Prime Minister Narendra Modi has said many cow protectors are gau rakshaks at night but run shops in the name of the cow in the daytime. One known business model is for cow protectors to target buffalo transporters in Rajasthan, Haryana and Punjab, and not limit themselves to the cow, which many Hindus revere. As buffalo slaughter is legal, and is the mainstay of India's $4.8 billion beef exports (2015), buffalo traders and transporters are usually booked under a different law, which is supposed to prevent and punish cruelty to animals.
Cattle traders in villages such as Ghasera and Rojka Meo in Haryana's Mewat district say their buffaloes, captured by gau raksha dals (GRDs) end up in several animal-care "farms", such as one at Sadhrana near Gurgaon and at Raja Garden in Delhi. Their complaints have all the elements of a fresh human-animal conflict on the rise in rural India, except that this time the animal is no rare beast like the lion, but the humble water buffalo.
"When we try to get our buffaloes back from these shelters, they demand huge sums for cattle feed and medicines. We just leave them there, for we can't afford such charges," says Abdul Manan of Ghasera, who spent two nights in Tihar Jail after he was charged with transporting buffaloes cruelly. "I spent two nights in jail over buffaloes," he says, wryly. The charges were filed against him after gau rakshaks caught him, earlier this year, and sent his cattle off to a veterinary 'farm' run under the Delhi government's auspices. He was also beaten by the gau rakshaks, faced a court-imposed fine and his pick-up van was impounded. He never got his cattle back.
One shelter for rescued cows and buffaloes, (apart from other animals), is the Sanjay Gandhi Animal Care Centre in Raja Garden, Delhi. The traders in Mewat complain that their buffaloes, once taken there, are rarely released even if they have favourable court orders.
"Those who complained to you about us are not just villagers. They are butchers," says Dilip Suri, the man in charge of day-to-day affairs at the Raja Garden center. This shelter houses around 700 dogs and 1,500 cows, bulls and oxen and many other animals and birds such as peacocks and emu.
Suri agrees that many who come to reclaim their cattle from this shelter are not able to afford the cost of release. "Ab das rupey ki cheez ke sau kaun dega? (Who will pay Rs 100 for something worth Rs 10)," he quips. What he means is, claimants must pay the shelter for fodder and medical expenses at MCD-fixed rates. The charges are nominal—Rs 100 per day for a buffalo's feed and Rs 60 per day for a goat. At times, nominal medical expenses are added. However, getting a court order to release cattle can take months. Costs add up with time, and a buffalo can cost less than the cost of its feed by the time the order arrives.
Suri says that cows and buffaloes brought here are indeed the property of the traders. However, cruelty during transport can be quite chilling at times, he points out. "For repeat offenders, often, courts give no relief. They make lots of excuses for cruelty, but we have seen over a 100 cattle stacked in a single truck meant for just 20 animals. They choke to death in the trucks sometimes," he says.
Undoubtedly this is a cruel twist for cattle transporters as well, who feel pitted against two, not just one, force that is much more powerful than them. They insist that the cow trade has died out, in response to the gau raksha dals, their foremost tormentor. However, they seem unable to comprehend why the animal rights activists take away buffaloes, or why their shelters clamp shut behind cattle.
"GRDs take our buffaloes on the road and send them to a gaushala. Or the animal farm people lock them within high-walled gates. It's almost impossible to get them back from there. People have even stopped trying now. Everybody knows we will never get them back if they go to an animal farm," says Arshu Mohammad of Ghasera.
The cattle traders believe that cruelty is a matter of opinion. Suri believes that cruelty to animals is not just "heart-wrenching"—but also legally barred.
"To earn Rs 500-1000 we must transport several buffaloes per trip. Gau rakshaks say we must carry only one. All of us have taken Rs 4-5 lakh loan to buy stock. This would ruin us. Whenever they catch us we can't afford even vegetables for a fortnight. We nearly starve," as Iqbal (Ghasera trader) says.
Bizarrely, Suri also informs that PFA (People for Animals), another charitable trust meant to care for and rescue injured animals, goes and captures animals with gau raksha groups. These animals also wind up in his care.
PFA's veterinary hospital is sprawled on an unnamed rural road in Sadhrana, two hours from Delhi. It is managed by former corporate executive Saptarishi Ray, an avid animal lover. "Gau rakshaks tell us about cattle transporter's movements. We rescue cattle too... Did you know that when chased, cattle smugglers throw buffaloes out on the road from their speeding pick-ups?" he says.
The PFA activists including Ray, he says, participate in raids on transporters, finding the ones who are "cruel" or ferrying cattle that is illegal to transport, camels in particular. Ray says that nobody with court orders for their cattle's release is ever turned away from his shelter, unless the animal happens to be a camel. "I never release camels, court orders or no," he says. "I call the SP or DGP and tell them I simply won't comply—let me be in contempt." This is because it is illegal to slaughter camels and invariably they are only brought out of Rajasthan to be slaughtered.
While Ray is away, staffers at the PFA farm say that their boss spends a lot of his time in the courts. Ray responds that only one instance of buffaloes sheltered at his farm became a serious legal dispute that escalated up to the High Court—the ruling was in favour of PFA as it was a case of exceptional cruelty. "Otherwise, we go by proper legal advice in cases of cruelty to buffaloes. And we don't hold anybody's buffaloes if they come with a court order for their release," he says.
As far as the traders are concerned, they believe laws that protect animals should be sensitive to their livelihood too. Nawabuddin, a cattle trader in Rojka Meo, says, "Once I even had orders from the court to free my cattle but a caretaker at the Raja Garden farms tore it and threw it away." Mohd Manzoor, another trader, says two of his trucks loaded with buffaloes go to the Ghazipur Mandi in NCR daily from Rojka Meo. "You come with me in my truck any day and if we are not stopped along the way by GRD and extorted, then tell me… It happens daily," he says.
"We agree to all laws and still we are suffering. We can't even feed our children any longer. The extortion by GRDs raises our costs by Rs 3,000 per truck and police extort Rs 5000. If a buffalo ends up at Raja Garden or Sadhrana, then everybody knows they will not return," says Mohd Ayub, a trader of Rojka Meo.
Roughly fifty per cent of farmers rear cows and buffaloes. These farmers are the primary source of beef (buffalo) exports that fetch India Rs 27,000 crore annually. They are also the source of all milk, curd, leather products and other animal produce, from animal-resins to glues.
Also see: Outlook's cover story on cow vigilantes by Pragya Singh