Parvati is shy. Mahesh is short-tempered and frequently fights with Brahma and Vishnu. They are among the 33 cattle at a guashala run by a Muslim woman in Payal, a small town in Punjab’s Ludhiana district.
Salma, 33, says she takes in old, injured and abandoned cattle at the guashala. It began in August 2007, when she found an injured bull and brought it home. She named it Nandi. Soon after she took in an abandoned cow, naming it Gauri. Soon, her cow shelter came to be known as ‘Muslim Gaushala’.
Since then it has been run by Salma, her father Nek Mohammad and aunt Tejo on the Rs 45,000 per month cumulative pension that the two elders get. Theirs is one of the few Muslim families in the town. Asked why she chose to call it ‘Muslim Gaushala’, she says, “People say ‘eh sirf kaat maar sakde ne’ (People say Muslims can only kill animals). We also have a heart. We can also love animals.”
At 33, Salma is single and says she will only marry a person who is ready to run the gaushala with her. At least six marriage proposals ended in bitter rejections and the oft-repeated question — Why does a Muslim woman need to run a gaushala?
Salma says it has nothing to do with religion, and everything to do with her love for animals. “I don’t see the cow as my Goddess, but just an animal in desperate need of help.” “I am only following the Quran and the teachings of Allah. My religion teaches me to help every ‘jeev’ (living being), who is created by Allah and is a besahara. We use them for money and abandon them when the work is done,” she says.
But her family faces a social boycott-like situation. The other Muslim families in the area have stopped interacting with them. But that doesn’t shock her. “Caring for cows does not make me a lesser Muslim,” says Salma, who is a vegetarian. “On the rare occasions when the other Muslim families talk to us, they suggest shutting down the cow shelter,” she says, expressing dismay that Hindu and Sikh neighbours complain about the smell.
“Only two of my cows give milk, which we use to feed the calves. We do not sell milk for money. We don’t even use for home. We buy packet milk,” Salma adds.
“The stink and mess is in my home, not theirs. I realised they don’t care if the cows get beaten up or die in pain. So, I have stopped naming my cows after Hindu gods and goddesses,” she says. At first, she opted for names such as Parvati, Jagdamba, Durga, Meera, Saraswati, Radha, Laxmi and Tulsi for cows. The animals that she took in after 2012 were christened Ejaza, Ashu, Jaan, Gulbadan, Kumkum, Honey and Badshah.
Salma rues that a police complaint was filed against her for burying five animals that died last year instead of handing them over for skinning. “We were denied land for burial at hadda rodi (carcass disposal ground). I did not want them to get skinned. Finally, we buried them at our own place,” she recalls.
At a time when ‘cow vigilantes’ have been targeting ‘cow slaughterers’ and ‘beef eaters’, Salma says she does not want to give her effort any political colour. “Political parties use cows and religion to divert attention from the real issues such as poverty and unemployment,” she says.