The Debate

Enough Is Enough: Modi Must Reign in India’s Cow Vigilantes

Recent Features

The Debate

Enough Is Enough: Modi Must Reign in India’s Cow Vigilantes

Narendra Modi’s government must rein in cow vigilantism before things go too far.

Enough Is Enough: Modi Must Reign in India’s Cow Vigilantes
Credit: Alex Thomson via Flickr

“The third world war will start over a cow.”

Thus spoke godman Mahamandleshwar Swami Akhileshwaranand Giri, the chairman of the executive council of the cow rearing and livestock promotion board (Gaupalan Evam Pashudhan Samvardhan Board) of the central Indian state of Madhya Pradhesh.

If anybody thought he was joking, an army is already underway, beating up men and women, parading victims like trophies. They’re busy raiding refrigerators and sifting through biryanis, pausing to rape and sodomize, and, in some cases even kill, the beef-eaters.

They are the Gau Rakshaks, or cow protectors—a new breed of warriors tasked to eliminate all threats to the sacred cow and help make India a proud Hindu nation.

The consumption of beef has been illegal in most of India for varying lengths of time now. Not just the ruling Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP), political parties of all hues have tried to pander to the sentiments of the majority Hindu voters by restricting the consumption of the meat. In 20 of the 29 states, beef cannot be consumed and there are some kind of restrictions on the slaughter of cows and buffaloes.

In fact, the war on beef is not new in that sense and neither are the warriors: some cow vigilante groups in Haryana date back to more than 20 years ago. It is just that in the past two years India has seen a Hindu nationalist government at the center; the vigilantes have become a force to reckon with. They have proliferated and their activities increased manifold.

A recent piece in the Caravan magazine highlights how the cow vigilantes are nurtured by the state in Haryana. According to the story by Ishan Marvel, every night, the vigilantes patrol the highways in SUVs, armed with lathis (batons), rods, hockey sticks, baseball bats, stones, and spike strips, looking for cow smugglers.

In January last year, the Gau Sewa Commission was set up in Punjab. It made it mandatory for anyone transporting cattle to obtain a no-objection certificate from the deputy commissioner of police, adding a bureaucratic hurdle very difficult to surmount.

In September last year, a mob raided the house of Mohammed Akhlaq in Uttar Pradesh and lynched him. His son was also badly beaten up. They had some leftover meat in their fridge from recent Eid celebrations.

In July this year, four low-caste Dalit youths were thrashed, tied to a car, and paraded, for skinning a dead cow at Una in Gujarat, the home state of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Skinning dead animals and disposing of the carcasses has been the lowly profession forced on the Dalits, lowest in the Hindu caste hierarchy, through the ancient caste system.

Moreover, after some days, in Madhya Pradesh, two women were beaten up at a railway station, as the policemen watched, over rumors that they were carrying beef.

Earlier this month, in Haryana, a 20-year-old Muslim woman and her 14-year-old cousin were allegedly gang-raped and their uncle and aunt killed for being beef eaters.

These are just some highlights of the macabre proportions cow worship has assumed in India in recent times. Forget fear of punishment; like all soldiers, it is pride that keeps the fighters at it. And they don’t want to go unsung either.

A proud BJP leader shared the video of the Una incident on social media as an example of a job well done and to laud the deeds of the cow warriors. It is common for the gau rakshaks to share videos of their daring feats—beating up timid, semi-clad, tied up people amid chants hailing “mother cow” and Mother India. It was one such video that helped nab a chief, arrested last month on charges of sodomy, rioting, and extortion from the holy city of Vrindavan last month.

However, just like most entities in India, the hallowed institution of Gau Raksha could not keep itself from the icy hands of corruption. An India Today expose revealed that the noble profession to protect the cow has turned into massive extortion rackets, with mafias coming down on cattle transporters and allowing them safe passage in exchange for hefty bribes. The police are milking the cow too, extorting in the name of bovine protection.

Little wonder then that some are hanging up their batons, disillusioned. “These gau rakshaks are worse than the thugs of the ravines,” Renu Yadav, who resigned from her position as the general secretary of the Gau Raksha Dal of Uttar Pradesh state, told

“You can’t trust them. Like a fool, I used to take risks and conduct raids. But every time, the exercise used to end in cattle traders giving a bribe to other leaders of Gau Raksha Dal and the police. They had formed a nexus with the police and kept it secret from me,” she added.

A former bandit—“a terror in the Chambal ravines”—she surrendered to the police after the killing of her dreaded gang leader and served more than seven years in prison. Politics naturally followed and she campaigned for a candidate in the general elections in 2014. A few months later, she was approached by the president of the Gau Raksha Dal with an offer she could not resist and took up the secretaryship because she “venerated” the cow.

A Dalit uprising has broken out in different parts of the country, especially in Gujarat. Not only have Dalits refused to dispose of carcasses, they are organizing in the fight for their rights. A political upheaval is underway.

Meanwhile, the prime minister, after a long studied silence, came down heavily on the vigilantes. He said he was having a cow that the “fake” rakshaks were taking the law into their hands in the name of bovine love.

“Seventy to eighty percent are involved in activities which have no place in society and they, therefore, don the mantle of gau rakshaks to hide their ills” he said. “I would like to tell these people that if you have any problem, if you have to attack, attack me. Stop attacking my Dalit brethren. If you have to shoot, shoot me, but not my Dalit brothers. This game should stop.”

Of course, this telling avoids the story of how Modi himself had helped spread anti-beef hysteria in the country with his sustained campaign, as a prime ministerial candidate, against the so-called “Pink Revolution” (pink referring to the color of meat).

No sooner than Modi had broken his silence, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a right-wing Hindu Nationalist organization, lashed out at him in a chilling reminder of the limitations of the government. Pravin Togadia described Modi’s remarks as an “insult not only of Mother cow but also of Hindus and all those who gave their lives for protecting cows.”

Herein lies a major challenge for the Indian prime minister.

Modi must take the bull by its horns and firmly reign in these elements that have made it a habit of taking the law into their own hands. That he has spoken out, and with an unusual directness, against the attacks on Dalits in the name of cow vigilantism is a sign that he is worried about the political ramifications of the protests by Dalits.

But he has remained silent about beef violence against Muslims. When he did speak on the Dadri lynching, what he said was: “I have said it earlier too. Hindus should decide whether to fight Muslims or poverty. Muslims have to decide whether to fight Hindus or poverty. Both need to fight poverty together. The country has to stay united; only communal harmony and brotherhood will take the nation forward. People should ignore controversial statements made by politicians, as they are doing so for political gains.”

But the issue here is not a general Hindu-Muslim disharmony; it’s a specific case of vigilantism.

Modi must look beyond political gains. He cannot expect the public to buy his rhetoric. Just like the idea that are no good terrorists and bad terrorists, as he has always maintained, there cannot be good cow protectors and bad cow protectors. The law of the land cannot be left in the hands of the mob.

Of course, having first whipped up the anti-beef hysteria in the country, his moral position is compromised. Meanwhile, he is under tremendous pressure from the ultra right Hindu nationalists and cannot risk alienating the conservative vote bank. But his real test lies in how well he is able to handle these competing pressures and find a lasting solution.

Will he be able to prevent the “third world war”? Does he want to?