In the early ’70s, in a village just beyond the jungles of picturesque Aravallis, teenage brothers Suleiman, Sultan, Multan and Islam would wake up early and go around Kolgaon and nearby villages in Haryana on their bicycles, collecting milk from villagers in large metal containers attached to their bicycles. People, mostly relatives, neighbours and friends, would pour milk in the vessels and once they were full, the brothers would pedal to supply it to Leela dairy in Ferozepur Jhirka, nearly a dozen kilometres away, on the Rajasthan-Haryana border.
“The dairy was run by Lekhram and then his son ‘Rakbar’. Theirs was the first dairy in the region and they worked very hard to run it,” says Suleiman, now in his early 70s, standing out due to his turquoise pagdi. “It was because of this that the small dairy eventually became a full-fledged factory.”
So when Suleiman’s second son was born in 1987, he decided to name him Rakbar. His brother Sultan suggested ‘Rafeeq’, but Suleiman’s mind was made. “He wanted his son to prosper like Rakbar, and also because it was an uncommon name,” says Sultan.
A month ago, on July 20-21 night, Rakbar was beaten to death while transporting cows in Alwar. Aslam Khan, also from Kolgaon and with him at the time, managed to escape. In 16 months, Rakbar’s was the fifth death in a cow-related incident in Alwar, with cases of cow vigilantism on the rise across the border districts of Rajasthan and Haryana.
For the dairy farmers of the region, the violence hits at the very heart of their relationship with cattle, recognised by a law dating back 70 years that ensures free and fresh fodder for their animals. Given the amount of milk production, Haryana has a three-tier system for collection: Milk Producers Cooperative Societies at villages, milk unions at the district level, and eventually the State Dairy Federation, based on the pattern of Anand in Gujarat.
Each villager, irrespective of his status, is entitled to graze his cattle in pastures reserved in the hills and owned by the panchayat under the East Punjab Holdings (Consolidation and Prevention of Fragmentation) Act, 1948.
In 2016-17, the annual milk production in Haryana was 89.75 lakh tonnes. The per capita milk availability stood at 930 grams per day, next only to Punjab, where it is 1,075 grams.
Rasheed Khan, Deputy Chairman of Vita Dairy’s Ballabhgarh plant, which receives about 46,000 litres of milk daily, from centres in Nuh, Gurugram, Rewari and Faridabad in Haryana, says, “We are right between Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh and well placed for dairy business. The adjoining Rajasthan districts don’t have as much free fodder like us, so they sell cows to us. And there is demand for cattle, including cows, in UP. So, many people buy milch cows from Rajasthan and sell them for a profit in UP. As longer routes invite more trouble, Nuh and surrounding regions are conveniently placed for trade.”
The free grazing provided to cattle also ensures a good supply of manure to adjoining farmlands. Locals say cows are tied on a plot to fertilise it with their dung, and landowners pays up to Rs 100-200 daily to have 40-50 cows kept overnight on their farmlands.
Rakbar himself knew no other life, like his father, and his father before him, though over the years, motorcycles had replaced the bicycles on which milk was supplied. Says Sultan, “Our kids usually don’t go to school. We survive on our cattle.”
At 54.08 per cent, Nuh district had the lowest literacy in all of Haryana in Census 2011. In Kolgaon, a village with about 400 families and around 4,000 people, this number stood at a mere 32.5 per cent.
Rakbar owned five cows. The family, including his wife and seven children (the oldest a 14-year-old daughter, the youngest not yet 3), says the cows gave about 20 litres of milk daily, most of which was sold. Now, someone from his extended family or from the village herds the cows.
These days in the monsoon, the pastures are lush. Like every day, Munfaid, 7, Farti, Insaaf, Sahil (all 12), and Zahid and Haris, both 13, all from Kolgaon, are out with cattle, belonging to their families, relatives or neighbours. The six say they are enrolled in a school, but have taken “a few days’ leave to train the cows”. “The old men can’t run after cows like we do,” smiles Sahil, who is in Class 7.
Bulls are rare. One of them, a lonely specimen among nearly 50 cows of Holstein and indigenous breeds, is simply called “Raja”. “Panchayat ka saand hai, beej dalwana hota hai toh yehan lekar aate hain (The bull is owned by the panchayat, we bring our cows here for insemination),” says Raees, a resident of the village. The government veterinarian charges Rs 100 per cow for insemination.
Liyakat Ali Khan, the Director of Haji Safaid Khan Public School in adjacent Doha village and a resident of Kolgaon, explains why people prefer cows. “A cow can be bought for Rs 35,000-Rs 40,000 while a buffalo producing the same quantity of milk would cost over Rs 1 lakh. Cows are also cheaper to maintain, we can send them to the jungles to graze, but buffaloes require high-quality fodder.”
In 2016-17, the average milk yield rate for indigenous cows stood at 3.54 kg per day, compared to 5.92 kg per day for indigenous buffaloes. However, the average yield for crossbred cows is 7.42 kg per day while exotic cows top the chart with an average yield of 10.93 kg per day. Sitting in a group under a tent near Suleiman’s home, Mohammad Shafi, 40, says they earn a profit of about Rs 500 from a quintal of milk.
However, the threat of gau rakshaks is now constant. “Sometimes the cows stray over to Rajasthan after a bull and we just hope we don’t run into them,” says Deen Mohammad, 35, who has two cows grazing in the pastures, and two cows and a buffalo at home. “They bother us more if cows of indigenous breeds stray into Rajasthan.”
They are at pains to emphasise that they “love and care for cows more than anyone else”. While emphasising that he personally has not faced any trouble, Majid, 63, adds, “The trouble is in a small belt in Alwar and Bharatpur only because of (Gyan Dev) Ahuja.”
Basheer, 60, says, “Challenge de rakha hai, Ahuja ne khud apni team bana rakhi hai (Ahuja creates the most trouble and has his own team of cow vigilantes).”
They say the vigilantes don’t care if you have the needed papers, and are always on the watch for things such as the attire of the people transporting the cows and the registration numbers of vehicles, with a Haryana number plate attracting more attention.
Ahuja, the BJP MLA from Alwar’s Ramgarh constituency where Rakbar was assaulted, is an avowed gau rakshak. In December, he had warned that if anyone indulges in cow smuggling or slaughter of a cow, he would be killed. He now says, “I keep telling them (locals) to never assault anyone and hand over the person to the police. So after three-four slaps they hand them over. I have saved thousands of cows, buffaloes and bulls myself.”
Meanwhile, in Ferozepur Jhirka, the dairy which inspired Rakbar’s name, officially called Bharat Dairy Udyog, is now shut. “The demand has been low and there is competition from the cooperative dairies, which are subsidised. Factors such as the 12 per cent GST on ghee have also affected business,” says Subhash Chand Jain, marketing in-charge of the dairy.
A visit to the home of the dairy owner reveals another detail: the man Suleiman knew as Rakbar was actually Raghuwar Jain, the septuagenarian having misheard the name all those years ago.
Rakbar died without ever knowing this.