Across India, and especially in the northern states, stray cattle have become a hot-button issue. In Uttar Pradesh, in the run-up to the 2017 assembly elections, gau raksha or cow protection was used by right-wing outfits to create an atmosphere of fear and to halt the cattle trade.
After the BJP came to power, the Yogi Adityanath government shut down illegal slaughterhouses and banned the sale of cattle for slaughter, destroying the trade in indigenous or non-descript cows and bulls. The militant gau raksha movement has led to the brutal lynching of Muslims and terrorising of farmers, cattle traders and bystanders from mostly marginalised backgrounds.Stories from Sitapur district illustrate how this violence has been bolstered by dominant versions of cultural practices around cow protection, which stand in contrast to the long-standing economics of cattle rearing.
Sitapur district in central Uttar Pradesh has not featured in any of the horrific lynching reports over the past few years; however, it has not been free from violence. A few years ago, riots broke out in a few villages of the Machhrehta block after the dismembered carcass of a cow was discovered.
Rioters looted Muslim-owned businesses in the area. Rioting at a pilgrimage site for similar reasons was narrowly averted by the prompt action of the administration and prominent citizens.
Crop damage caused by cattle
Historically, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has had a strong presence here and has actively campaigned against cow slaughter.
Residents of another small town in the district with a sizeable Muslim population describe how, a few decades ago, the local RSS karyakarta (worker), who is also the town’s doctor, publicly thrashed a man for transporting a bull for slaughter.Locals believe that such actions contributed to the closure of a neighbouring slaughterhouse. The cattle trade continued, although slaughtering became less visible. Now, with the collapse of cattle markets, it is the farmers who are angry.In the villages of western Sitapur, where Sangtin Kisan Mazdoor Sangathan (SKMS) is active, farmers are rattled. Crop damage due to stray cattle has become a daily occurrence – even sugarcane and mature wheat are not safe from them. Most fields are now fenced with wire, although it is of a thin, cheap variety.
Farmers must stay out night and day to protect their crops. “I didn’t attend my nephew’s wedding, what to do?” rued Jagatram, guarding his 3 bigha field planted with food crops, armed with a lathi. “I just go home to bathe and then come back here. My daughter brings me food.”Earlier, nilgai (wild antelopes) were a problem and in 2016, the SKMS had even organised a rally to protest their incursion into farmland. But now they seem manageable. “Nilgai are easy to chase away. But saand (uncastrated bulls) aren’t afraid, they attack you,” remarked Sushma, an SKMS activist. And indeed, many incidents of people injured by bull attacks have been reported.
The magnitude of the problem can be assessed by a simple arithmetic exercise – a cow in its reproductive phase typically calves every year, and a female calf matures in 3-4 years. Thus, a single cow can lead to 5-8 animals within five years. Without cattle sales, milk is the main source of income for dairy farmers, for which their cows must continually reproduce.