The politics of ‘cow protection’ in India

Photo: AFP

Between May 2015 and December 2018, at least 44 people – including 36 Muslims – were killed in vigilante attacks in India in the name of ‘cow protection’, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The Indian government should prevent and prosecute mob violence by vigilante groups targeting minorities in the name of so-called cow protection, Human Rights Watch said in the report.

The 104-page report, ‘Violent Cow Protection in India: Vigilante Groups Attack Minorities,’ describes the use of communal rhetoric by members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to spur a violent vigilante campaign against consumption of beef and those engaged in the cattle trade. Police often stalled prosecutions of the attackers, while several BJP politicians publicly justified the attacks.

“Calls for cow protection may have started out as a way to attract Hindu votes, but it has transformed into a free pass for mobs to violently attack and kill minority group members,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Indian authorities should stop egging on or justifying these attacks, blaming victims, or protecting the culprits.”

The report details 11 cases that resulted in the deaths of 14 people, and the government response, in four Indian states – Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Jharkhand – selected because of their large numbers of reported mob attacks.

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It examines the link between cow protection and the Hindu nationalist political movement, and the failure of local authorities to enforce constitutional and international human rights obligations to protect vulnerable minorities.

In one case in 2016, a vigilante group beat to death a Muslim cattle trader and a 12-year-old boy traveling to an animal fair in Jharkhand. Their badly bruised bodies were found hanging from a tree with their hands tied behind them. The boy’s father witnessed the attack, hiding in some bushes: “If I stepped out, they would have killed me, too. My son was screaming for help, but I was so scared that I hid.”

Many Hindus consider cows sacred and most Indian states ban slaughtering cows. But in recent years, several BJP-ruled states have adopted stricter laws and policies that disproportionately harm minority communities. In February 2019, the government announced a national commission for cow protection.

These policies and the vigilante attacks have disrupted India’s cattle trade and the rural agricultural economy, as well as leather and meat export industries that are linked to farming and dairy sectors, Human Rights Watch said. The attacks, often by groups claiming links to militant outfits linked to the BJP, largely target Muslim, Dalit (formerly known as “untouchables”), or Adivasi (indigenous) communities. The inadequate response from the authorities to these attacks is hurting communities, including Hindus, whose livelihoods are linked to livestock, including farmers, herders, cattle transporters, meat traders, and leather workers, Human Rights Watch said.

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In almost all of the cases documented, the police initially stalled investigations, ignored procedures, or were even complicit in the killings and cover-ups. “Police face political pressure to sympathize with cow protectors and do a weak investigation and let them go free,” said a retired senior police officer in Rajasthan. “These vigilantes get political shelter and help.”

In several cases, political leaders of Hindu nationalist groups, including elected BJP officials, defended the assaults.

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