In the all-Hindu, mostly-Jat village of Sondhad in Haryana’s Palwal district, where the cow has been revered for several generations, protection of cow against slaughter is considered duty and cow welfare is considered ‘punya’ or sacred work, Gopal is no less than a martyr.
The first person I meet on entering Sondhad village in Haryana’s Palwal district is a chemist.
On hearing the mention of Gopal, he says, “The entire village is in grief. It’s tough to find a cow lover as dedicated as Gopal.”
“He would often come to me for medicines for treating injured cows,” he adds, before helping with directions.
At Gopal’s house, a group of men assembled in the verandah offer me space to sit; Satbir, Gopal’s cousin, moves forward.
‘Uncle said “gotaskaro ne goli maari” before fainting’
Satbir says that on 29 July, Gopal left home around 5 pm to tend to his agricultural field as it had been raining. When he returned, he was profusely bleeding. He collapsed at the gate saying he had been shot while chasing a vehicle of cattle smugglers. His cousins from adjoining houses rushed in and took Gopal to a hospital in Hodal. The doctors referred him to the district hospital in Palwal. Gopal died in the car en route to Palwal.
Satbir bursts into tears. “He has left behind two children. Who will take care of them now? Nobody, either the MLA or the MP, has visited us,” he says.
Satbir says that all Gopal had was an acre of agricultural land. His income barely covered the expenses of his children’s education. His death is a huge setback.
The police have so far found no evidence of involvement of cattle smugglers in the murder even as a probe is on. No eyewitness have come forward so far.
“In the car, Gopal was in no condition to talk. He died before he could tell us anything,” says Satbir.
I ask for a member who heard an injured Gopal, but Satbir gives no specific names. It’s not the time to press for such a question.
Inside the house, Gopal’s mother and wife Shakuntala are being consoled by several women. They look at me blankly.
A neighbour speaks on their behalf, “She [the mother] was at the shop and she [the wife] was tending to her cattle. When they heard a commotion, they rushed out but did not get a chance to talk to Gopal. They only saw his body later.”
A boy intervenes to say that Gopal was his uncle and he did hear him say “gotaskaro ne goli maari” before fainting.
‘Muslims Get Compensation And Jobs, Hindus Get Nothing’
Among the mourners is Devilal Singh, a member of the same ‘gau raksha dal’ as Gopal Singh.
In agriculture- and dairy-rich states like Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan, there are several registered trusts for cow welfare. These trusts run goshalas and help treat injured cows. Some of them also have dedicated teams for catching cattle smugglers, who are known to pick up stray cattle from streets or steal them from houses in the night, and slaughter them for meat.
The team members are issued identity cards bearing the name and address of the trust; they call themselves ‘gau rakshaks’.
Gopal was a card-carrying member of a gau raksha dal attached to a Palwal-based trust.
“The smugglers take away our cows. So we stand at the naakas [checkpoints] at night and check vehicles if they are carrying stolen cattle,” Devilal explains about the dal’s activities.
“What do you do after spotting the smuggling vehicles?” I ask.
“We hand over the Muslims to the police.”
“Why do you specify them as Muslims? Thieves can be from any religion.”
“Every thief we have caught in all these years is a Muslim.”
“Do you beat them up?”
“We only hand them over to the police.”
“There have been cases where gau rakshaks have beaten up thieves to death.”
“No such case has happened in this area.”
“Do you know gau rakshaks are seen in a bad light today?
“Yes, we are called gundas. We are even told that we should not save cows as it is the government’s job. But we are born as Hindus so it is our dharma to save cows even if it cost us our life. We will not allow cows to be slaughtered,” he says.
Satbir cuts in, “If a Muslim dies while smuggling cows, it is called mob lynching. Leaders from all political parties make a beeline for his house. But if a Hindu dies while saving cows, they call him a goon. Muslims get compensation and jobs, but Hindus get nothing.”
“Do you think the government discriminates?” I ask.
The question triggers a barrage of allegations from the men. The answer is an unequivocal yes. A neighbour says that villages in the adjoining Nuh district get uninterrupted power supply during an entire month of Ramzan while Hindu villages don’t get it even for a day on Diwali.
The almost fully Muslim-populated Nuh district is where most cattle thieves in Palwal enter from. It’s a notorious hub of cattle-smuggling besides many other organised crimes.
Another neighbour Yogendra, also a former panchayat member, says that officials from power department do not dare enter villages in Nuh. “They [residents] keep weapons in their houses while Hindu houses don’t even keep a lathi,” he says.
“Yet, Hindus are labelled mob lynchers,” says Satbir.
Gopal’s Death A Reality Check For Other Gau Rakshaks
Devilal is joined by more youths from his gau raksha dal. Tarun, Bablu and Raj are all farmers and residents of Sondhad. Perhaps for the first time, they realise how vulnerable they are. They cite five more cases of gau rakshaks similarly dying in Haryana in the last couple of years.
Bablu says they take on cattle smugglers out of devotion for ‘gau mata’ but are forced to do this as the administration does not do its job well. “If we can get information about the activities of cattle smugglers, why can’t the police, with all their resources?” he asks.
He says that let alone doing their duty of protecting cows, the police did a lathi charge on them when the team staged a protest over Gopal’s death.
Raj says he feels cheated by the Bharatiya Janata Party as it sought votes in the name of cow in the run-up to the 2014 general elections, but has been siding with cow slaughterers since coming to power.
The same complaint is echoed by Devdutt Sharma, head of a Faridabad-based cow welfare trust. Sharma has come to express solidarity with the victim family along with some 15-20 volunteers.
“A young man has attained martyrdom while saving cow and nobody from the government has come forward in his support. The Haryana government has made a gauvansh sanrakshan law but it’s only on papers. Cows continue to be picked up and slaughtered. It’s all just show-off,” says Sharma.
He then inquires which “press” I am from. “Dilli se aayi ho? [Have you come from Delhi?]” a volunteer asks. Hearing a ‘yes’, Sharma demands, “Why should we entertain you? How do we know that you support cows? What if you write against us?”
The group nods in his support.
I open on my mobile phone the link of my recent report of a farmer killed by cattle thieves in Hisar district. Sharma offers help for covering more victims of beef mafia across Haryana.
Village Proud Of Gopal, Remembers Him As A Cow Lover
A little away from Gopal’s house, a group of women are sitting in the sun. “Beti, hamara dukh bahut bada hai [we are in deep grief],”one of them says. “Gopal was a dedicated gau sewak. Few can do gau raksha and gau sewa the way he did,” she says.
“Despite being a poor man, he would spend from his own pocket to feed stray cows,” says another.
Sukhbiri Devi, eldest in the group, says she would often ask Gopal why he went about chasing cattle smugglers in the night risking his life, but Gopal would reply that he had the blessings of the gau mata and she took care of him.
“The mullahs killed him,” she says. “They shot him and the poor boy has gone away forever.”
In this all-Hindu mostly-Jat village where cow has been revered for several generations, protection of cow against slaughter is considered duty and cow welfare is considered punya or sacred work, Gopal is no less than a martyr.
I talk to scores of men but, despite the cold-bloodied murder, none of them is even remotely thinking of giving up gau raksha. On the contrary, many like Gopal’s neighbour Tony vow to follow in his footsteps.
“The boys are doing a great job. Now, even I will join them,” says Tony.
“Hamare saath bahut atyachar ho raha hai,” he says. “What are these boys doing other than saving lives? Despite this, they are getting killed,” he adds.
Questions like why villagers need to act as vigilantes invite angry reactions.
“We are Hindus. We worship cow as our mother. It’s been like that from as long as we remember. Should we let out mother be taken and slaughtered?” asks Tony.
Is it not a farmer’s mistake to abandon the cows, I ask.
“Who among us is complaining about stray cows? We let stray cattle to roam in our fields. Nobody gives smugglers the right to take them away,” he says. “Do we allow killing or kidnapping of homeless people?” he demands.
I have no answer to his question.
He adds, “And smugglers don’t stop at stray cows. They also pick cattle from houses. They even kill the farmers in sleep.”
When suggested that Gopal was perhaps acting unlawfully, a villager, Dharam Singh, gets enraged and asks, “How can gau raksha be illegal? It is every Hindu’s dharma.”
Almost all villagers identify the thieves with their religion as “mulle”, “musalman” or “Meos”. Their struggle is all about saving their revered cow from a community hell bent on slaughtering it.
“Meat is an excuse to kill cows. Is cow meat the only thing left in the world to eat?” asks Dharam Singh. Mohammad Nizam, who is sitting beside Singh and belongs to a tiny population of Muslims in Sondhad, agrees. “We eat chicken. We cannot think of touching cow meat,” says Nizam.
“Even if he wants to touch, we won’t allow him to,” says Singh.