Politics

India Doesn’t Have A Cow Vigilante-Muslim Lynching Problem But A Mob Justice-Meat Mafia Problem That Can Be Solved

Cows rescued from smugglers at a shelter in Rajasthan. (Photo by Allison Joyce/Getty Images)
Snapshot
  • Be it cow protection groups or cattle smugglers, they are encouraged to take the law into their own hands by certain insulated interests, who use them for their own political or economic ambitions.

    The root cause of the problem here is a state apparatus that does not serve poor people the way it serves the rich. If we spent as much energy addressing the disease as we have been moaning about the symptoms, we wouldn’t have this issue.

This election season, we have seen a range of lazy pieces of journalism around the Indian elections regarding a supposed pandemic of ‘cow vigilantism’ or ‘Muslim lynching’ in the country over the past five years. Everyone ranging from foreign media correspondents who can’t speak a single Indian language and base their reportage on conversations with their equally monolingual and sheltered Indian English-media counterparts at Lodhi Road receptions, to Netflix and stand-up comedians whose jokes at the expense of their old-fashioned Indian parents have worn out and who have now needed to reinvent themselves as political activists, have had their say.

Not a Majority-Minority Issue But a Law and Order Issue

To give voice to a slightly more nuanced view of the topic, allow me to put forth a different angle from which to view the issue. India doesn't have a ‘cow vigilante’ problem or ‘Muslim lynching’ problem, it has a mob justice and meat mafia problem. It is not a majority-minority issue, but rather a law and order issue. And this issue and its symptoms victimises the rural poor across India, be they Muslim or Hindu.

All Indians, in the absence of a trustworthy police and justice system, protect their private property in one way or another. Rich people ally with the police, petit bourgeois members of regional parties such as the Samajwadi Party (SP), Maharastra Navnirman Sena (MNS), or All India Trinamool Congress (TMC) ally with bahubalis (political strongmen), while the poorer Indians are afraid to even enter a police station – lest they don’t come out – or worse, they are simply not served by a police force that is willing or able to deliver them safety or justice.

It is futile to criticize the Prime Minister or the Chief Minister as being the face of a problem that has deep systemic, socio-economic roots. Instead of gnashing one's teeth over the existence of the problems, one should focus that energy on addressing it at its root cause. Activity is no substitute for achievement.

Yes, there are problems with our society and politics, there always have been, and quite possibly, there always will be some or the other challenge that we need to deal with as a nation. But moaning about the symptoms do not magically cure a patient, addressing the disease does.

Identifying the Root Causes

The religious angle is just a superficial reading of the symptoms. The root cause is a state apparatus that does not serve poor people the way it serves the rich. If we spent as much energy addressing the disease as we have been moaning about the symptoms, we wouldn't even have this issue.

There have been cases when a mob of poor farmers stoned a school bus with children inside because their goat was run over. Does it matter that the children were Hindu and the farmers were Muslim? Or that goats have a significant religious or cultural value in their community?

Not necessarily.

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The media, in its infinite wisdom, decided to not give such an incident a ‘communal colour’. Likewise, perhaps we can do the same when the communities are reversed and the animal is slightly different? Then, having taken a step back, one can analyse the issue dispassionately.

Some media reports say that four out of five ‘cow lynching’ victims are members of a single community. If that is indeed the case, it is not so much a reflection of some tribal, centuries-old, grassroots-level hatred for that community, as it is a reflection of the fact that cattle smuggling gangs almost exclusively recruit members from that community, and, they happen to hold a virtual monopoly on the red meat trade in India.

Both cattle owners and cattle thieves are the victims. They are victims of dehumanising and degrading rural poverty, of the brutal business and political interests of those who control a cut-throat meat industry, and of a colonial-era police that is focused on imposing order at any cost instead of serving the community.

Mob Justice - The Cow Protection Squad

Now, if one is to condemn mob justice in all its forms, which by all means, one should, and wants to do something about it rather than merely pontificate in a TV studio about the immorality of its existence, one must understand the factors behind it and address them in a systemic manner.

The typical 'cow protection squad’ is generally a village neighbourhood-watch-group, made up of poor subsistence farmers (or rural, subaltern proletarians, as some may wish to call them), in very specific districts of rural India (often within regions where the illegal slaughterhouse industry is concentrated), who have created these patrols to save their cattle from theft.

Why do they put life and limb at the risk of being shot at by violent gangs or being arrested by the police for taking the law into their own hands?

It's because of two reasons. Firstly, cattle is considered as non-human family members, not unlike how people in the West or wealthy urban Indians view their cats or dogs, and secondly, cattle is also a form of productive investment and a wealth generator in the rural economy. As an economically rational being, a typical farmer sees that a cow or bull is worth more alive than as meat in the freezer (not that people in villages had a regular enough power supply until recently to even own freezers).

The cattle ploughs the field, offers organic fertiliser, and provides a fairly substantial amount of protein to the farmer's family through milk, yoghurt, and also fat, in the form of ghee. All of these benefits help farmers retain a level of self-sufficiency in a rural economy where otherwise unscrupulous moneylenders and companies try to trap them into debt in order to switch to 'modern' farming with tractors and chemical fertilisers, or where commercially available dairy products are beyond their reach.

But don't take it from me. Unlike some other English-speaking media commentators in India, I do not claim to speak on behalf of poor farmers or minorities. I believe in letting them speak for themselves. So, take it from the leaders of a cow-protection group run by the Muslim community, endorsed and encouraged by community elders and religious clerics, such as that of Ramgarh, a Congress bastion on the border of Rajasthan and Haryana, featured in this video:

The Muslim village sarpanch of Ramgarh explains,

“This entire region of Ramgarh is known for breeding cows. The Meo caste Muslims have been raising cattle for generations. Cows are very useful animals. Cow dung is invaluable. Even cow urine is invaluable. And their milk is precious as well, as if there were saffron in it. This is the reason why our elders started rearing cattle. And since then we are following in their footsteps. And serving and protecting the cow.”

This is built upon by the Imam of the local mosque, who says,

According to Islam, we are allowed to rear cattle, use their milk, but to be cruel and inhumane to them is not allowed. According to state and national laws, we have recruited a team of Muslim youths and together with our Hindu brothers, we do the work of ‘gau-rakshaks’. When we need people for roadblocks, we get our young boys to do it. We also talk about the issue during the sermons at Friday prayers and at Eid -- so that no individual from the community should indulge in these unlawful activities. And if someone chooses to, before any of our Hindu brothers catch or accuse them, it is our responsibility to ensure that we prevent such anti-social elements in our own Muslim community. A few anti-social elements are involved in cow smuggling, and there are both Hindus and Muslims who do this to earn a living. But the entire community is being disgraced as is our religion. So it is our duty to stop these disgraceful things like cow smuggling.

Now, just like urban bourgeois Indians say they will do anything for their pet dogs and sign online petitions to end the dog meat industry in South Korea, or howl in protest at stock market manipulation or profligate banks that wipe out their savings and investments, and seek to protect their wealth by influencing government policy, poor Indian farmers also react in the same way, but do not have access to such sophisticated tools. They often do not even have access to the police.

In both cases, be it cow protection groups or cattle smugglers, the poor are the victims of a state designed to impose order on the poor rather than deliver protection to them, and in both cases, they are encouraged to take the law into their own hands, by certain insulated interests, who use them for their own political or economic ambitions.

In the case of farmers encouraged to form cow protection groups, these interests can often be callous administrators and police, who outsource patrol work and community policing to such groups. Or, on the other side it can be the way that poor Muslim labourers are recruited into cattle smuggling, employed to supply the unlicensed slaughterhouse industry, which is an endogamous marriage of business capital, political power and vulnerable labour within a specific community (and even sub-community), exemplified by the current BSP candidate for the Lok Sabha seat of Meerut, Yakub Qureshi.

As pointed out by the West UP farmer whose cattle was stolen in the video above, they live in an atmosphere of fear for their lives and property because of cattle smugglers. And when that farmer went to the police to file a complaint, they told him, “We have limited manpower. Try looking into some of it yourself, and we will try to support you.” Yet, whenever they called the police to the village about thefts or attacks on their property, nobody came.

“Yakub Qureshi has been making headlines for over a decade now, much of which has been for the wrong reasons. Other than declaring to reward terrorists, he has made headlines for publicly thrashing anon-duty policeman and assaulting activists. Not just Qureshi, but his children have made headlines as well: while one of his sons has been in news for allegedly grabbing agricultural land in Meerut, his daughter has been reported to have assaulted students and teachers in a prominent city school, the video of which went viral at the time. It’s said that the muscle to cover up such acts comes from his meat trade. Qureshi is a veteran of the meat trade and runs Al Fahim Meatex Private Limited, which is among the largest Indian exporters of buffalo meat. The company has long been at odds with the law. It was just this February that his company’s unit at Meerut’s Kharkhauda was partially sealed by the Meerut Development Authority. The unit has had demolition orders since 2017. Meerut is among the largest centres of meat trade in India, and much of the city’s meat industry is based in the Kharkhauda region. A number of slaughterhouses and meat processing plants dot the many villages in the region, and villagers from these villages have long accused these plants of contaminating their soil and groundwater through their effluents. Qureshi’s Al Fahim’s unit has particularly drawn ire as its plant is among the largest and most well-known. It has been alleged that these plants, including Qureshi’s, pump their untreated waste underground flouting all norms.”

Poor Muslims from vulnerable socio-economic backgrounds are victimised by profit-seeking meat industry barons, who want the lowest possible input costs in their businesses, and thus the highest margins. If this means not bothering with licensing, animal welfare regulations, slaughterhouse-worker safety regulations, food safety regulations, or formal cattle trading, and instead transgressing into stealing cattle and exploiting the poorest members of their community to engage in high-risk smuggling operations at risk of life and limb, so be it.

No child grows up dreaming to work in an illegal slaughterhouse or as a cattle smuggler, and by failing to effectively enforce the laws against such exploitation, the state fails those vulnerable to being compelled into a brutal, risky, and traumatising profession.

Beef from Illegal Slaughterhouses

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Beef in India, often championed by liberal English-media journalists and commentators as the "cheapest source of protein for the poor", is cheap only because the meat mafia has zero input costs when they steal cattle from farmers and operate outside of all slaughterhouse licensing frameworks, trade union agreements, industrial environmental regulations, and animal welfare or food safety laws.

Which may explain why when the UP government cracked down on illegal slaughterhouses in 2017, beef and buffalo meat items suddenly disappeared from Lucknow’s famous kebab restaurants – raising the question of where they had been getting their supplies from in the first place. So unscrupulous is this industry, that in Kolkata, it was recently found that meat suppliers had been selling chemically-processed dog and cat meat from carcasses at the city rubbish dump to supermarkets and restaurants.

Swati Goel Sharma and Madhur Sharma at Swarajya gave voice to poor Muslims at the grassroots in their investigative journalism around the illegal meat processing industry in UP,

Thanks to the meat plants that have been draining blood and other waste into the ground for years, the water has been rendered so unclean that it’s unfit for even bathing or washing clothes, let alone drinking … Cancer, they say, is as common as fever.

It emerges that slaughterhouses are central to the woes of a host of villages. But since the meat trade primarily involves the Muslim community, the discourse around it is highly politicised. When the crackdown saw the closure of two of such meat units owned by Bahujan Samaj Party leader and former Member of Parliament, Shahid Akhlaq, he described it as “an excess against minorities”. This is exactly the line that the mainstream media took after similar actions against illegal units.

Amid this, voices from the Muslim community protesting against meat units have been completely drowned out. In Meerut’s Muslim-populated Aadh village, the residents struggled and got a meat project shelved. Mohammad Shaukeen, pradhan of Aadh village, told Swarajya that some years ago, a meat plant was being set up in their village but the project was shelved after villagers protested and even clashed with construction workers on the site. “The meat plant would have been a disaster for us,” Shaukeen said.

Almost all the farmers that we spoke to supported the curb on meat trade and praised the Adityanath government for it. The farmers, including Muslims, supported the closure of illegal units, called for fining those farmers who abandon their cattle once they stop giving milk, and demanded the setting up of gaushalas to shelter stray cattle. Ali Hasan, a resident of Kalonda village, said that earlier, just about anybody would set up a meat shop or start butchering cattle wherever he liked. “There was just no control over it. It used to be dirty everywhere. There is thankfully respite from that now,” he said.

And if we look at the broader issue of restrictions on cow slaughter or slaughterhouse licensing or food safety or animal welfare, laws were passed by Congress governments to address them, and they are only being enforced by the current central and state governments, all in accordance with those existing laws.

The only change under the current National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government at the centre was from the Ministry of Environment, Forests, and Climate Change, who changed the regulations on the sale of cattle for slaughter.

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And the Prime Minister, far from sanctioning cow protection groups himself – as the Opposition and their media allies claim – is even on record specifically condemning mob justice and vigilantism in the name of cattle protection on multiple occasions.

Besides, conflicts between those seeking to protect cattle and those seeking to smuggle them for slaughter did not appear overnight after Narendra Modi became the Prime Minister in 2014. As KG Suresh pointed out in the venerable Pioneer,

Dr Rashid Ali Khan of Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh,was brutally murdered by the meat mafia in 2003 for his vehement opposition to cow slaughter. Shahzad Ahmed was another Muslim youth who was beaten to death by cow smugglers in 1979 when he stopped a truck and fought with its occupants who were smuggling cows for slaughter. The Muslim Rashtriya Manch, an all-India organisation of Muslims, demanded not only a country-wide ban on cow slaughter but also enactment of a Central law in this regard, at its Raipur conference in 2014.

One should also note that when journalists shed crocodile tears about how “cows have more rights than minorities in Modi’s India”, it's just a lazy and sensationalist, armchair commentary.

Firstly, cows are treated as private property and are slaughtered by the millions across various states of India, in both government-licensed and illegal slaughterhouses. If they are thinking of a country where Muslim minorities are stolen from their homes and transported like cattle to clandestine facilities, it might be China they have in mind.

Secondly, if they mean a country where the judicial punishment for killing a cow is higher than that of killing a human, it is not ‘Modi's India’ they are thinking of but rather ‘Akbar’s India’ or ‘Bahadur Shah Zafar’s India’.

The last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar, who led the first war of independence in 1857, had issued a decree declaring as his enemy any person who sacrificed any cow, bull or calf openly or otherwise and making such an act punishable by death, an order which bore strong resemblance to a firman issued by Emperor Akbar, whose love for [the] cow finds elaborate mention in the Ain-i-Akbari written by Abul Fazal. French traveller, Francois Bernier, who closely studied the Mughal courts, also mentions in his works that cow slaughter was akin to man slaughter under the law.

Or perhaps the country they are thinking of is ‘Fidel’s Cuba’.

Cuba's leftist, revolutionary communist government, in recognition of the economic value of cattle, has had a long-standing ban on cow slaughter by private individuals; all cows are property of the state, and the state protects its property with its monopoly on legitimate violence. Cuba not only sanctions punishing people who illegally kill cows but mobilises its full panoply of power to do so.

Ah yes, those great ‘Hindu nationalists’ - Akbar, Bahadur Shah Zafar, and Fidel Castro. Truly the visionaries behind the NDA coalition’s enforcement of existing laws passed by those other ‘communal fascists’ – the Indian National Congress state governments of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh of the 1950s and upheld by the ‘Sanghi bigots’ of the country’s Supreme Court.

Puerile name-calling by opponents of the cow slaughter ban does not change the fact that this ban was repeatedly proposed, approved, and upheld by the executive, legislative, and judiciary branches of the state across the country, with a broad bipartisan consensus, and it even forms part of a long civilisational history of Indic values represented by the likes of Ashoka, Akbar, or Manu Needhi Cholan.

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In contrast to the state punishing cow slaughter by imprisonment or death, villagers taking the law into their own hands to protect their bovine wealth (or non-human family members, if you prefer), is as less a reflection of creeping fascism or religious bigotry, as it is a reflection of the poor reach of police and judicial services in rural communities; and, it is an expression of the lack of power that poor farmers enjoy when it comes to interacting with the apparatus of the state.

Is Enforcing Existing Laws a Problem?

Meanwhile, the current government's role has been to enforce existing laws (often passed with bipartisan approval by Congress governments at both the national and state level), crack down on illegal, unlicensed butchers and slaughterhouses that pollute groundwater and sell unhygienic meat to unsuspecting consumers, and tightening the regulations around the sale (not slaughter) of cattle.

Plus, even within the Muslim community, one hears of support for these laws from religious leaders, with the 150 executive members of the All India Shia Personal Law Board passing a resolution in 2017 supporting a ban on cow slaughter, on the basis of Islamic principles. The cleric Maulana Ejaz Athar, speaking on behalf of the board, elaborated, saying,

We got that fatwa from Iraq, according to which cows should not be killed because the issue concerns the religious sentiments of Hindus. Hence, a prohibition on it should be implemented effectively.

A similar fatwa against cow slaughter had been issued by a Shia cleric in India as well, around 40 or 50 years ago. As per the resolution passed at that time, a person should follow the laws of the country where he lives.

This is built upon in other religious texts as well, as summarised here:

[On] the question of beef, which is sought to be projected as part of Islamic identity by sections of Indian intelligentsia, it is significant to mention that in his entire lifetime, the Prophet himself is not known to have partaken cow meat. According to well-known Islamic scholars,there is no Hadith available which confirms that the Prophet in fact ate beef. However, we do have a number of authenticated statements of the Prophet, which does confirm that beef, ie cow’s meat (also called bovine meat), contains illness, while the cow’s milk and fat contain cure and healing.

In response to a fatwa sought by the Amroha-based Islamic scholar, Maulana Kaukab Mujtaba on Hindus considering the cow as sacred and many Indian States prohibiting cow slaughter, Maulana Alvi Gurgani, one of the four Shia Muftis authorised to issue the religious edict, stated that if cow slaughter could lead to conflict in society, then Muslims should avoid it.

From Fatwa-e-Humayuni to Darul Mukhtiar to Maulana Hassan Nizami and Hakim Ajmal Khan, the message has been reiterated time and again that cow slaughter is not mandated in Islam, that sacrifice of sheep and goat are considered superior to cow slaughter, that poor Muslims are not obliged to offer sacrifice and that neither the Holy Quran or Arab traditions support cow sacrifice.

The Real Culprits-Political and Moral Corruption

With such support from the legislative, executive, judiciary, and even religious clergy, one would imagine that enforcing the rule of law should be uncontroversial, but when some industries' profits depend on breaking the law, it is only natural to expect them and their political patrons to howl in protest. As Upton Sinclair said in his magnum opus The Jungle, on the political and moral corruption around the meat-processing industry of the 20th century,

It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!

Overall, both cow vigilantes and cattle thieves are victims of a lack of law and order that exposes poor and socio-economically vulnerable young men to the risk of prison, injury, or even death and there are wealthy interests that are willing to sacrifice them to this risk.

So, if poor rural youth are being manipulated into joining groups that expose them to such risks by religiously, politically, or economically corrupted leaders, it's because firstly, their circumstances make joining such a group more effective (or less ineffective) in achieving their socio-economic aspirations than the other alternatives available to them and secondly, there is little to no deterrence stopping them from putting themselves into harm’s way. No carrot, and no stick.

The Solution

If we are to stop them from joining such groups and help them become well-functioning, productive members of society, then should we not provide them with more secure, more prosperous lives and create community policing initiatives that create a deterrent to antisocial behaviour?

Or should we shame or force them into changing their behaviour, and risk alienating them further?

It is generally not effective to force and shame people into a behavioural change – people are most likely to change their views or behaviour when they feel that this change was their idea and is in their hands.

And regardless of whether you want to see an end to cow vigilantes or cattle smugglers or both, in order to give people this sense of ownership, it is not effective to push either group into a corner through negative messaging or writing them off from decent society, but rather, counter the toxic narratives around the issue with a positive, hopeful alternative, that gives them incentives to breakout from their entrenched ways of thinking and acting.

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If our liberals can view Kashmiri youth who become separatist militants through this lens and let it shape their approaches and perceptions on how to counter the appeal of those who wish to manipulate them, why not apply the same tools to help these young men, and address this issue from its root cause?

In a state where the rule of law is enforced, people live in safety and security, where their property rights are respected, where they can live with socio-economic dignity, and where the police serves them instead of scaring them, there would be neither cow vigilantes nor meat mafia.

In addition, if there are consumers who define themselves by their love for beef or mutton or chicken, there are now ways to deliver them the tastes and textures that they love, without needing to slaughter any animal at all.

‘Cellular agriculture’, ‘cultured meat’ or ‘clean meat’, is the future of food, that delivers consumers all that they love about their favourite animal products, without needing to slaughter any animal in the input process, respecting all communities’ religious beliefs, without putting slaughterhouse workers at risk to their physical and mental health through one of the most injury-prone industries, and without creating a conflict between cattle owners and the meat industry.

The transition from an inefficient, polluting, and degrading meat industry to one that provides safe, healthy food and dignified jobs is as inevitable in the long-run as a transition to renewable energy or to electric cars, both from an environmental and a business perspective. And this transition can and should be done in a manner that is not antagonistic to farmers or the food processing industry, but rather is an inclusive transition that ensures that a new, cleaner supply chain is formed that delivers better outcomes for farmers, food-processing workers, the food industry, and consumers.

Just this week, India made the biggest investment by a government in clean meat technology to date, to allow the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology under the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), and the National Research Centre on Meat (NRCM), set up by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) to develop this technology indigenously and scale it to the demands of the Indian protein market.

Proponents of cell-based meat claim that it is healthier for the planet – by reducing land and water usage – as well as for consumers. It could potentially do away with the need for modern factory-farming and issues such as animal cruelty, salmonella and E-coli infections and antibiotic-laced meat.

In addition, The Good Food Institute, one of the world’s leading organisations working on the issue of food security and the future of protein, has partnered with the Maharashtra government and the Institute of Chemical Technology in Mumbai to create the world’s first government research centre for the development of clean meat.

Yet, despite this, some may still say, “Eating beef is my right.” They may be disappointed to hear that this is not a constitutional right nor an integral part of any religion’s tenets, but simply a material desire. A desire which is in contravention of laws in many states.

Someone else may say, “Marrying who I want is my right, even if they are 14 years old,” or “Driving my new BMW at top speed on Lodhi Road at midnight is my right,” or “Copying from my classmate in an exam is my right”. One’s wanting it does not count for anything; in a country with the rule of law and democratic institutions, it is the law that counts.

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In Conclusion

To conclude, it is not my place to speak for anyone but myself or to tell readers what to think about the issue. To quote Socrates,

I cannot teach anyone anything, I can only make them think.

So if, upon reflection, some readers disagree with all of these points, I would not hold it against them. We live in a free country, where there is enough room for all sorts of diverging opinions. And in a capitalist democracy, we are all expected, as individuals, to vote in our self-interest.

And if a handful of gau-rakshak versus cattle smuggler incidents are core to defining some voters’ self-interest and their voting preferences, and none of my suggested systemic solutions are acceptable in their eyes, here is a little lesson from the past.

If the cow slaughter ban bothers you so much, don’t feel compelled to vote for the NDA who enforces it or the Congress who instituted it. If you can find one, vote for a party that is campaigning to repeal all the food safety, slaughterhouse worker rights, and animal welfare provisions that come in the way of a handful of meat barons from making profits.

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Be like the voters who elected the Samajwadi Party in UP in 1993 based on Mulayam Singh Yadav’s promise that he would repeal the supposedly 'draconian' Anti-Copying Act that made cheating in exams a non-bailable offence. Youth voters in 1993 UP felt strongly enough about it to vote for the SP and hold him to his word, and cheating in exams was decriminalised in UP, to reflect the wishes of voters who felt cheating was their birthright.

So there you have it! If you feel the law is so unjust, there are mechanisms for your voice to be heard. Who knows, perhaps it may even be more effective than your current strategy of embarrassing yourselves on Twitter by calling everyone you disagree with a 'Sanghi bigot' or a 'Manuvadi fascist'?

But as long as the law exists with the consent of our citizens and our democratic institutions, it is the duty of the state to enforce it.

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