On most weekdays, 25-year-old Akhilesh Singh goes to work at a Central telecom firm in Sahibabad in Ghaziabad, a district in Uttar Pradesh on the border with Delhi, where he is employed as a junior engineer. He has a degree in engineering and a Master’s in social work. But while the job pays his bills, it is his role as a member of the Yuva Jagaran Chetna Kendra, an organisation that works for “cow protection”, that has given him a “purpose in life”.
“Sirf gai ko hi kyon kaatna hai and aur aaj ka yuva kaise keh sakta hai ki farq nahin padta? (Why do we need to slaughter just the cow and how can today’s youth say it doesn’t matter?),” he says while taking a round of the Arya Samaj gaushala in Ghazipur village in east Delhi. Akhilesh and “hundreds of members” of his group are in charge of spreading awareness about the cow, preventing its slaughter and illegal trade in east Delhi, a job he takes very seriously. “We are bringing sanskaar (values) back into society. Cow is our mother. I have been consuming cow urine for years. It purifies your soul,” he says. He says he has a “strong network of informers” in the area, which include vegetable vendors, cobblers and rickshaw pullers who alert his group “when someone does anything against the cow”.
Akhilesh is part of a growing force of vigilantes in the capital who have defined their mission as “saving the cow”. Over 200 cow-protection groups work in the Delhi-NCR region and members like Akhilesh, educated and fluent in social media — their preferred tool to network, share text and images, and mobilise — form its backbone. They are a far cry from the flag-bearing, slogan shouting activists and most of them channelise modern-day resources to bolster their cause.
“Because of a BJP government at the Centre, groups like ours now feel empowered,” he says. Mention the August 29 incident in Chilla village in east Delhi, where 10 people were injured when five trucks carrying buffaloes from Najafgarh were attacked by residents of the village, and he gets angry. “They were not buffaloes, they were cows. It was a false report,” he says.
Akhilesh is soon joined by Himalaya Sharma, a 21-year-old final year BTech student of Dronacharya College, Noida. As an east Delhi executive member of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), Himalaya has been focusing on “raising awareness about the cow” in the east Delhi region. Their team, he says, operates with four groups or tolis, each with 15 permanent members who go on “inspections”. “We have a big network. Anyone who sees any kind of suspicious activity raises an alarm and the others gather,” he says.
“Social media has been a big help. Sitting here, we got pictures of the Dadri cow slaughter,” says Himalaya.
But what about the dangers of such an approach, like it happened in Dadri? “What if we slaughter pigs? Won’t we be attacked too?,” he counters.
“We work with the police and we alert them whenever our members inform us,” asserts Akhilesh, who claims to have informed the authorities “several times” about trucks with cattle crossing Delhi’s Ghazipur border with Uttar Pradesh. “The animals in these trucks are in a pathetic condition. No one can bear such cruelty,” he says.
The duo is convinced that there is a “solution to the problem”. “Make cow the national animal and hang those who slaughter her.” They also agree that confrontation is not going to help in the long run. “We need to spread awareness about the cow and its many uses. Even if a Hindu man sends his cow away for slaughter, he needs to be stopped,” says Akhilesh.
Driven largely by faith, most groups The Sunday Express spoke to were quick to dismiss any direct link to the BJP, even warning the party that if it didn’t push for a Central law against cow slaughter, they would take to the streets.
BJP national executive member and former editor of RSS mouthpiece Panchajanya, Seshadri Chari, too denied that these groups had emerged out of a shared ideology with the BJP. “These groups have come up because the enforcement agencies have failed to implement the law. Protection of cows is not the ideology of just the RSS or the BJP,” he says.
Merely 6 km from the Arya Samaj gaushala, in east Delhi’s Nirman Vihar area, Ashoo Mongia, national president of the Rashtriya Goraksha Sena, has been carrying out a “cow protection drive” from his office in Vivekananda Yoga Ashram. As a full-time member, the cow theme seems to punctuate Mongia’s daily life, with even his ring tone set to a zesty cow bhajan: “Choti choti gaiya, chote chote gwal…”
With 2,700 members spread across 14 states, the group has been in operation for the last 12 years, focusing on “illegal cattle trade” along the borders. In the capital, his group is “very active” in the border areas of south and south-west Delhi. “We conduct our operations in Aya Nagar, Badarpur border and villages near Mehrauli, where many trucks carrying cattle enter from the Mewat region of Haryana,” says Mongia. He claims to have a wide support base. “All kinds of people have joined our cause, from 18 to 98-year-olds, students, lawyers, businessmen, everyone…,” he says.
Three years ago, the group began uploading videos of its raids on YouTube. Mongia himself has been part of many such raids. In one such video uploaded on February 6, 2013, he is seen standing with a group of men in a village near Kolkata with carcass strewn on the ground and reporting events like a news correspondent.
“Though the law against cow slaughter and transport in Delhi is very strict, it is a transit point for cattle trucks that come in from Rajasthan and Haryana and go all the way to the Bangladesh border,” he says.
Like for many of these groups, Mongia says his informers can be just about anyone — the helmet seller on the highway, even the local ice-cream vendor.
His group then swings into action, first getting in touch with the nearest police van and later accompanying the officers to the raid. Marketplace inspections too are a big part of their job. “If cow meat is being sold in the market, we easily get that information through WhatsApp groups,” he says. What do they do after seizing the trucks?
“Usually, many of these animals are injured and we rush them to the hospitals,” he says.
Among the high points of Mongia’s cow activism is when the Rashtriya Goraksha Sena petitioned the Delhi High Court and managed to get the court to rule against a beef and pork festival in Jawaharlal Nehru University in 2012.
The Sena’s blog, ‘Struggle for Hindu Existence’, reads like a manifesto to protect the cow and has, among other things, an open letter addressed to the President, Prime Minister and Chief Justice of India, calling for a national ban on cow slaughter.
It’s just the agenda that drives groups like the Gau Raskha Dal to seize cattle trucks, burn them and upload videos of the raids online, say two members of the Gau Gyan Foundation who have turned up at a mall in Kirti Nagar, an area in west Delhi, to talk about the workings of the Foundation and the Gau Raskha Dal, both allied groups.
Both of them — a 28-year-old businessman who “deals in automobile parts” and a 40-year-old woman who “works in real estate” — didn’t want to be named. But they spoke of their Foundation, which works with over 200 cow protection groups in Rajasthan, UP, Punjab, Haryana and Delhi.
“Our volunteers have been butchered… Thousands of cows are being illegally sent out through the India-Bangladesh border. BSF soldiers have been killed, it is a question of national security,” says the 28-year-old who is impeccably dressed, his striped shirt neatly tucked into his formal trousers.
The woman, sunglasses perched on her head, says that while members of the Foundation may not fit into the stereotypical image of activists, they have their ears to the ground. “We once stood in front of a truck in Jhajjar to stop it,” she says.
The duo claims to have traveled to different parts of the country to check the illegal trade of cows. “We are not communal bloodhounds. Unfortunately, cow protection has become all about vote-bank politics. See how all the netas have reached Dadri,” says the 28-year-old.
Barely 50 km from Dadri, in Delhi’s Paharganj area, Faiz Khan, national head of RSS-backed Muslim Rashtriya Manch’s Gau Raksha Prakostha, believes the “answer to the problem lies in educating Muslims”. Khan, 34, calls himself a gau bhakt and claims to spread the message of cow protection through his talks in Delhi and neighbouring states.
The cow cell, he says, has 150 volunteers. He says that after quitting his teaching job in Chhattisgarh, he has been moving around the country, telling Muslims that “Islam doesn’t allow cow slaughter”.
“Every year, hundreds of cows are slaughtered in Mewat and surrounding areas. I hope to change minds. After all, the cow is like our mother,” he says.
That’s a line that finds resonance with members of the VHP’s Gau-Raksha Vibhag. “Cow protection is our main goal and we are demanding a Central law against cow slaughter,” says 63-year-old Rashtra Prakash, northern region head of the Gau-Raksha Vibhag. “We don’t have a specific system, but there is a strong network that helps us check crimes against cows.
“There are 28 allied groups in east Delhi alone with whom we work. There are many more across the state,” he says. The group claims that majority of the cow protection organisations in the Delhi-NCR region work in tandem, helping each other check slaughter and illegal trade.
Rashtra Prakash is joined by five other members of his group in a park in east Delhi’s IP Extension. They are meeting to discuss strategies to promote the latest range of products of their ‘Go’ brand — a Diwali gift hamper which has a bottle of shampoo, hair oil, soap and toothpaste, all “products made from cow dung, milk and cow urine”.
The conversation soon moves towards more “pressing” issues. “No one can tolerate cow slaughter. Do you know how cruel the process is? The cows are beaten with sticks, hot water is poured on their skins,” says Kapil Prabhakar, the group’s east Delhi head. “People in the BJP government are more sensitive to issues regarding the cow and so we are giving them time to enact a law.”
To keep a tab in different areas, apart from workers, the group depends on tolis, groups of local residents who alert hem in case of any “untoward” activity.
“We have our tolis in Najafgarh (south-west Delhi), Karawal Nagar (north-east Delhi) and a yuva brigade in Noida-NCR region,” says Ram Sundar Verma, who heads the group’s legal cell.
In fact, Himalaya, the ABVP member from Ghazipur village, is a member of the NCR toli of the organisation and is active on WhatsApp groups with the VHP.
Ask them about the rise in cases of violence in the name of the cow and most members say “the incidents happened earlier too, but now the police are taking action and so you hear of more cases”.
Then, Sharma, sitting cross-legged in the park, assumes a conciliatory tone: “See, we condemn violence too. We are not against beef, we are only against gau maas (cow meat), but sometimes, the anger of people takes over.”
The members are clear about the group’s future strategy. “Let the government take its time, we have faith in them, but if a Central law is not enacted, there will be a bigger agitation,” says Rashtra Prakash.
Herd and seen
Satish Kumar (Punjab)
President, Gau Raksha Dal, Rajpura, Patiala district
Fifty three-year-old Satish Kumar boasts of having saved more than 2.5 lakh cows and getting over 2,000 FIRs registered against “cow butchers”. Leading a self-styled group for the past 35 years, his Facebook ‘fan page’ has 1,300 followers and is flooded with photographs and videos of Kumar and his team raiding cattle trucks. “ I have licensed weapons and I have deliberately put up photographs flaunting them to create fear in the minds of people. Even Gods like Shiva, Krishna, Ram had weapons in their pictures,” he says. Kumar, who calls himself a “saffron tiger”, says he has no links to any political outfit. (Divya Goyal)
Shivshankar Rajendra Swami & Milind Ramakant Ekbote (Maharashtra)
Akhil Bharat Krishi Goseva Sangh, Pune
Shivshankar Rajendra Swami, 22, is a complainant in as many as 270 cases of alleged illegal cow transportation and slaughtering. He is also the Gorakhsa Pramukh of Samasta Hindu Aghadi, a group of Hindutva outfits founded by former corporator Milind Ramakant Ekbote alias Bhau, 58, a key figure behind the anti-cow slaughter campaign in the state since 1999. “We have saved about 15,000 cows from being slaughtered,” they say. Though Ekbote says he is not officially linked to the RSS, he admits that “swayamsevaks are in touch with him”. He has shared stage with leaders of Sanatan Sanstha and Abhinav Bharat on several occasions. Chandan Haygunde
Sajjan Bharwad (Gujarat)
President, Akhil Bhartiya Sarvadaliya Gauraksha Maha Abhiyan Samiti
Sajjan Bharwad, 50, claims to be a welfare officer in the Animal Welfare Board of the Government of India. “We have been working for the last 10 years and have close to 20,000 members,” he says.
Bharwad has three criminal cases against him and claims to have filed 300 cases against people transporting cattle illegally.
In April 2013, he was arrested for allegedly thrashing a cattle truck driver and three other Muslim men and forcing them to sing the Ram Dhun bhajan. He recorded the incident on his phone and circulated the video. Kamaal Saiyed
Sunil Singh (Uttar Pradesh)
State President, Hindu Yuva Vahini, founded by Yogi Adityanath, BJP MP from Gorakhpur
Sunil Singh, 37, and his team of “activists”, all below the age of 45, have been working for rashtra raksha, Hindu raksha and gau raksha (protection of the nation, Hindus and cows) since the group’s inception in 2002. Singh has 76 cases filed against him, of which 32 are for rioting. “The cases against me are for protecting Hindu religion and mother cow. I wear them like ornaments,” he says. He had been jailed for 66 days in 2007 when communal riots broke out in Gorakhpur.
In April, Hindu Yuva Vahini activists stopped six trucks, and torched one of them, claiming they were carrying cows for slaughter in Sant Kabir Nagar. Police booked some of the Vahini members for robbery, rioting and arson. It was later found that the cows were not being transported for slaughter. “If I see a truck of cows and even if I cannot do anything, I will at least pelt a stone at it. That will make me content,” he says. Ramendra Singh
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines