cow vigilantism
An elderly victim of cow vigilante groups

Persecution of weak and minorities is something that hyper nationalist regimes across the world swear by. Oftentimes this begins with the innovation of overt and covert tactics intending to further the other-ing process. Frequent execution of the same results in the establishment of dehumanizing norms, which ultimately becomes the dreaded weapon wielded by the regime’s agents. The increasing incidents of cow vigilante violence in India are a classic example of such a tactic unleashed on the poor and marginalized of the minority communities, especially on the Muslims. The Hindutva narrative of cow being the ‘holy mother’ and its protection being the ultimate duty of a Hindu has been venomously propagated by the rightwing ever since 2014 when the BJP government ascended to power.

In the last 7 years of this government, India has witnessed a series of blood churning instances of cow vigilantism executed mostly in form of mob lynching. While some are attacked on the highways, others are assaulted in their homes and villages. From the chilling murder of Mohammed Akhlaq for allegedly keeping beef in his fridge (which later turned out to be mutton) to the recent lynching of a 20 year old youngster in Jammu in the name of bovine smuggling, Muslims are systemically made to bear the brunt of the Hindutva hooliganism. Though such incidents have been perpetuated across North Indian cow belt states, the situation is worse in Jammu and Kashmir, the only Union Territory (erstwhile state) with a large population of Muslims.

Since the abrogation of Article 370 in August 2019 and the subsequent reduction of its status from statehood to that of a Union Territory, Jammu and Kashmir is witnessing an unprecedented rise in attack on tribal pastoral communities, especially on the Van Gujjars and Bakarwals.  These are the people who come down to the valley in winters with their livestock and go back to the mountains in summers in search of grazing lands. Many of them since ages rear and consume buffalo, and even have government license to engage in transportation and other bovine related business. However none of such customary or administrative considerations deter the ‘gau rakshaks’ (cow protectors) from assaulting them or often murdering them on religious lines.

Plethora of Hate Crimes

For instance, in April 2017, a 70-year-old Gujjar man and his family were beaten up and his tin shed was smashed for allegedly smuggling animals. On 16th  May 2019 Nayeem Ahmed Shah(age 50) was shot in the head and died on the spot while another, Yasin Hussain, was injured by “cow vigilantes” at Bhaderwah over cow-smuggling while families of both denied any animal was carried out by any of them. 16th Aug 2020 saw a mob attacking a Muslim shepherd in Garri Gabbar village in Reasi district  after his son drove a few cows away from their pastureland. Mohammad Asghar, who was thrashed by a 20-strong mob, was hospitalized with serious injuries. Asghar’s son, who is 16-year-old, now faces a police case.

Even when the whole world is reeling through the covid pandemic, it is sickening to see the government apathy in containing lynching in the name of cow protection. The year 2021 itself saw four major such crime in Jammu and Kashmir. On 8th May 2021, Muhammad Siddiq and his cousin Amir Hussain of Garhote village in Jammu district were injured by hoodlums when they were returning to their home along with a pair of oxen they had purchased a few days ago. On 26th May 2021, a group of nomadic families travelling from Jammu’s Samba district to the Kashmir valley with livestock was attacked by self-styled vigilantes leaving many including children injured in a case of apparent hate crime. The six families from the nomadic Bakarwal tribe were attacked just after they left their home for the annual summer migration to Kashmir along with their livestock on two trucks, according to eye-witnesses. Amongst those injured are a seven-year-old boy and a 40-year-old man, however, both are now in a stable condition, despite having all the permissions from the district magistrate and other local authorities including the police to ferry livestock.

On the very next day, on 27th May 2021 six people were beaten up and their cattle seized, an incident where an old man suffered severe head injury, while crossing the riverbed at Kotranka town of Rajouri district. The police instead of helping the victims filed the charge of bovine smuggling in FIR. The most recent and tragic end was that of 20 year old Aijaz Dar, a resident of the Thanamandi area of Rajouri district, who got killed by ‘miscreants’ near the Murad Pur area of the district when he was returning home after buying a buffalo on 22nd June 2021. He was the sole breadwinner of family of six with three younger sisters, a paralyzed father and an ailing mother.

Trailing Accountability and Appalling Passivity

Despite the alarming surge in cow vigilante crimes, and the active involvement of organizations like the J&K Gujjar Bakarwal Youth Welfare Conference (JKGBYWC) in reporting the same, there is little to zero relief for the victims in terms of accessibility to justice. While in some cases investigations are initiated, others see the victims themselves becoming the guilty. One cannot see these incidents in isolation, rather as an extension of the Hindutva project which the present regime so badly want to implement in a Muslim majority area. Forceful accumulation of resources, demographic alterations through nefarious tactics and violation of basic human rights are the norm of the day in Jammu & Kashmir. In this regard, the report of Human Rights Watch condemning such attacks and the 2017 Supreme Court ruling, offer pertinent insights to the administrative machinery and the ruling dispensation. It is high time that permanently humane solutions to such barbarous activities are implemented, especially to safeguard a population suffering from decades of political violence and rights violations.

Lekshmi Sujatha is an independent writer


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