“I am not a terrorist. I did what my religion expects me to do. I did that only for the sake of Gaumata. How could we not enter the train and search luggage when we were told that it carries beef?” insisted Hemant Rajput, the Harda district chief of Gau Raksha Commando Force.
The 31-year-old garage owner, who is out on bail, has returned home after spending nearly four days in jail for allegedly assaulting a Muslim couple on a train. Rajput wondered why he is being penalised for what he sees as a petty offence, and why the police are after other activists as if they had committed acts of terror.
Rajput heads a bunch of “commandos” who call themselves cow saviours and raid vehicles in their mission to ensure a “cow slaughter-free India”. “People related have full rite (right) to save cow and Hindu religion,” read their identity cards.
Rajput admitted he and other activists became commandos less than a year ago because it was becoming difficult to work as Bajrang Dal activists after the 2013 riots over rumours of cow slaughter. After arson and rioting that saw the town under curfew for days, the police and district administration had kept a watch on right-wing activists. “We were scared because the police beat up Hindu activists,” said a commando The Indian Express met a few kilometres from the town.
None of those accused in the assault on the couple were accused in the 2013 riots. The outfit’s national president S S Tiger (Surendra Singh Rajpurohit) is the main accused in the riots. His signature appears on commandos’ identity cards, which are free and take about five days to arrive from headquarters in Delhi. It was Tiger who allegedly threatened the Harda superintendent of police over alleged atrocities on Hindus and warned there could be a repeat of 2013 if police did not stop targeting Hindus.
Rajput said the membership is open to all and even a Muslim can join the force “but none has managed to do so as yet”.
Prateek Maheshwari, a postgraduate in commerce, is among the most qualified of the commandos. Most others in the force — estimated strength between 200 and 700 — are unemployed, small traders or small farmers.
It was the entry of Tiger, who hails from Rajasthan, a few years ago that changed the tenor of the cow protection campaign in the region. He spent most of his time in a gaushala in Charuwa, about 7 km from here. After the riots, the police had arrested three employees of the gaushala and also booked its president Mahesh Rajput, who got anticipatory bail. Praising Tiger for his oratory skills, Mahesh Rajput, 49, said all “gaubhakts are scared after the 2013 riots”.