Gau Raksha Is Disrupting the Bovine Economy and Threatening Farmers’ Fields

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.

According to government estimates, there were about 4.9 million milk-producing local breed cows in Uttar Pradesh during 2016-17. Even after accounting for deaths, a few million desi calves are born every year and almost all the male calves (and some of the female calves) are abandoned.Incidentally, very few exotic breeds can be found in the stray cattle – “Jersey or Holstein cows cannot survive if abandoned,” said Kallan, who rears indigenous breeds. Fodder prices have shot up in the meantime. “I used to pay Rs 200 to 400 for a quintal of fodder last year, now I pay Rs 1,200 for the same amount,” complained Prema, a dairy farmerHowever, milk prices have not kept up (and have even fallen in some seasons). As a result, some people have abandoned all their cattle.Brahmanical traditions of cow worship

At the same time, there is a deep-rooted reverence for cows in this part of Awadh, which comes from its association with Brahminical practices of purity and impurity. Many supported the ban on cow slaughter, even among Dalit communities. Members of the Chamar caste traditionally skinned animals and processed leather.Gradually, agriculture and other trades began providing opportunities and the leather trade, which was ‘unclean’, became less desirable. In the 1990s, when the Dalit Shoshit Samaj Sangharsh Samiti (DSSSS, abbreviated as DS-4) and later the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) grew in strength, many Chamars took an oath to give up the leather trade. However, shaking off the caste Hindu practices around ‘gau hatya‘ or cow slaughter has proven to be tougher.In the villages of this region, anyone accused of cow slaughter has to atone for it or suffer ostracism along with his or her family. Dilip, a marginal farmer who went through this ordeal, recounted how his children would come home crying as none of the other children in the village would play with themThe atonement process that Dilip was forced to undergo consisted of begging for alms in a few villages and then visiting Hatyaharan, a nearby pilgrimage site, where the sin was washed away through a puja conducted by local priests.

Nowadays, the begging has become a token, but the visit to Hatyaharan is compulsory. The priests at Hatyaharan, in conversation with SKMS members, admitted that most of the people who went there for repentance were poor. As one of the priests himself put it:

“Who would be in contact with the animals – the rich landowner or the labourer working in his fields?”

This atonement process was documented by SKMS in its January 2018 newsletter and discussed in multiple meetings. People shared how they had spent up to Rs 15,000 to complete the required rites. The label of ‘cow killer’ was mostly assigned for unintended or indirect deaths, such as an animal found dead a day or two after being beaten.A couple of years ago, Ram Bhajan was accused of cow slaughter when a bull was injured (and later died) due to the barbed wire he had installed around his field. The reluctance of many farmers to install barbed wire in the early days of the stray cattle crisis can be attributed to this.

What if a cow dies?” asked Rampyari while refusing to fence her field to protect her pulses and millets, which are particularly attractive to animals. In fact, pulses have almost disappeared in this region that was famous for ‘dal’. Further, with small and fragmented landholdings, it is often not economically viable to fence a field.

Demand for reopening the cattle market

The existence of extensive pasture lands until the 1980s meant that poor families could afford to rear cattle. Milk and milk products provided crucial nutrition. “The rich drank milk, but we had mattha (buttermilk) at home or asked for it. Sometimes we had nothing to eat – we just drank mattha and ate a little bit of jaggery,” said Radha, an agricultural labourerThe care and reverence for their animals went hand-in-hand with a thriving cattle market. Bulls were not needed for ploughing, as well as cows past their productive stage, were sold in local cattle markets or to travelling Banjara traders. Most of these animals would eventually be slaughtered for meat and leather. Milk and the sale of cattle provided livelihoods to many landless families.My father would buy male calves, rear them and sell them at a much higher rate,” commented Jabeena, whose family has now stopped rearing cattle. Further, in an emergency, cash could be generated easily by selling an animal and thus cattle were considered the fixed deposit of the poor.

Villagers are reluctant to talk about consuming beef, although Birju Baba, a Dalit farmer, told us that he used to eat daangar, the meat of cattle that had died due to natural causes. “After eating, we would bathe and pray and only then return home.”

The attitudes of farming families towards cattle have shifted in the past two years. Where earlier, villagers in the region were hesitant to talk of cow slaughter, today they are voicing the need for markets to be re-opened, even if their primary purpose is to transport animals for slaughter.

Meanwhile, the urban elite don’t seem to understand the problem or care about it. “What next – will we start eating humans?” quipped Kalpana, a small business owner. Kalpana felt that it was good to consume milk and curd, but the connection between reproducing cattle and new calves escaped her. And she herself has complained about the stray cattle in Sitapur town and the inconvenience caused to motorists.




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