In the wee hours of the morning, a speeding goods tempo is on its way to a slaughterhouse in Kudroli in Mangalore city, one of only five legal cow slaughter centres in Karnataka apart from the ones in Bangalore, Mysore, Hubli-Dharwad and Mandya.
Two men wearing T-shirts and jeans stand amidst 17 tightly packed animals in the rear of the tempo, while one hangs by a rail at the back. A third “middleman” is peeking over the roof, keeping an eye out for anything amiss on the deserted main roads as they approach Mangalore city. It’s 4.30 am but, scanning the faces of a group of autodrivers gathered at the city’s main junction, the nervous three say they can’t let their guard down.
As their tempo goes past the junction, Sahil notices one of the autodrivers speaking into his cellphone. It could be a Bajrang Dal man tracking their movements, he whispers to the others.
But this morning, they are lucky. By about 4.45 am, their consignment of cows has made it without any hiccup to the Kudroli slaughterhouse.
On April 19, a youth transporting cattle in a pick-up truck on the Sringeri-Karkala route, approximately 100 km from Mangalore city, was shot to death by Karnataka’s Anti-Naxal Force when he tried to flee as they were stopped at a forest check-post. It is suspected that 23-year-old Mohd Kabeer, who had four cases of illegal cattle smuggling against him in the Mangalore region, took to his heels along with two associates after seeing the armed ANF personnel, fearing he would be arrested.
Since 2004, Mangalore, a BJP stronghold, has seen the rise of right-wing Hindu groups setting up vigilante units to target transporters moving cattle to slaughterhouses. In groups of 50 or more, these men claim to target men transporting cattle “illegally”, and it wouldn’t have been Kabeer’s first brush with them.
In October 2006, the coastal region witnessed major communal violence after Bajrang Dal activists intercepted a vehicle carrying allegedly stolen cattle to a slaughterhouse and assaulted the occupants, resulting in one death and curfew lasting several days.
While there hasn’t been a repeat of such large-scale violence, tensions never died down. Recently, close to 650 Bajrang Dal members were named ‘rowdy sheeters’ by the Mangalore police and one detained under the Goonda Act. Incidents of vehicles being intercepted, cattle transporters being roughed up, their papers torn and their cows freed are routine, though seldom do these make it to police records.
“Even though we have legal permission to transport cattle, the fear of being intercepted by a mob and being assaulted is an occupational hazard,” Sahil says. He says that “over 40,000 people and families in Dakshina Kannada alone are dependent on the cattle meat industry”.
There are approximately 25 beef shops in Mangalore city region, down from 28 four years ago, says Ali Hasan, the president of the Beef Traders’ Association of Mangalore. Available in Mangalore for Rs 35 a kg till a few years ago, beef now sells at Rs 165 a kg. Because of its low cost compared to other meat products, beef used to be in high demand among the Dalits and the poor, apart from minority community members.
“In Dakshina Kannada, where agriculture is on the decline, unyielding and barren cows are of no use to farmers, and since it is expensive for them to look after the animals, they sell them to cattle traders,” says human rights activist Suresh Bhat Bakrabail.
According to Bakrabail, the change set in after the Babri Masjid demolition, when the RSS started targeting the Dakshina Kannada region to spread its base. Local Bajrang Dal units that had formerly earned support for organising Hindu cultural and festival programmes slowly got more radicalised.
“They spread false rumours of indiscriminate cattle killing since it was an occupation practised mainly by Muslims. In the process, they attracted more youths towards the Bajrang Dal fold. Now they are targeting each and every activity of minority communities only to show their presence,” Bakrabail says.
Hasan adds that they get little help from the administration. “On the one hand, activists from the Bajrang Dal and VHP harass traders and, on the other, we have the police who are either mute spectators or themselves support the hate ideology and file cases against traders for illegal transportation and slaughtering.”
According to both him and Bakrabail, the Bajrang Dal has infiltrated police ranks at the constable level and its men help tip off RSS-led organisations. “This is exactly how these extremist organisations get specific information on the movement of cattle-bearing vehicles. Later, they detain the transporters even if they have valid papers,” says Hasan.
Police Commissioner R Hithendra calls the allegations baseless. “I will prefer not to comment on such arguments,” he says.
While a Congress government took over in Karnataka last year, traders say it may have made things worse. According to them, the BJP-led regime ended up protecting traders’ interests better. “To preserve its reputation, the BJP reined in some VHP and Bajrang Dal elements. A few right-wing activists even helped procure cows through their network in rural areas,” a trader says.
Another trader claims that the lion’s share of procurement is actually done by right-wing members, who claim they can round up the “appropriate cows”. “It is only during elections that violence flares up,” according to him.
While the BJP won the Mangalore Lok Sabha seat last time, in the 2013 Assembly elections, the Congress had won in seven of the eight Assembly segments here.
Bajrang Dal Karnataka president Sharan Pumpwell, however, denies that any of them are working with cattle traders. “The cow is very sacred to us and we support a complete ban on any activity involving its inhumane transportation or its killing for meat,” he says.
Pumpwell also alleges that the Kudroli slaughterhouse does not comply with norms laid down by the Karnataka Pollution Control Board. Incidentally, the slaughterhouse is located near the Kudroli temple, which is also a source of friction. The pollution board wants the slaughterhouse to move 5 km away from the city, and the deadline is June 31.