation and catching of the culprits is done by us,” Patil said.
The police, he added, “have to listen to us because the BJP is in power.”
Modi's office referred Reuters’ request for comment to the Home Ministry. The ministry said it is "not correct" that cow vigilantism has risen on Modi's watch and "preposterous" to conclude that Hindus are organizing to confiscate and redistribute cattle.
Some people have taken the law into their own hands “in the name of protecting the cows,” the ministry noted in a written statement, but "the Government is committed to protect the legal rights of all citizens, including minorities in India." State governments, it said, have been directed to take “prompt action” against such people.
Prime Minister Modi has at least twice publicly criticized cow vigilantism. “Do we get the right to kill a human being in the name of cow? Is this ‘gau bhakti’? Is this ‘gau raksha’?” he declared in a speech in June, using the Hindi phrases for cow devotion and cow protection. “Violence is not the solution to any problem,” he added.
The Supreme Court has also addressed the issue. In September, the court ruled that central and state governments must deploy police officers to prevent cow vigilante violence.
On the ground, some Hindu activists aren’t heeding Modi’s calls. The leader of a group of cow vigilantes, which claims 10,000 members concentrated mostly in western and northern Indian states, said they were unmoved by the prime minister’s condemnation of what he called the vigilantes’ “anti-social activities.”
Pandit said networks of vigilantes operating under his Bhartiya Gau Raksha Dal – or Indian cow protection group – captured as many as 60,000 cows in the three years before Modi came to office. Since 2014, Pandit said, the group has grabbed more than 100,000 cows, often working with police.
A similar scenario has unfolded in Assam, where the BJP won power last year. Located in the farthest reaches of India’s northeast, the state is in a region where cow vigilante activity was all but unheard of.
The leader of a right-wing Hindu youth organization said he waited a year for the BJP-led government in Assam to crack down on what his group views as illegal cattle trading. Then, said Balen Baishya, head of the Hindu Youth-Students Council of Assam, he decided that local party leadership was not made up of “hardcore believers.”
On July 2, Baishya said, he and his men seized three vehicles carrying cows. Video of the incident posted to the Internet shows a mob surrounding one of the drivers as a man beat him with a baton while he writhed on the ground and tried to shield himself, the reports says.