Cow Vigilantism - Development In Reverse 

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In April 2017, Pehlu Khan – a fifty-five-year-old dairy farmer – was assaulted by a mob of self-styled gau rakshaks (cow protectors), supposedly for “illegally smuggling cattle.” One month later, two teenagers were beaten to death in Assam on the suspicion of stealing cows, while another mob thrashed three youth for supposedly possessing beef. Nearly one month later – in June 2017 – fifteen-year old Junaid Khan was stabbed to death in a train after being branded a beef eater.

Overall, as of July 2017, 26 incidents of cow-related violence had been recorded in the 118 days following the lynching of Pehlu Khan. Of the 70 cases of cow-related violence in the past eight years, 68 of them – that is, 97 percent of all such happenings – have happened since the current administration came to power in 2014.

The reasons for the sudden rise in such violence are manifold and complex. However, one clear factor has been the government’s silence on – if not direct support of –such cow vigilantism. Prime Minister Modi infamously failed to come out with any strong statement against such violence until a lukewarm appeal stating that “violence is not the solution” in June 2017. More than half of cow-related violence cases were from Bharatiya Janata Party states; in nearly 50 percent of the reported cases, police registered cases against victims or survivors.

However, perhaps the most express evidence of support for the aims of cow vigilantes was the cattle trade ban imposed by the Modi government in May this year. This was a ban on the sale of cattle for slaughter, which effectively made beef, leather, and products derived from slaughtering cattle illegal.

The ban on cattle slaughter has had mixed reactions. Some brand it as a political necessity, helping the BJP appeal to the RSS and to Hindu-extremist populations across the country. Others believe that the government may have gone a step too far this time, further alienating Muslims – many of whom are employed in industries relating to cattle slaughter – from the BJP.

However, the economic effects of the ban are just as significant as the political ones – perhaps even more so, especially for a government that promised to “double farmers’ income by 2022.” With attention already being drawn to farmers’ problems with several farmers’ protests earlier this year – in addition to the heat the government is facing over demonetisation – the negative economic effects of the ban could prove to be another hurdle for the BJP to jump over during the 2019 elections.

Indeed, as of June 2017, exports of leather shoes had already dropped by more than 13 percent, as global brands turned to countries such as China, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Brands such as Zara and Clarks have already started cutting back orders after Yogi Adityanath – the Hindu firebrand BJP Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh – announced that unlicensed abattoirs in India’s most populous state would be shut down.

And as usual, the biggest losers from this policy are going to be the lowest socioeconomic classes in most of India – farmers and Dalits. The former are active benefiters and contributors to India’s status as the largest beef-exporting country (until the cattle ban, that is); the latter made up the majority of tannery employees for companies that exported leather products. With the sale of cattle for slaughter illegal, farmers will be forced to keep cows that no longer give milk, adding yet another economic burden to their load.

Moreover, India had become the fifth largest consumer of beef in the world, and this consumption had been steadily rising over the past years. Around one out of every thirteen Indians eat beef or buffalo meat, with states such as Meghalaya and Lakshwadeep responsible for a substantial portion of this consumption. The logic of a ban on beef – or the ‘sale of cattle for slaughter’ – is tough to understand when the product is of such importance to the Indian economy.

And although the Supreme Court may have stayed the ban on beef in July, this is unlikely to change much. For as long as the government fails to take decisive action against those who murder in the name of saving cows, people will continue to be terrorized into staying away from beef. The beef ban is helpful only to Hindu extremists, and hurtful to many – politically, socially, and economically.

Harsh Dubey is a staff writer at India Ink. You can reach him at hd287@georgetown.edu.