Thirty-one gau rakshaks are now in custody in Gujarat, amid a political storm over the flogging of Dalits in Una. But for many years now, the state has rewarded “cow protectors” like them for their “contribution”, estimated on the basis of FIRs lodged by them under the Gujarat Animal Preservation Act and the cattle heads they have “saved”.
Taxi driver Sandip Gadhvi, 35, says he has been into “cow protection” for 12 years and runs two gaushalas. He puts his score at 285 FIRs and 29,000 heads of cattle saved, and has been felicitated for his “services” by the Gauseva and Gauchar Vikas Board (cow care and grazing land development board, or GGVB) of Gujarat’s Department of Agriculture and Co-operation.
Haresh Chauhan, 31, turned a “cow protector” in 2005, while in the Shiv Sena. A Congress member and vice-president of the Chotila municipality, Chauhan runs a shop selling handicrafts. He takes credit for 200 FIRs and 7,000 cattle heads saved, and flaunts a picture of Minister of State for Women and Child Welfare Vasuben Trivedi giving him the “gau rakshak award” of the GGVB in 2012.
“Gau rakshaks play a major role in the cow protection regime,” says GGVB chairman Vallabh Kathiria. “They help rescue 15,000 cattle heads on an average per year. We acknowledge their contribution by giving them an award every two years. We also conduct training workshops for them on how to conduct rescue operations, and how to ensure that an FIR is filed under proper sections, relevant laws, etc.”
Kathiria adds that they don’t directly help the gau rakshaks, but grant funds to organisations like gaushalas and panjrapoles or shelters “which take care of such rescued cattle”.Pragnesh Soni of Godhra is an ice-cream trader who leads a team of the Gau Raksha Dal, that has jewellers, traders and professionals as members. In June, Soni and his team “raided” the Agriculture Produce Market Committee in Ghoghamba, Panchmahals district, on suspicion that cattle were being sold without authorisation. It led to a riot and suspension of the Sunday cattle market for nearly four weeks.
Dinesh Loriya, 42, of Morbi was among seven gau rakshaks who attempted suicide in Rajkot in March this year demanding “rashtra mata” status for the cow. Of them, one died. The son of a farmer, Loriya took up cow protection in 2006. Now, he runs a transport firm and a gaushala and claims to be “national vice-president of the Akhil Vishwa Gau Sanvardhan Parishad”.
It was under Narendra Modi as chief minister, in 2011, that the Gujarat Animal Preservation Act, 1954, got more teeth. The amended Act banned all slaughter of the cow and its progeny, and prohibited the sale, storage or transport of beef in any form. The punishment for violation was increased to up to seven years of imprisonment and seizure of all vehicles involved in transportation. The Directorate of Forensic Sciences was empowered to run mobile units to test suspect beef in transit.
Now cow protection groups cut across political affiliations. Soon after activists like Loriya attempted suicide demanding “rashtra mata” status for cows, Shankersinh Vaghela, the Opposition leader in the Gujarat Assembly, said that any such initiative by the BJP government would have the Congress’s support.
Sajan Bharwad, 37, seen as the don of cow vigilante groups in south Gujarat, has close Congress links. He is the son of a veteran Bhavnagar Congressman, Kababhai Bharwad, and married to the daughter of another Congress leader, Bharat Bhudaliya.
From a cattle-rearing family, he says he has been in the business of “protecting cows” for 13 years. Now Bharwad owns 100 bighas in Navsari district, besides a maintenance workshop for trucks and two factories, and also sells milk.
Bharwad, who claims to have filed 450 police complaints of illegal cattle or beef transport, faces three criminal cases — a 2011 one in Tapi for allegedly setting ablaze a truck used by butchers; a 2013 case in Navsari for alleged assault on the driver and cleaner of a truck transporting cattle; and a July 24 case under the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act in Navsari related to beef sale.
Neha Patel, a 38-year-old management professional from Vadodara, and arguably Gujarat’s “only woman gau rakshak”, explains how it works. Seated on her motorcycle on the Vadodara-Ahmedabad highway, she says she is waiting for “a vehicle transporting cattle for slaughter or tonnes of beef, packed in plastic bags and camouflaged”. The “tip-off” has come from Godhra, from her trusted aide, a Muslim man in his early 30s.
Farida Mir, a popular folk and bhajan singer of Kutch, has also actively led cow vigilante groups in Saurashtra. In 2013, she waylaid trucks transporting calves and cows in Rajkot and was booked for attacking the transporters.
Muslims are key to their job, say gau rakshaks. Butchers or their associates occasionally pass on tips about illegal cattle to get back at business rivals or in exchange of money.
Loriya says 30 per cent of his informers are Dalits, while butchers are the “most active informers”. For every credible tip-off, he pays up to Rs 10,000, says Loriya, who works closely with the VHP and Shiv Sena.
Ajay Sharma of Surat, who belongs to Bharwad’s cow protection group, says he is careful not to touch vehicles in Muslim areas as that could lead to clashes, while Gadhvi conducts raids only in police company. Police hardly ever turn them away, says Gadhvi, who claims he also pays his informers from the money received from the government for rescuing cattle.
Navsari district police sub-inspector D K Soni acknowledges the role of gau rakshaks. “We act only on their tip-offs. The gau rakshaks intercept the vehicle carrying the meat or cattle and later inform us. Sometimes, we accompany them when they stop a vehicle.”
Senior police officials, however, are not willing to speak on the matter. The butchers have raised protection forces of their own. Hussain Shaikh, of Navsari Bazaar in Surat, and his group are part of one such force. He used to protect liquor trucks earlier, Shaikh says.
He knows that some of his men also tip off gau rakshaks. However, Shaikh understands the temptation. “We get Rs 1,000 per trip for piloting work by the butcher, of which Rs 500 goes to the driver of the truck. The youths who tip off gau rakshaks get Rs 2,000-3,000 per tip.”
A few years ago, the gau rakshaks also demanded identity cards from the government. At that point, the government said no.