New Delhi: When he speaks of himself, it is mostly in terms that sound deliberately vague. But when asked about his organization, Pawan Pandit doesn’t hold back: “We are not anti-Muslim or anti-Dalit. We are a fraternity which wants to save the cow, because she is our mother... because that is what my religion, my parents, my holy book, taught me.”
Pandit, 32, describes himself as a software engineer by education, born in Haryana’s Bhiwani town and a Brahmin.
More importantly, he is chairman of an organization called the Bhartiya Gau Raksha Dal (BGRD), a group that, according to him, has 6,000 full-time members, mostly men and mostly Brahmins. One among the many such small and large bands of “cow protectors”, this group operates across India, especially in Haryana, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat.
Pandit says it’s difficult to establish the count of BGRD volunteers across the country. A volunteer could be a businessman, a shopkeeper, a writer, a film artist, or a software engineer like Pandit himself. What’s common to them is that all believe it is their duty to protect the cow.
Sometimes with acts of violence, cow protectors have attracted media attention since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government assumed power in May 2014.
On 11 July, Gau Rakshaks (cow protectors) in Gujarat’s Una town tied up and beat four Dalit men with iron rods for skinning a dead cow.
A video clip of the incident went viral, sparking violence that left one policeman and many injured. “I condemn this incident, but we need to first establish if the cow was actually dead and if the people who beat the men were actually Gau Rakshaks,” says Pandit.
The term Gau Rakshak has slipped into the country’s lexicon of politics and culture over the past two years, in step with increasing activism by self-styled protectors and vigilante groups.
Such vigilantism took a deadly turn in September 2015 when a 55-year-old Muslim man was killed and his son seriously injured by a mob over allegations of cow slaughter.
Since then, Gau Rakshaks have frequently hit newspaper headlines. In March, in Gurgaon alone, at least eight cases of violence by vigilante groups were reported to police. In June, a video surfaced showing volunteers of a group called the Gau Rakshak Dal in Gurgaon forcing two men to eat a concoction of cow dung, cow urine, milk, curd and ghee. They were suspected to have transported beef.
“Forget that cow slaughter hurts our sensibility, forget that our holy book considers slaughter of cow as the biggest crime, forget that we are a majority... at least, look at the cow as the biggest source of economy for rural India. And look at the scientific reasons, the benefits of using its products—be it milk, urine or cow dung. I am not the one saying all this. International research claims so. America, in fact, has patented a cow urine drug,” says Pandit.
Established in 2012, BGRD claims to have saved the lives of 11,000 cows in Delhi, Maharashtra, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. It is registered as a company by the Union ministry of corporate affairs. Among other things, the aim of the organization, as listed on its website, is to set up a “cow urine therapy research centre and practising centre for critical ailments”.
“If a cow is being slaughtered, you should know that the foundation of the country is being slaughtered,” Pandit says, sitting in front of a wall-size cardboard panel with a picture of a cow, along with the name of his organization etched on it.
Despite complaints of violence by his volunteers, Pandit says taking the law into one’s own hands is not the way to go about it. “My workers call me when they come to know about any such (cow slaughter) incident. I immediately call the police; and in most if not every case, the police have supported us and accompanied us,” he says.
With incidents of violence by Gau Rakshaks rising, Pandit’s home state of Haryana has decided to mandate police verification for cow protection vigilantes if they want to help the police prevent the slaughter and smuggling of cattle.
“Gau Rakshaks can pass on the information on cow smugglers to police and, accordingly, check-posts will be set up. Police are trained in dealing with armed criminals; the people should not risk lives by holding such operations,” said Bharti Arora, supervising officer of the police unit set up in Gurgaon to check cow slaughter and cattle smuggling, The Times of India reported earlier this month. The statement and the creation of the police unit came after beef smugglers in June opened fire at two Gau Rakshaks and injured them.
“If they are innocent Dalits, with no malice, how come they carry guns?” asks Pandit gruffly, while condemning the violence in the June incident.
In Gujarat alone, as many as 200 cow vigilante groups have sprung up, The Hindu reported on 22 July.
“Some just use our name to take revenge over issues that have nothing to do with cow protection. Ask most of them if they have ever done gau daan. How many cows do they have in their houses? Am sure no one does,” he says. Gau daan is the practice of donating a cow to a Brahmin on specific occasions.
Sitting in a small, cluttered room—his office in east Delhi—when Pandit talks about his country, he talks about Bharat. There is no India in the conversation. “Our country is divided into two Bharats: one where the likes of me stand, the so-called kattar (Hindi for radical) Hindutva people and, on the other hand, the people who don’t share our ideology,” he says.
He nods earnestly as he speaks, encouraging the listener to believe him.
“If we just look at our recent history, we will realize how every religion has banned cow slaughter at some point or the other. Didn’t Maharaja Ranjeet Singh ban cow slaughter completely in the 1800s? Wasn’t Arya Samaj of the same view? Namdhari Sikhs started a campaign against cow slaughter. In fact, if you read Baburnama, you will know that (Mughal emperor) Babur had said if you want secularism in the country, you will have to ban beef,” says Pandit.
The first, organized Hindu cow protection movement in India was launched by a Sikh sect in Punjab around 1870.
In 1882, Hindu religious leader Dayanand Saraswati founded the first cow protection committee, according to a 2015 report by the BBC.
It also said conflicts over cow slaughter often sparked religious riots that led to the killing of more than 100 people in 1893 alone. In 1966, at least eight people died in riots outside Parliament in Delhi while demanding a national ban on cow slaughter. And in 1979, Acharya Vinoba Bhave, considered by many as the spiritual heir of Mahatma Gandhi, went on a hunger strike to demand a ban on cow slaughter.
Cow slaughter is banned in a majority of states and Union territories: Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Assam, Bihar, Chandigarh, Chhattisgarh, Delhi, Gujarat, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Mizoram, Odisha, Punjab, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh. However, the largest beef/buff consuming state is not-Muslim majority Jammu and Kashmir but Meghalaya, where more than 80% of the population consumes this meat.
Pandit says he might not have read the original texts of all religions, but he has read sources and excerpts. “In 1954, a general survey showed that on an average, one man had six cows. Now if you see, even six families don’t have even one cow. Where are the cows? The cows are gone from my village. I don’t see people in the cities rearing them. Why are the cows on the roads eating plastic bags?” says Pandit.
Pandit gave up his career as a software engineer in 2008 when he started work on saving cows. Now, it is only very rarely that he does any engineering projects. Pandit says he is not involved with any political party or inclined towards one. The state of affairs in India made him plunge into this work. “You have to agree that cow is the centre of the Hindutva faith. She is the mother of 80% of Bharat. The government needs to make its stand clear on the cow. On the one hand, the government is increasing beef exports; on the other hand, you are talking of cow protection. Every state has two Acts—one to give licences to a slaughterhouse, the other on cow protection.”
After the Una incident, a lot of commentary was around how Dalits had become collateral damage of the Gau Rakshaks’ hatred of Muslims. To that, Pandit says, “When we expressed our views, our opposition to beef, who was the one who talked about their rights to eat (it)? It was only the Muslims. Beef was introduced in our cuisine by no one but Muslims.”
According to the latest National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) round, around 1 of every 13 Indians—or 80 million people—eat beef or buffalo meat. The biggest chunk of beef-eating population are Muslims. After Muslims, scheduled castes and scheduled tribes (SC/ST) make up the biggest group of the beef-eating population.
Among Hindus, more than 70% of the beef-eating population is SC/ST, 21% is other backward castes and only 7% is upper caste (others category).
BGRD uses social media to source information on cow slaughter or smuggling and, later, to spread information among its members. It has also launched a prize, Gau Rakshak Puraskaar Sammaan (cow protector award) for people who show their dedication to protecting the cow. In the last three months, 100 people have received this award.
Pandit says, “If there is religious significance to the animal, what’s the problem in that? Everyone cannot speak just for the minority. There should be someone who should speak for the majority, too.”