ON AUGUST 6, in his first remarks on cow protection vigilantes, Prime Minister Narendra Modi described “70-80 per cent” of gau rakshaks as “anti-social elements” who were running “shops” in the name of cow protection.
His words acquire a special ring in Nanded, the district in Marathwada from where 200 people responded to the call in May by Maharashtra’s Department of Animal Husbandry for volunteers to “monitor the beef ban” imposed last year.
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Here, the official in charge of endorsing applications, Dr Pravin Ghule, makes a startling revelation: “There are many with religious and political affiliations. But there were no written guidelines on what is to be done with these huge number of applications.” Ghule is the rural district development officer entrusted with the “additional responsibility” of district deputy commissioner, animal husbandry.
The Indian Express interviewed 40 of these applications and found that a common strand: each applicant has been involved in “gau raksha” and now look at the government-issued card as key to a more muscular implementation of the beef ban. Each one is linked to a Sangh organisation, with 12 holding nodal posts.
‘Will help VHP take control’
At Loha tehsil, which has seen the “maximum” number of complaints reported on cow slaughter since the amendment to the preservation act last year, which effectively made it illegal to possess or transport beef, the excitement is all about the state-approved ID card.
Inside his electronics shop, off the Nanded-Latur highway, Yuvraj Shinde, who describes himself as a taluka-level mantri of VHP, recalls that the first alert about the application appeared in a WhatsApp group of the outfit in May. “I pasted it on our tehsil VHP groups.
Instructions came from the top to mobilise youth and as many Hindus as possible to fill the forms,” says the 41-year-old.
Since joining VHP after the beef ban, Shinde is on the lookout for trucks plying cattle on the road outside. “Since joining VHP, my only brief is gau raksha,” he says.
Over May and June, Shinde’s corner shop became a pit-stop for his “boys” to pick copies of the application form. Those who couldn’t write got help. Details were simple — everyone had experience of “gau raksha”. Shinde says the “social work” will continue with or without the card but then, the government-approved card has “special benefits”.
“The police do not cooperate. Once we get the cards, this work becomes our right. They will have to register a case,” he says.
A farmer, Shinde says he is required to constantly update the WhatsApp groups. “Every cow rescue has to be uploaded… the images, the videos,” he says, showing the latest video of a truck being stopped. “We were just 10, the driver simply fled,” he says, adding that the cows were sent to a gaushala nearby.
At Shinde’s shop, another applicant, 22-year-old Balaji Govindrao Pawar, is yet to finish college, but is clear on why he needs that card. “This will allow me to check the meat myself,” he says. Last week, his “friends” gave a shout-out at 2 am when they found a dead cow on the road. “We are friends with a common cause of saving our dharma. Saving a cow becomes a symbolic act. It is the mother we are saving,” he says.
A bit further, at Malakoli village, Shivaji Madhavrao Bhalerao, a 31-year-old VHP taluk office-bearer, recalls an episode this year when a truck allegedly carrying beef toppled after hitting a boulder — the driver ran away. The episode, he says, revealed the “lack of cadre at spot”. “When a truck is stopped now, there is chaos. There is always the possibility of someone being tortured. This card will help the VHP take control and ensure it’s done lawfully. I have warned my boys not take anyone’s life,” he says.
Of these tehsils, over 70 applications are from Deglur, Bioli, Dharmabad, Bhokar, Kinwat and Mahoor, all on the border with Telangana.
Here, echoes of Prime Minister Modi’s remarks on gau rakshaks have triggered an unusual response — renewed activity by such vigilantes.
Three cases of vehicles allegedly carrying cattle or meat being stopped were since reported — on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday. The week following Modi and Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh’s remarks on similar lines saw at least six cases reported of stoppage and two where meat was seized.
Senior police officers point to the political flavour behind the renewed aggression. “There are at least two elections coming up in Nanded. Eleven of the 16 tehsils go for municipal council elections this December. Panchayat samitis across Nanded go for elections in February,” said a civic official.
Nandini Deshpande, 22, has just finished managing an eight-day self-defence workshop for women under the Durgavahini banner. “We are a big group of Bajrang Dal boys and Durgavahini girls. We have a higher presence at Deglur naka, as the trucks ply between borders. I got to know of this application through the boys associated with Bajrang Dal. We will get authority with this card. The problem we face now is that people question our authority to take action,” she says.
At Dharmabad, Shashikant Patil, a Sangh nodal office-bearer, says the card gives a lot of authority, which “will be needed in the coming days”. On Thursday, this PRO of a private hospital claims, he stopped a vehicle and handed the meat to the local police station. Patil says he organised a meeting recently in Dharmabad asking Bajrang Dal and VHP cadre to share leads on “such activities”.
Patil’s friend from Bajrang Dal, Mahesh Balaji Rao, also an applicant, says youth across Nanded started a new trend last month. “We don’t celebrate birthdays in the usual way, by cutting cakes. We now feed cows,” he says, showing an image on his phone.
Other applicants, who claim to be members of the ABVP, Shiv Sena and Ram Sena, share similar photographs. Each phone has photos and videos with captioned folders on “gau raksha events”, which is “live proof”, says Rao. Most of them show cattle inside trucks, but the driver and others in the vehicle are missing. Each video starts with the number plate of a vehicle and ends with images of cows and bullocks inside.
Senior district officials say that in a majority of the cases, the “paperwork is proper”, and the cattle is being ferried after purchase.
‘Grab the opportunity’
Another applicant Gautam Jain, 29, says he got a phone call in May, from a Mumbai BJP leader, asking him to “grab the opportunity” of being a “certified gau rakshak”. “The police do not destroy the meat seized and we have our doubts on the manner in which it is disposed.
We don’t do this work for money, we spend our own time and effort. When calls are made on 100, there is never a spontaneous reaction. They come after everyone has fled,” says Jain.
Jain, however, admits that he has several police notices in his name, mostly asking him to stop interfering with law and order. Police officers confirm that details of many of these ‘gau rakshaks’ are on their records, with some having been served notices for causing public nuisance.
Ganesh Kokulwar, 33, of Hindu Sena, says Sangh outfits staged a procession of cow carcasses early this year, after they were told that 20 cows had died of poisoning. “Why did these cows die of poisoning? After we took out the procession, no cow has died,” he claims.
Kokulwar points to a copy of the amended Act that everyone carries on their phones; every section is read and discussed in meetings of gau rakshaks.
In Nanded’s cow belt, applicants claim that cows are either taken to shelters or rescued by rakshaks. “Muslims, too, know of the amended Act and they, too, live inside our borders. If again and again, we are asked about Una and Dadri, it gets difficult. How does your heart not bleed for cows?” says Kokulwar, who works as a bank agent.
Nanded district collector Suresh Kakani says calls came in almost every hour soon after the law was amended. “An SOS call came to us from the animal husbandry office asking for directions. We then institutionalised infrastructure at all checkposts where paperwork was checked. The system allows for a regional transport officer and a veterinary officer to undertake separate checking. This week, after a long gap, we are hearing about more cases,” says Kakani.
Special IG (Nanded range), Chiranjeev Prasad, says, “We try to enforce the Act at all times. But at the same time, we cannot allow anyone to take the law in their hands. That will not be tolerated.”