National Highway 248A breaks out of Delhi's borders, makes way into Haryana and winds deep inside Rajasthan. On this busy inter-state trade route, cattle is one of the 'goods' lugged in tempos and trucks. The Haryana-Rajasthan border districts of Alwar and Bharatpur account for a third of all cattle smuggling cases recorded in Rajasthan, and more than 90 percent of cow vigilantism deaths in the past couple of years have been related to 'movement of cattle'.
Hindu outfits allege that Muslims manhandle the cows, stack them one on top of the other, and eventually smuggle them into slaughter houses in Nuh in Haryana. As evidence, they swiftly share pictures and videos of dismembered cows injured during transportation. Meo Muslims, in response, hark back to their ancestral occupation of animal husbandry and accuse the police of feeling empowered under the current regime to allow vigilantes to disrupt their trade and walk free.
While the lynching of 55-year-old Pehlu Khan in 2017 drew international attention and even a Wikipedia entry, the communal animosity in the Mewat region isn't new. With a history of unaddressed economic and legal complications, the problem is reduced to the binaries of the Hindutva ideology: pro-Hindu and anti-Muslim.
However, voters at ground zero isn't caught up in this binary. They haven't forgotten that during the previous Congress term in Rajasthan under the chief ministership of Ashok Gehlot even back then, 10 Muslims were killed in Bharatpur during a communal dispute with Gujjars.
Firstpost hit ground zero to understand the mood of the voter on ground.
If the BJP brands itself as Hindutva and the Congress adopts soft Hindutva, the two successfully shift focus from issues of development. All of Rajasthan's Mewat has been reduced to the problem of communal tension over cows.
"The Mewat Vikas Board was formed 32 years ago. Aside from setting up 11 schools and fixing hand pumps and chairs, the board has not undertaken development projects in the area. There are no industries where people can find jobs, and hence, both Muslims and Hindus in the area are heavily dependent on cattle for survival," said Noor Mohammad, a veteran social activist who runs an civil rights organisation called Mewat Shiksha Panchayat.
According to Census 2011, female literacy rate in Aadipur, a village in Mewat, was an astounding 0 percent, and in the neighbouring Shadipur village, it was 4 percent. Mohammed believes that escalating cases of lynchings benefits parties because it diverts attention from poor governance.
Moreover, no leader of the ruling Congress mentioned any of the five lynchings that took place in the past four years, and there was no mention of the issue at large during the party's campaigns either. Instead, when Gehlot became the chief minister, he called for a meeting of the sanchalaks of cow shelters, greatly reducing the expectations of local residents from any parties. Now, given that the Lok Sabha election is underway, the voting pattern will depend on their loyalties to local leaders, or to the prime ministerial candidate of their choice, not so much to parties.
One of the reasons for this disenchantment is the ambiguity that no party is committed to address. In the villages of Mewat on the outskirts of Alwar, an average of seven cases was registered every month in 2017 under the Rajasthan Bovine Animal (Prohibition of Slaughter and Regulation Temporary Migration or Export) Act, 1995. The Act imposes restrictions on the free movement of cattle in the state as well as restrictions on the transfer and purchase of cattle. Locals said that before the legislation was passed, cattle trade fairs were held regularly in the region.
Livestock economy has a history of restrictions that disrupt the rural economy. Buffaloes form 50 percent of Rajasthan's livestock, and laws banning cattle slaughter have forced a considerable number of farmers to shift to buffaloes from cows.
India's buffalo count soared 150 percent between 1951 and 2012. Owners abandon cows once they pass their productive phase, unconcerned with what buyers do with the cattle. Cow shelters are for cows and bulls private owners abandon either because the animals are injured or have stopped producing milk, making them economically undesirable.
The Central government had created confusion with its Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Rules of 2017 by equating slaughter with cruelty. The State later made amendments amid backlash. These convoluted and archaic laws shrouding cattle trade increase the chances of communities turning against each other — exactly what's happening in Mewat.
There are seven Vidhan Sabha seats in the Mewat block — Kaman, Nagar, Rajgarh-Laxmangarh, Ramgarh, Alwar (gramin), Kishangarh and Kishangarh Bas. In 2018, the BJP lost all seven seats, Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) won three and Congress, four.
In Alwar (gramin), Muslims make up 23 percent of the population, and Dalits, 22 percent. In Kishangarh, there are 15 percent Muslims and 21 percent Dalits, and in Ramgarh, the Muslim population stands at 36 percent.
"The reason for the BJP's defeat in the Vidhan Sabha elections wasn't so much the rise in violence but the dilution of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, announced in April 2018," said Shifat Khan, who had contested on a BSP ticket in the 2013 Vidhan Sabha election.
Khan said incidents of violence may be manifestations of the discontent, but attempts to weaken the economy of Mewat have been made for long.
Jajor in Alwar (gramin) is a Muslim-dominated village. Here, Rahman, who rears cows for a living, said that of the 300 Muslim families, not one individual has a job. Shaukat Ali, another resident of Jajor, calls his family "gau paalak", saying that his family has had 300 cows since the 1940s. Jalaj Singh Yadav, a Hindu from the same village, agreed with his Muslim neighbours, adding that there was a hill nearby where villagers would take cattle to graze but the mount had been handed over to Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) for a project.
"Handing over the hill to the DRDO is a violation of the Aravali Act. Aside from this, military establishments have been set up in 13 to 14 areas, which has also greatly limited the space needed to rear cattle," Khan said.
A community that feels morally and economically threatened will favour anyone who reaches out to it with a promise.
The Meo Muslims of Mewat were displaced when Purusharthi refugees from Pakistan were given land in India after the Partition. Eventually, from the 1940s to the 1960s, these families became wealthy, migrated to areas with urbanisation and industries and re-purchased their land. After liberalisation, land became a big asset and a point of contention between Hindus, Muslims and other communities residing in one area.
Before Pehlu Khan's lynching, Shifat Khan said 16 people had lost their lives to such violence.
"Two people were burnt alive at Bilaspur Chowk and in a village called Deek, three bodies were found," he said, adding that poorly drafted laws have aggravated the historic roots of the economic crisis.
Given the rise in violence of late, six police stations dedicated to cow-related crimes were set up in the region. These 'Gau Raksha Police Chowkis' handle complaints of such incidents. At one such establishment at Chikani village, a constable told Firstpost that the police inspect vehicles hoarding a large number of cows because gau sevaks allege that these animals are take to slaughterhouses at Nuh in Haryana. He said it was their job to prevent violence.
While Muslims allege that the police manhandled them during the BJP's tenure in Rajasthan, members of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) in Alwar believe that the police, now under the Congress government, support the Muslims. Both side doubt the neutrality of the force.
"We must have faith in our law. Animal husbandry and cow smuggling are two different issues. If someone is engaging in a crime, they should be punished by the law. People know this. There's no disenchantment with the BJP even after violent incidents took place in this area," said Banwari Lal Singhal, BJP leader and former Alwar (urban) MLA.
Meanwhile, Kapuchand Jain, who works at the biggest gaushala in Ramgarh, revealed that the cows that end up at the shelter bear rope marks and injuries, or are diseased. He added that the gau rakshaks who rescue these cows from illegal trade are tired of being treated as villains and fear that matters will escalate and be taken to the police or courts.
After the lynching of Rakbar Khan in July, three suspects were arrested and are in Alwar jail.
"We saw 37 cows being cut at one time. The administration is secretly involved in this. The law is not on our side, it supports the Muslims who run this illegal trade," said Ramdyal Singh, VHP leader and zila gauraksha pramukh.
While the Opposition often uses the term 'lynching' in its discourse and shrinks the nuance of ground reality by reducing the matter to BJP propaganda, it isn't fully committed to addressing what leads to such killings.
Given the demography of the region — there are more than 3 lakh Muslims voters in Alwar's single Lok Sabha seat— it is interesting that the BJP has fielded a Yadav candidate, Mahant Balaknath, and the Congress has stuck with Jitendra Singh, who is royalty and former minister of state for sports as well as defence. The BSP, however, has fielded a Muslim candidate, Imran Khan, from Alwar, which can eat into the Congress' Muslim votes.
Incidents that shape narratives nationally, even internationally, can be minuscule in their impact on the voting matrix.
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Updated Date: Apr 18, 2019 14:30:35 IST