New Delhi : Indian authorities should promptly investigate and prosecute self-appointed “cow protectors” who have committed brutal attacks against Muslims and Dalits over rumors that they sold, bought, or killed cows for beef, Human Rights Watch said today. Instead of taking prompt legal action against the vigilantes, many linked to extremist Hindu groups affiliated with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the police, too often, have filed complaints against the assault victims, their relatives, and associates under laws banning cow slaughter.
Many Hindus consider the cow to be a holy animal, and slaughter is forbidden in most parts of Hindu-majority India. Since May 2015, a violent vigilante campaign against beef consumption has led to the killing of at least 10 Muslims, including a 12-year-old boy, in seven separate incidents of mob violence. In July 2016, in Gujarat, vigilantes stripped four Dalit men, tied them to a car, and beat them with sticks and belts over suspicions of cow slaughter. In a number of cases, the attackers have also robbed their victims of cash and cellphones, and damaged their property.
“Self-appointed ‘cow protectors’ driven by irresponsible populism are killing people and terrorizing minority communities,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director. “The government should condemn this violence and take prompt action against those responsible for these attacks or face allegations of complicity.”
In one recent case, on April 21, 2017, in the Jammu region of Jammu and Kashmir state, a mob brutally attacked five members of a nomad cattle-herding family, including a 9-year-old girl, on suspicion that they were taking their cows for slaughter. A video posted on social media showed a group of men chanting slogans commonly used by BJP supporters, breaking down the family’s shelter, beating an elderly man with rods and sticks even as women begged for mercy, and finally setting the shelter on fire. Several policemen can be seen in the video while the mob carries out the attack, but they appeared to be outnumbered and stay back when the mob pushes them back. Police have arrested 11 people for the assault.
On April 22, in New Delhi, purported animal rights activists allegedly belonging to People for Animals, which is led by a BJP official, beat up three men in a truck for transporting buffaloes. Initially, the police failed to arrest anyone for the assault or investigate the role of People for Animals, which denied involvement in the attack. Instead, the police arrested the three victims under a law preventing cruelty to animals after the injured victims were taken to a hospital. The men were released on bail a day later. Two days after the incident, the police arrested a Delhi resident who claimed to be a member of People for Animals. The police were informed of the incident by another member of People for Animals who was allegedly part of a “raid team” that regularly stops vehicles to see whether they contain cattle. People for Animals, which started as an animal rights group, said that since 2014 it has shut down some of its city units, including in Delhi, due to allegations of vigilantism and extortion against its members.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, when he was chief minister of Gujarat state and during the 2014 national election campaign, repeatedly called for the protection of cows, raising the specter of a “pink revolution” by the previous government that he claimed had endangered cows and other cattle to export meat. BJP leaders have attempted to portray the majority Hindu population as victims, whipping up fear of Muslim men who they say kidnap, rape, or lure Hindu women into relationships as part of a plot to make India into a Muslim-majority country. In the period leading up to the Uttar Pradesh state elections in 2017, a BJP lawmaker, Yogi Adityanath, the current chief minister, raised fears of a Hindu exodus in western Uttar Pradesh, which has the largest concentration of Muslims in the state.
Since the BJP came to power in May 2014, extremist Hindu groups supporting Modi and his party have led vigilante mob attacks across the country to enforce “nationalism.” Senior BJP leaders, including elected officials and leaders of various groups who claim to promote Hindu rights, have instigated hate crimes. Self-appointed cow protectors are increasingly conducting raids and attacks, claiming the police don’t take adequate action against those slaughtering cows. There have been numerous incidents in which they have allegedly assaulted, harassed, threatened, and extorted money from Muslims and Dalits. Dalits, so-called “untouchables,” are equally vulnerable as they traditionally carry out jobs to dispose of cattle carcasses and skin them for commercial purposes.
Among the largest cow protection networks is the Bharatiya Gau Raksha Dal (“India Cow Protection Group”), an umbrella organization registered in 2012. Its leader, Pawan Pandit, told Human Rights Watch that the network is affiliated with about 50 groups across the country and that their 10,000 volunteers have a presence in nearly every state. “Now the entire India is a cow protection group because people are angered by such cruelty to animals,” Pandit said, adding that even the BJP government was not strong enough on cow protection. He denied allegations of violence by his members, saying those were spontaneous acts by local residents angered by the ill-treatment and slaughter of cows.
“The mild admonitions from BJP leaders when Muslims and Dalits are lynched over cows sends a message that the BJP supports this violence,” Ganguly said. “Instead of a government that took office on the promise of universal development, it now appears to be one unwilling to protect those most vulnerable.”