It’s not only the cows that the gau rakshaks protect – the struggle is to protect their own livelihood, their way of life, their property, and their families.
If the mention of Alwar rings a bell, chances are it is in the context of mob lynching. Instances of villagers assaulting Muslim men transporting cows, leading to their deaths in some cases, have been reported from the area. The first major case was of Pehlu Khan, who died after being assaulted by a large mob in April last year. Another was of 29-year-old Rakbar Khan, reported two months ago.
These cases have labelled Alwar as a den of lynchers whose specific targets are Muslims. The impression one gets is that Hindu villagers here either can't tolerate the sight of Muslim men transporting cows or are paranoid in suspecting that every Muslim man with one would slaughter it.
Absent in this narrative, however, is the glaring truth that Alwar, along with another border district of Bharatpur, is a den of deadly cow smugglers, who brazenly steal, rob, shoot and kill. Come midnight, the meat mafia jumps into action, picking up cattle from the streets and from houses, and stuffing them inhumanly into vehicles, to be eventually slaughtered for meat. The hotbed of this crime is the notorious Mewat region of Haryana, comprising almost entirely of Meo Muslims.
A spike in such cases more than a decade ago prompted villagers to keep vigil in the nights, which slowly gave way to formation of dedicated cow protection groups, or gau raksha dals in local lingo.
A cursory glance at news reports shows that thanks to tip-offs given by these activists, cow smugglers are apprehended almost every other night. They are caught dragging the stolen cows through dense forests or ferrying them in vehicles.
As admitted by the Superintendent of Police (Alwar) Rajendra Singh himself, these gau rakshaks act as informers to the police, sending out alerts whenever suspicious activity is noticed. "Gau rakshaks help us," Singh told Swarajya.
However, despite a police crackdown in the last three years, the menace of cow smuggling is far from over.
Rakbar Khan was found by gau rakshaks and villagers taking cows through fields on 21 July, between 12 and 1 am, raising suspicions that he was a smuggler.
The probe is on but it has emerged that the route on which he was confronted by villagers, in Alwar's Lallanwadi village, is a regular for smugglers. The owner of the field, Kailash Yadav, told Hindi daily Patrika that he often woke up to find footprints of men and cattle in his field and his crops damaged. It was after repeated such incidents that the residents decided to lay a trap and nab the culprits. When they found Rakbar Khan, they handed him over to the police.
However, a controversy erupted after Rakbar Khan died on the same night under circumstances yet unknown. Rakbar Khan's post-mortem report says he had internal injuries, fractures and bruises all over the body. Initially, the assault was blamed on the villagers but photos showing Rakbar Khan alive and sitting upright in the police vehicle has now put the cops in the dock. Slapping of charges against several villagers, including Kailash's son Dharmendra Yadav, is being questioned.
The photos of Rakbar Khan were clicked by Naval Kishore Sharma, Alwar's best-known gau rakshak. A resident of Ramgarh tehsil that is high on the target of smugglers, Sharma told Swarajya that it was he who informed the police after villagers "caught" Rakbar Khan.
"Though I have been living in Ramgarh for 15 years, I hail from Lallawandi and am familiar with all routes of the village. I was sleeping in my house when I received information from Lallawandi that they have caught a smuggler, so I in turn called up a police officer I regularly deal with. But my call was picked up by a new cop, one Mohan Singh, who informed me that he has joined duty only that day and the previous officer has been transferred. Mohan Singh requested me to accompany him to Lallawandi as he was new to the area. So together we went to Lallawandi, picked up Rakbar and returned to Ramgarh. Around 3 am, I went to the gaushala to hand over the rescued cows. When I returned to the police station, Rakbar was already dead," Sharma told Swarajya.
Sharma said he clicked Rakbar's photos while on way to Ramgarh. "The photos clearly show that Rakbar was fine and alive when he was handed over to the police. He even had tea on the way. He must have died in police custody," said Sharma when we met him at his residence in Ramgarh on Sunday (19 August).
"Dharmendra was also with me. He gave Rakbar a change of clothes in the police vehicle. But in a bid to save themselves, the police have arrested Dharmendra also," said Sharma, adding, "that man is innocent".
The handling of Rakbar's case has left Sharma and other gau rakshaks and villagers incensed. For one, they are convinced that Rakbar, a resident of Kolgaon village in Haryana's Mewat district, was a smuggler. "What kind of a dairy farmer walks with non-milch cows, at midnight, that too in the neighbouring state?" he asks. "We have rescued 18,000 cows. We know how they operate."
The Haryana government's move to grant Rs 8 lakh compensation to Rakbar's family has not gone down well with Sharma and his group. "The state is patronising smugglers," said Sharma.
The group, that has been holding protests asking for the ‘innocent’ accused to be released, plans to embarrass the government over what it says is the government’s bias towards cow smugglers.
Phool Singh, a farmer and Sharma's aid, said they have decided that the next time they catch a cow smuggler, they would garland him and ask the Haryana Chief Minister M L Khattar to felicitate him. "Hum kahenge, Khattar sahab, aapka behnoi hai, isko uphaar do (We will hold a press conference and say, see Mr Khattar, your brother-in-law is here, time for you to shower him with gifts)," said Singh.
Sharma and Singh are angry that neither of the Haryana or Rajasthan state governments have made any grants to farmers and gau rakshaks injured or killed at the hands of smugglers. "Forget grants, they have not even compensated farmers for the loss of their cattle," said Sharma.
The gau rakshaks may have a genuine complaint. Unlike the cases of mob lynching, those of grievous injury and deaths caused by the meat mafia are plenty, and there has been no talk of any state compensation.
"How they showered Pehlu Khan's family with cash and gifts! Doesn't the police probe say Pehlu was a smuggler?" asks Singh. Notably, in the chargesheet filed in the Pehlu Khan case, the Alwar police have stated that he was indulging in smuggling as he and his group did not have the necessary documents on them. This is contrary to the claim by Khan's family that the 55-year-old was a dairy farmer who was bringing the cows from the Jaipur animal fair and had valid documents that were torn by the mob. Activists have opposed the chargesheet, which has also framed charges against nine people for Pehlu's murder.
"They gave him a flat in Greater Noida and lakhs of rupees," says Sharma. "We know it is because the Delhi media doesn't root for cows or cow protectors the way it roots for cow killers."
"Journalists from Delhi keep coming to interview us. On their request, we take them to the field to show how cows are rescued from smugglers. We stop the smugglers’ vehicles, apprehend them, brave their bullets, call the police, send cows to gaushalas, all with journalists as witnesses. Last year, a photojournalist who accompanied us, crapped his pants. We had to give him a change of clothes," said Singh, now bursting into laughter. "I do not know what they write in English. But I have heard they go back and write against us," he said.
Sharma's wife asks with genuine curiosity, "didi, tell me honestly, don't you and other journalists worship cows? Or do you also eat their meat?"
Unlike Naval Kishore Sharma, who is associated with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and works closely with the police, farmer Ramesh Sharma in Alwar city has been saving cows from smugglers by keeping a vigil around his house for decades. A vacant plot adjoining his house served as 'gochar bhoomi', land for cow grazing, where a large number of cows would come to find shelter in the night. Naturally, the colony was always on the target of smugglers. "They come on motorcycles in the day for recce and in the night with vehicles. But our colony fights them. They have fired on us on several occasions," he said when we met him at his house with his two sons beside him.
Last month, Sharma put an end to years of activism by filling the patch with huge stones so the cows cannot enter it anymore.
Sharma says he once owned more than 10 cows but the number has reduced to one. Since 2010, he has been continuously losing his cattle to smugglers. His patience ran out when his last four cows were stolen a few months ago. "The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh has gone corrupt and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government is useless," he said bitterly.
"We never expected anything from the other [Congress] government. But if cows are not protected even under this government, I wash my hands off the whole thing. I am a proud gau rakshak but I brought all these stones and blocked the [gochar] land," he said.
"The final nail in the coffin came when I heard a BJP leader from Goa proudly saying he eats beef on television," said Sharma, and called up a police helpline to inquire about the status of his stolen cattle. The person on the other side responded that the probe is on and hung up. "You saw it yourself. This is how cows are treated under this government which makes a great show of protecting cows," he says.
"The smugglers throw wads of rupees inside the police chowkis where they pass and they get a free run in return. It all happens right under the nose of the administration," he adds.
His son, who breaks into tears as he shows us the nearby empty cow shed, says his children are forced to drink the milk sourced from outside. "I can't bear to think what they must have done to my cows," he says.
"We lost our cattle and learnt a new word – mob lynching. What we understand of it is that if a thief comes to your house, you stand with folded hands and let him rob you. If you resist, they will say mob lynching happened," he says bitterly.
Sharma says, "the Sangh is using young boys. They provoke them who in turn go around beating smugglers or anyone transporting cows. But when the boys get booked, the Sangh looks the other way. They have made innocent boys accused in Rakbar case."
"Police have just found 221 cowhides from a single colony. Where is the Sangh now?" Sharma asks angrily. Sharma is referring to a shocking case that came to light earlier this month in Alwar's Gobindgarh, where police raided a house after a tip-off and found three women packing 60 kilos of beef in packets of plastic. It turned out that the house owner Sakeel, a butcher, had just slaughtered a cow in the jungle and brought the meat to his house to be packed and sent to customers. Further probe left the police shocked: two godowns in the same colony were found stocked with 221 cowhides, which the experts said were not more than a month old. Local media called it the biggest case of cow slaughter in Alwar in recent times.
When Swarajya met VHP’s Alwar district president, Keshav Chandra Sharma, he rejected the charges and said that they are very much pressing for the release of three "innocents" arrested for Rakbar's death. "We work independent of the government. We are demanding for the release of the arrested men and are holding protests," he said.
According to Sharma, the biggest reason behind continued cow smuggling is that "Muslims encroach upon gochar bhoomi in areas where they are in majority". "When cows have nowhere to go, they enter residential areas. They roam around as strays and get picked up by smugglers. They must take all this land back," he suggested as a solution, along with calling for a major crackdown in Haryana's Mewat. "Sixty per cent of cow smuggling will come down the moment you carry our raids in Mewat. And it will end if beef is fully prohibited in National Capital Region," he said.
When asked about incidents of mob lynching by gau rakshaks, Alwar police chief Rajendra Singh said that such men are treated as criminals under law. "When I say gau rakshaks help us, I mean those activists who act as our informers. I don't mean those gau rakshaks who are corrupt. We have found cases where gau rakshaks catch smugglers only to extort money from them," he said.
Some VHP activists had told Swarajya that police routinely asks the organisation to send 10-15 gau rakshaks to accompany them in raids or in catching hold of the smugglers. "The smugglers don't fear the police. They fear the patka [saffron scarf]," a senior VHP functionery had told Swarajya.
But Singh denied it. "The gau rakshaks only act as informers. And they should also not extend this brief."
Singh said that the menace of cow smuggling is huge in Alwar. "Of about 3,000 wanted criminals in the district, 500 are cow smugglers. One-sixth of all criminals indulging in only one kind of crime is huge," he said. "But contrary to claims in the media, cow smuggling is actually declining thanks to our crackdown. "Since 2016, we have arrested around 800 people under RBA [Rajasthan Bovine Animal (Prohibition of Slaughter and Regulation of Temporary Migration or Export) Act, 1995]," he said.
Singh said that the police have recently prepared the database of these wanted cow smugglers (repeat offenders) as well as those 'gau rakshaks' who have been found to be involved in extortion in the past.