Not too far from Delhi, there are innumerable tales of cattle theft. With no aid from police, the victims are left at the mercy of the thieves themselves.
Imagine: A group of thieves surround your house in dead of the night with guns and pistols. Threaten you to not step out of your room. Decamp with your property. You, on the other hand, can’t even register a complaint with the police. One, because you know the police are helpless and have told you as much. And two, you know that police intervention might ruin whatever little hope you have of getting your property back.
You instead curse yourself for sleeping in night. And blame your destiny. You cry – why me?
This is how Shafi Khan lost five buffaloes - a loss he pegs at more than Rs 2.5 lakh. Two months later, he has lost all hopes he would get them back.
Khan managed to trace the suspects. Yet it was futile; so brazen is the cattle-smuggling mafia.
This is the nightmarish reality cattle owners today live with.
"It was around three-four am. A group of what seemed like eight-nine men entered our compound. Some of them stood guard outside our rooms and threatened us against coming out or making a noise, saying they had guns on them. They escaped with our three buffaloes and two calves," recalls Khan. "They cleared our entire beda [cattle shed].”
Khan is a resident of Mandla Kala village in Ramgarh tehsil of Rajasthan's Alwar district, located some 180 kilometres from New Delhi.
His mother Laduli says the family is forced to buy milk for their grandchildren that they can barely afford. "Hum majdoor log hain [we are labour class]. It's hard on us. We don't have money to buy more cattle," she says.
After the theft, Shafi’s younger brother Shaukat went to the police chowki while he went after the thieves. Shaukat says the police arrived at the spot but it was obviously of no use.
"The shed was empty. Of course they didn't find any clue," he says.
Their father Sharif Khan says he followed the trail left behind by the thieves' vehicle. It was raining that day and the entire route was muddy. Inquiring on the way, he learnt that the suspects came from Rundh, some 50 kilometres away. Based on what villagers told them, they have identified two suspects - one Shaukeen from Sheeshan ki jhopdi village and one Shaqir from Gajarbas village.
The next day, family gathered some neighbours and went to Gajarbas. A panchayat heard the matter and assured Sharif that his cattle would be returned. It never happened.
Two months on, Sharif has given up and made peace with the possibility that his cattle has been slaughtered. "Everyone knows where thieves take the cattle. It's Aligarh [Uttar Pradesh] or Mohammadpur [Haryana] where they are slaughtered for meat," he says.
The family neither filed a police complaint nor shared names of the suspects with police. Herein lies the real story. The story of why cattle thefts continue unabated despite seemingly strict laws against cattle smuggling. And why reality is different from the perception that ferrying cattle is the most dangerous vocation of India.
"There is no point filing a police case. The police can't do anything," says Shafi, and narrates a month-old incident where a cop from a nearby village raided a cattle-smuggling den in Rundh to get back his own buffaloes but returned empty-handed, barely escaping alive.
"He is a thaneder, from a village nearby named Chhangalkigaon. He lost his buffaloes and goats in a similar way. After two-three days, he raided the area [in Rundh] where suspects lived. Firing happened from both sides but the cops soon ran out of ammunition," says Shafi. "The cops returned empty-handed. Now police don't go in that crime-infested area."
Other villagers in Mandal Kalan testify to this incident.
Data confirms the total lack of trust villagers have in police. Villagers speak of multiple theft cases in the area. This correspondent herself talked to two more victim families in an adjoining village. But the Ramgarh police station - which caters to 60 villages - has not registered even one case of cattle theft in the last three years.
Mohan Lal Singh, a constable at the Ramgarh police station, shows the records to this correspondent to confirm this. He informs that such thefts are filed under section 379, the same as on cases of motorcycle theft which, incidentally, is one of the most common complaints in Alwar.
On the condition of anonymity, a cop tells this correspondent that it is next to impossible to recover stolen cattle. "Cows and buffaloes have no registration number," he laughs.
"The cattle gets slaughtered soon after theft and this is why villagers don't bother," he says, this time, in a serious tone.
When pointed out that it's unbecoming of a cop to speak this way, he counters, "What is the solution? You tell us what's the solution."
Patrolling at nights? Crackdown on smuggling dens?
The cop says there is a police chowki in every village to promptly solve matters. The night vigils, he says, are not possible given the lack of manpower. Crackdown happens every now and then, he says.
When this correspondent visited a police chowki in adjoining Alawara village, where four thefts have allegedly taken place in the last two months, the cop was sleeping and the chowki latched from inside. A passerby banged the door loudly. A few minutes later, a cop emerged, adjusting his pant.
He said the cops do carry out night patrolling at times. "But Villagers don't always like the loud siren," he said. He suggests villagers must remain more alert in night.
"I am also a farmer. I also own cattle. We don't go in deep slumber like that. They should be a more alert and go to bed a little late," he says.
Such response from the police is not limited to Alwar. This correspondent recently reported a case from Uttar Pradesh where a farmer was killed by suspected cattle thieves. It was in village Khurshidpura in Gautam Budh Nagar district, around 50 kilometres from New Delhi.
As the murder had preceded a spate of cattle thefts, angry villagers staged a protest outside the police station for ignoring those crimes. A farmer named Dinesh Kumar told this correspondent that when he went to the police to complaint about theft of his cattle four days before the murder, a cop told him, "Force ki kami hai (we have limited force). Try resolving some of these things yourself, and we will try to support you." Other villagers said the police told them on their face that they simply do not have enough manpower to patrol villages at night.
In Alwar, dairy farmers allege that their challenges have multiplied in last four months. There is allegedly a steep rise in such thefts under the new government in Rajasthan, several farmers claim.
It is widely known that the Mewat belt, shared by district Alwar in Rajasthan and district Nuh in adjoining Haryana, is a hub of cattle smuggling and slaughter, among various other crimes. Residents believe that since it is home to Meo Muslims that form the core votebank of Congress Party, the criminals are now having a free run.
Whether it's Veer Singh from Daika village in Kotkasim tehsil or Ishaq Khan from Alawara village in Ramgarh tehsil, victims of cattle thefts across Alwar blame the Congress government.
"It's because of the Congress that I lost my cow. It's all the work of Meos. It never happened under BJP government," says Veer Singh, who lost his cow on April 15.
It was around 4 am that Singh realised his cow was missing from the shed. He traced the suspects in two days, all by himself, and requested the police to carry out a raid. The police, he says, told him to wait till Lok Sabha elections are over. Alwar went to polls on May 6.
A month on, he has little hope of seeing his cow again.
The story of how Singh traced the suspects is an eye-opener for the typical urban, English-speaking journalist on how villagers are forced to settle matters at local level in absence of a trustworthy police and justice system - something that the elite journalists who never touched the ground have repeatedly failed to comprehend.
In April beginning, two men showed up at Singh's house saying they were farmers and interested in buying his cows. They gave reference of their village sarpanch, one Jagdish. Singh told them he was not looking to sell his cow, Gauri, who he had raised from a calf and had just started giving milk. Ten days later, Gauri was stolen. Singh approached the said sarpanch and described the men's appearances to him. The sarpanch said the men seemed to be Akhtar and Pummy. He said they were known cattle thieves and this was their standard operating procedure. Singh traced Akhtar's house where a neighbour confirmed that a white cow had indeed been brought to the house on the morning of the theft. Singh confronted Akhtar, who flatly denied his involvement. Singh left word with him that if he was innocent, he must bring five men from his village to Singh's village to stand in his testimony. More than two weeks later, Akhtar had not done so, cementing Singh's belief that he was indeed the thief.
Nothing however has come out of Singh's efforts. His only solace is that Akhtar's neighbour told him that his cow would most probably be sold off to a dairy farmer rather than be handed over to butchers. He may never see Gauri again but has hopes she will remain alive.
In Alawara, Ishaq Khan did not inform the police about theft of his three buffaloes as he feels it is best to keep police away from such cases. "If we inform, the cops raid the area. Then all hopes are lost forever," says Khan.
Shafi Khan explains this startling statement, "The gangs involved don't return the cattle like that. They either bribe the police into silence or demand money from the owners. Say, if the animal is worth Rs 50000, thieves ask us furnish at least Rs 40000. Without police in the picture, there is still hope of getting it back through village pressure."
Ishaq, who says he suffered a loss of Rs 2.5-3 lakh, wants the government to compensate victims like him. "If not three lakh, give us 2.5 lakh. We'll buy cattle of a lesser breed.”
"At least my grandchildren will get milk,” he says.
Alawara residents say four such thefts have taken place in one month alone. Gangaram Saini, 60, is one of them.
A daily labourer who barely manages to make ends meet, Gangaram says replacing his three buffaloes would cost him Rs one lakh at least, something he just cannot afford. His wife Ramdeyian says their grandchildren have been deprived of milk since that day. "A kilo of milk costs Rs 40. We can only afford to buy half a kilo everyday. Who all can we feed with this small quantity?" she weeps.
These stories reveal the utter helplessness of cattle owners today. Away from Delhi's gated media houses that remain shut to these meek voices, these farmers are also bearing the brunt of the same media amplifying noise over killings of cattle thieves.
Sharif Khan told this correspondent that earlier, villagers would stand on the main road in groups of four or five for catching the vehicles illegally ferrying cattle, in hope of breaking the backbone of the trade so it doesn't affect their villages. But they don't do it anymore.
"Now the police have started filing cases against the villagers, saying they are taking law in their hands. Even I suggested this as solution to villagers, but they declined," he said. "They also feel scared. Who can take on those armed criminals?"
This correspondent could not think of an answer. Who indeed can take on those criminals who have protection through lethal arms, an understaffed police, political forces, and media?
Angry voices among farmers suggest that their simmering anger could explode in violence in near future.
Rahees Khan of Moti Baas village in Ramgarh tehsil says if he happens to catch a cattle thief, he would thrash him before handing him to the police, even if it means going to jail.
In Khurshidpura village, a farmer told this correspondent on camera that he would kill the thief and own up to the act. "I won't allow my children to live in terror of cattle smugglers. I will instead show them this is how they must deal with these crooks," he said.
When told this was perhaps wrong, the farmer said, "Don't tell us about right or wrong. We spend sleepless nights to protect our cattle. Does anyone care then?"