Ajay Prakash

Police officers are usually happy to be interviewed about successful operations. They might narrate the details with great flair, while juniors who are around may chip in now and then with additional bits of information.

But Bhanu Pratap Singh, the station house officer at the Nawabganj police station, in Uttar Pradesh’s Gonda district, was far from enthusiastic when I asked him about a successful raid he had led on 4 January 2019. In that operation, a joint team of the Nawabganj police and the Uttar Pradesh police’s Special Weapons and Tactics unit rescued nearly a hundred cows and bulls from smugglers. The arrested smugglers told the police that they had planned to transport the animals to the city of Faizabad, twenty kilometres away. From there, they intended to make their way through Bihar and into West Bengal, which has fewer restrictions on cattle slaughter than Uttar Pradesh.

Singh was promoted to SHO after the operation and given charge of the Nawabganj police station. But, rather than boast about his success, he parried my questions about the raid with his own questions, trying to find out who had sent me and what my motivations might be. “The matter is two months old,” he said. “Why are you interested in it now?”

I told him why: because I had heard that among the eight people who were arrested in connection with the case—all Hindu except one—were Devender Baksh, the head of a village in the district, and his nephew Ankit Singh, the district general secretary of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s youth wing. Without naming Ankit, the Hindi newspaper Amar Ujala had reported that a BJP official had been picked up on charges of smuggling. A local journalist and a police official confirmed his name and designation to me. According to the news report, from late that night and until the next afternoon, police received calls from senior politicians. They finally had to cave into the pressure and release Ankit. “How much truth is there in this?” I asked Singh.

The SHO bristled at the question. His subordinates moved away and tried to pretend they were not in the room. “I deal with journalists day and night,” Singh said. “What do you think my answer to this question will be? Whatever you ask, I will just say that the investigation is going on.”

I asked again if Ankit had been involved in smuggling and, if so, why he had not been named in the case. Singh raised his eyebrows and his tone grew menacing. “Who told you this?” he said. “Did I say this? Or any other officer? If you are talking about media reports, then ask them. Why have you come to us? You have got the details of the case—if you have anything to say about those who have been charged, then go ahead.”

Singh rose from his chair. “Your questions are beyond my scope,” he said. “We do not have the authority to talk to the media.” He held out his hand to shake mine, indicating that the meeting was over. “There’s a tableau coming out in the city today,” he told me. “I am going out to make arrangements for that. If you have to talk further, you can do so with the officials in Gonda.”

He marched out of the station and into a vehicle, which drove him away. As I made my way to the parking lot, a junior officer followed me. He had a towel slung over his shoulder, which drooped over his chest and covered his name tag. “If you don’t mention my name, I can also tell you something,” he said. I pointed out that since his name was hidden, I could not mention it even if I wanted to. “It is out of fear that no one is speaking,” he continued. “Ankit Singh is the right-hand man of Ramapati Shastri”—a minister in the cabinet of the Uttar Pradesh chief minister Ajay Mohan Bisht, popularly known as Adityanath. “Just a few days ago, when a reception for Ramapati was held, Ankit was at the front, on a Bullet motorcycle. Those very people got him released from the police station, and did not even let his name appear in the case.” I emailed Shastri to seek his response to this allegation, but at the time of going to press, had not heard back from him.

THE INVOLVEMENT OF HINDUS in cow smuggling is not a new phenomenon. In the past, Hindus who were known cattle smugglers have even passed themselves off as cow protectors in order to be able to smuggle cows more easily.

SR Darapuri, a former inspector general of the Uttar Pradesh police, told me of two such smugglers, no longer alive, who had links to Adityanath: Sunnar and Munnar Yadav. In the 1970s, he said, when the cow-protection movement was in its nascent stages, “Cow devotion had not yet become part of the political strategy. And cow protectors did not have any importance.” Avaidyanath, Adityanath’s predecessor as the head priest of the Gorakhnath temple and member of parliament from Gorakhpur, established a cow-protection committee at the temple. It was after this, Darapuri added, that “smugglers thought for the first time that they should hold the flag of cow protection, that it would make cow smuggling easier.”

Sunnar and Munnar Yadav seized this opportunity. “I retired in the year 2003, and by that time it had begun to become public knowledge that Sunnar and Munnar Yadav from Azamgarh had become very close to Gorakhnath temple, and their names had started appearing in the newspapers as cow protectors,” Darapuri said. “Before these news reports, both the brothers used to be counted by the police among the famous cattle smugglers and criminals. I can’t say anything about what happened after that.”

The brothers were also close to Adityanath. In November 2017, at a public meeting in Mubarakpur, the brothers’ hometown, Adityanath said that he thought of them every time he visited the town. There was a reason for the chief minister’s emotional reminiscing: in September 2007, Munnar Yadav protected him from a stone-pelting attack in Azamgarh and was injured in the process. At the meeting, Adityanath described the brothers as the state’s best known and most dedicated cow protectors.

But even those who have had affiliations with the BJP spoke of Munnar Yadav’s involvement in cow smuggling. Avdesh Yadav, formerly the treasurer of the BJP’s youth wing in Azamgarh, the district president of the party’s farmers’ wing and the party’s president for Palhani mandal, told me that Avaidyanath appointed Munnar Yadav to the cow-protection committee. “From the time Munnar Yadav became the member of the committee, he was famous for selling cows, being a contractor in fairs and loading cows and bulls into the trucks,” Avdesh Yadav said. “He was earlier known in the district as a cow smuggler, and then he turned into a cow protector. He would stop trucks, chanting ‘Gau mata ki jai!’”—Hail to the mother cow! He added that the Mubarakpur assembly constituency soon became the “largest hub of beef in the area.”

Avdesh Yadav explained how smugglers transported cattle in the region. “From Chandeshwar bull market in Azamgarh, cows and bulls would reach Mubarakpur via Sathiaon and would get slaughtered there, and the remaining ones would proceed further to Bengal and Bihar,” he said. He expressed some hesitation about speaking in too much detail about the matter. “I can’t say anything, because saying anything would mean riots. But the cow-protection committee of Azamgarh has certainly had a major role in cow smuggling.” In fact, he added, smuggling was what had led to Munnar Yadav’s death. “It was in a cow-smuggling dispute that Munnar Yadav was killed long ago by Buddhiram, an ordinary hooligan from Lohra village.”

The involvement of prominent Hindu figures in cow smuggling underlines the hypocrisy of the cow-protection movement. It has been one of the main planks of the BJP’s Hindutva agenda, and no leader has promoted it as fiercely as Adityanath in Uttar Pradesh. And yet, by many accounts on the ground, Hindus have been smuggling cows for decades.

This is unsurprising, for there is a stark contradiction at the heart of the idea of cow protection. Hindu leaders such as Adityanath claim that cows must be protected because they are sacred. But cows are also economic investments and, to farmers across the country who struggle to make a living, economic imperatives usually outweigh abstract religious principles.

“If someone gives thirty thousand for our cow and a smuggler gives forty thousand, we will sell it to the smuggler,” a cattle raiser in Bihar’s Chhapra district told me. “What is there to think so much about in it?” Another described the cow as “just an animal for us, not mother or father.” Farmers raised cows “with a lot of hardship,” he argued, and deserved some benefit from their investment. “Isn’t it to feed ourselves that we buy them? So we will do what will feed us better. You give us a better price and we will give it to you and won’t give to the butcher. Are you ready to do that?”

This outlook has long been the foundation of a system that has sustained the cattle economy in most parts of India—including in states such as Uttar Pradesh, which have stringent laws against cow slaughter. Typically, the owner of a cow or bull would use the animal for milk or labour and, when it ceased to be economically useful, sell it to a trader or a butcher rather than continue to pay for its upkeep. Many of these animals would be slaughtered illegally or transported to other states. Some would be smuggled across the border to Bangladesh.

A meat trader in Azamgarh district told me that the lowest-quality cows would be sold in Bihar, better ones in West Bengal and the north-eastern states, while the healthiest and highest quality cows, such as those of the red Sahiwal breed, would usually be transported to Bangladesh. “The gentle society of Bangladesh only crave the taste of the red cow or bull,” he said. Slaughtered animals also provide raw material for other industries, such as such as soap, leather and cosmetics.

The original owner, meanwhile, would typically use the money from selling an old animal to purchase a new animal that would yield milk or provide labour, ensuring returns on investment. Hindu leaders “are not ready to accept that this is to maintain the ecological balance of nature,” Masood Alam, a former general-election candidate from the Bahujan Samaj Party who has served as the block president of Hardarmau in Gonda district, told me. “There was a chain of animal husbandry and things were moving in this way for centuries, but the laws they have enacted have brought a sudden earthquake.”

This “earthquake” began soon after Adityanath was sworn in as chief minister, in March 2017. Three days after taking power, he launched a crackdown on abattoirs in Uttar Pradesh, displaying little understanding of the delicate balances of the cattle economy. The move was seen as targeting Muslims, who who dominate the butcher trade. But there was confusion over the details—the BJP had vowed in its manifesto for the state elections to shut all illegal slaughterhouses, but Amit Shah, the union home minister, had also declared that all slaughterhouses would be closed, without specifically mentioning those that were illegal or contravened regulations.

There was even confusion over whether only cattle slaughterhouses would be targeted, or whether those those handling other animals other animals were under the scanner too. Authorities raided and sealed slaughterhouses and meat shops across the state, including some that sold chicken and mutton, declaring that they were running illegally. Vigilantes took their cues from the government—in Hathras, three shops selling meat and fish were set on fire. An atmosphere of fear descended over the meat industry and many shop owners shuttered their establishments, even if they only sold chicken and mutton.

Meat traders went on strike at the end of March to protest against the crackdown. A few days later, after Adityanath reportedly assured them that only illegal slaughterhouses would be shut down, the traders called off the strike.

But the chief minister’s initial actions had emboldened authorities as well as Hindu vigilantes to act against those they believed were in possession of beef, or transporting cattle for slaughter. Instances of violence continued to be reported from across the state, as well as other parts of the country. In May 2017, vigilantes in Aligarh beat up five people for slaughtering a buffalo. In June, a mob in Etah stripped three people who were suspected of cow smuggling, tied them to a tree and thrashed them. From Adauli and Muzaffarnagar, reports also emerged of police violence against Muslims accused of slaughtering cows.

The pressure on the cattle economy intensified after the central government issued a notification two months later, in May 2017, banning the purchase and sale of cattle for slaughter from markets across the country. The move was widely seen as an attempt to introduce a nationwide ban on beef by making it difficult for farmers to dispose of animals once they were economically useless.

The notification was stayed by the Madras High Court and the stay was extended nationwide by the Supreme Court, but these reversals did not translate into significant changes in Uttar Pradesh. Alam told me that this was due to the prominence that local media gave to the initial announcement, and the relative downplaying of the subsequent court rulings. “That’s why people believed what the government said about animal slaughter,” he said. “The media carries the government’s announcements in such a manner that the pronouncement itself sits in people’s minds as implementation.” He rattled off a list of places in or near Gonda where cattle fairs had been cancelled: Mankapur, Bardahi, Kadipur, Gangwal, Dubha.

The disruption of this economy affected people across religious lines. “It was the business of the farmer and the trader that used to begin from the Hindu’s door and end at the Muslim’s dining table,” said a butcher in the village of Chhaun, which has a large population of Muslims, many of whom are involved in the meat trade. “Everyone was included in this and benefited from it. This is a human-made ecosystem. But the governments are rolling it into dirty politics and are striving to throw an entire community out of this business.” But, he argued, it was impossible to only target Muslims in this manner. “You will see, it won’t happen. Rather, the whole ecosystem of this business will get disturbed.”

Indeed, if Adityanath had assumed that pushing for cow protection would please his Hindu vote base, it soon became clear that he was gravely mistaken. When the state government began cracking down on abattoirs and cattle fairs, farmers, most of whom are Hindus, could no longer readily find buyers for their cows. Unsure what to do with the animals once they ceased to be economically useful, farmers began to abandon them. Alam explained that farmers who earlier sold cattle that were useless to them to butchers or agents “now themselves drive their cattle away from their doors, make them flee and give them into the hands of agents for free. Sometimes they even pay the agents for taking away the cattle from their area.” Where butchers and agents once had to go from village to village to buy animals, now farmers “on their own are chasing stray cattle away with batons.”

By the end of the following year, the state was battling a severe crisis of stray cattle. In December 2018, news reports appeared of angry farmers tying up stray cows in schools and hospitals. As Alam put it, “In the name of a Hindu government, Hindu farmers helped the formation of Yogi’s government. But this government has turned the farmers’ livestock into their enemy.” “Stray animals were feeding on farmers’ wheat crop,” Shashank Yadav, a Samajwadi Party politician and member of the state’s legislative council, said. “For farmers, who are already going through a severe economic crisis, stray animals are like an uninvited death. So the farmers began to boil up in anger against the government, and protest demonstrations were taking place everywhere.”

Adityanath had to do something. On 1 January 2019, the government announced a new “cow welfare cess” that would be used to build cow shelters across the state. The cess would be levied on excise items, including alcohol, and such thing as toll fees and profits from certain public-sector companies.

Couched in this announcement was an admission of the glaring economic flaw behind the push to protect cows. “It is the responsibility of the government to protect cows, but I wonder why the people are being burdened,” Rajendra Chaudhary, a spokesman of the Samajwadi Party, told the Press Trust of India. Anshu Awasthi, a Congress spokesman, accused the BJP of seeking votes in the name of cows, only to then pass on the burden of their welfare to common people.

If failing those he governs was not enough, Adityanath’s measures did not even benefit the cows for whom they were intended. The rise in stray cattle had also led to stories of overcrowding and starvation deaths in the state’s gaushalas—cow shelters—emerging at an alarming frequency. The deaths began in the very first year of his term: in July 2017, more than a hundred and fifty cows starved to death at a shelter in Kanpur. In November, 25 cows starved to death at a shelter in Mathura. The deaths continued into 2019, even after Adityanath announced his additional cow-protection measures. In July 2019, 35 cows were found dead in a gaushala in Prayagraj. (Authorities claimed that they had died of a lightning strike.) Soon after, 30 cows died in a shelter in Ayodhya. Pictures that emerged from shelters showed piles of bovine corpses, twisted and wasted away from hunger. A video report from July 2019 by Gaon Connection showed a gaushala in Mohanlalganj, in Lucknow district, where cows lay on the ground starving to death, their eyeballs already pecked out by birds. In December 2019, 17 cows died at another shelter in Mathura.

It is not just the economic failures of cow protection that have come to the fore over Adityanath’s term. The chief minister’s crackdown did little to check the smuggling of cattle. Over nine months of reporting from Rajasthan, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkand and West Bengal, and speaking to butchers, meat traders, police officials, politicians, cattle smugglers and others, I learnt that, as stray-cattle numbers had swelled, smuggling networks that stretched from Rajasthan in the west to West Bengal in the east, and across the border into Bangladesh, had only grown stronger. Alam noted that the stray-cattle menace was in some ways a blessing to smugglers. Some animals, he said, “after becoming stray cattle, feed on crops and transform into giant bulls. These freely available bulls are being sold at a price of fifteen or twenty thousand.”

But something had changed. As it became increasingly dangerous for Muslims to be found in possession of meat, their role in smuggling reduced. “The economy of bovine smuggling in this region is such that although a hundred percent of those consuming it might be Muslim, in the smuggling business the Muslims are not even ten percent,” Masihuddin Sanjari, a social worker in Azamgarh, said. “And since the Modi government has come in the centre and Yogi government in UP, they have not even remained one percent.”

Even as Hindu leaders claimed to want to protect cows and clamp down on slaughter, Hindus gained greater control over smuggling networks. In Gorakhpur, one police official told me that “some Yadavs do all the cattle-smuggling business in this area. I was posted in Bhagalpur of Deoria district, and some Yadavs run their smuggling empire along the banks of the Sarayu River there.”

In many of the recent cattle-smuggling cases that have come to light from Uttar Pradesh, the accused have not just been Hindus but the very people responsible for preventing the crime: police personnel.

In 2018, police in Prayagraj arrested five cow smugglers in a raid in the locality of Dhoomanganj. Dainik Bhaskar reported that, on the basis of information from the arrested men, the then superintendent of police for Kaushambi, Pradeep Gupta, ordered a covert investigation into the matter. The investigation revealed the involvement of four police personnel posted in different stations in the district, all of them Hindu: Abhilash Tiwari, who headed the Ajuha police chowki in Saini Kotwali; Akhilesh Singh, a sepoy posted at the Puramufti police station; Harinder Mishra, a constable-driver in the Kokhraj police station; and Vinod Yadav, the constable-driver of the circle officer of Sirathu town, Ramvir Singh. All four policemen were suspended after the investigation.

The newspaper also reported another case, from Fatehpur district, in which nine police personnel, including two inspectors, were suspended on charges of taking bribes from trucks laden with cattle on the Grand Trunk Road to allow them to pass. Apart from one person, head constable Shahnawaz Hussain of Lalauli police station, all the others that appeared in the report had Hindu names: the sub-inspector Mahendra Kumar Verma, the head constable Prabhu Narayan Pandey, and the constables Narendra Kumar Singh Gaur, Anand Rai, Jhallar Pal and Lalta Prasad Mishra. The names from these two cases suggest that ten out of the 13 policemen implicated were Hindu. Of these, at least four of the policemen’s surnames—two Mishras, one Tiwari and one Pandey—indicate that they were Brahmins, usually believed to be the community that most reveres the cow.

Even Hindu leaders admitted to the involvement of Hindus in cattle smuggling. In Deoria, Arun Singh, the district general secretary of the Hindu Yuva Vahini, a group founded by Adityanath himself, told me that he had caught a smuggler in 2019 after chasing a vehicle in the village of Mehrauna. “He was a Hindu, his name is Aman Singh,” Singh said. “He had put a saffron flag on his black Scorpio car and was using it for smuggling.” He told me that other members of the Hindu Yuva Vahini asked him to hush up the matter. “Nothing happened to him, even the FIR was not filed,” he said. “People from the organisation itself started telling us, ‘What is the use of taking all this risk? It’s a matter of the group.’”

In another major case, from Deoria, police arrested nine Hindus between January and March 2019 based on information provided by a Bajrang Dal activist. All the arrested were released on bail. I tracked down one of the men, a driver named Mahesh Kushwaha, in the village of Nariyav. He was in a hut on his family’s farm, along with his mother. Kushwaha had spent 18 days in jail before he was released on bail, and was nervous about speaking, but his mother offered up some information. Her son, she said, “didn’t have any work, so Tiwari from the village told Mahesh to take Tiwari’s vehicle and go. He went and got trapped.”

After his mother spoke, Kushwaha confirmed that the vehicle belonged to a man named Dharamveer Tiwari—whose surname indicates that he is Brahmin. He said that the vehicle “was travelling from Chhapiya village of Gorakhpur with four cows and a calf,” and that they had a receipt for the purchase of the animals. But, he added, a local Bajrang Dal leader “called the police near Bhatta square and got us arrested.” The leader had “demanded five thousand rupees to let the animals pass,” Kushwaha explained, but he “wasn’t ready to pay more than two thousand rupees, and so had to go to jail.”

Though Kushwaha sounded despondent when he said this, his mother, who sat on the cot beside him, had a far more optimistic outlook on the incident. “Sir, often god saves you,” she told me. “It’s good that he learnt a lesson, otherwise, if he had earned some money from this, he might have begun to do something wrong.”

An elderly woman sitting beside her said, “If Tiwari was bringing the cow for a genuine purpose, why couldn’t he say this in front of the police? He is a Pandit, but I have heard he sends cows to Bihar and Bengal for slaughter.” She added, “And these are the people who make us cross the Vaitarani with the cow,” referring to the Hindu belief that after people die, their souls have to hold on to the tail of a cow to cross a mythical river. Those who were gathered laughed at this, but Kushwaha remained anxious that my enquiry might lead him into a fresh crisis.

While some Hindu smugglers may have fallen into the law-enforcement net, ordinary Muslims who work in the meat industry have found their very livelihoods under grave threat. In Chhaun, a young man told me that the meat trade in the village had declined drastically out of fear of the Hindu Yuva Vahini and the Bajrang Dal. I met him along with a group of around fifteen Muslim meat traders, most of whom were wary of speaking. But the young man told me that though business had once thrived in the village, now “religion has intruded into it and we are suffering losses.” He added, “This village alone is losing ten lakh rupees every month.”

But it was not as if smuggling had stopped—according to him, at least a hundred trucks left for Bihar each day from Saiyadraja in neighbouring Chandauli district, most of them carrying cattle.“The real bovine smugglers in the entire region were Yadavs, Kushwahas, Rajputs and Brahmins, and they still are today,” he said. According to him, much of the supply was met by Brahmins. “From villages like Darikha and Bangaon, people from Brahmin castes would bring cows, calves and bulls and take them to Sanjarpur, Daudpur, Khudadadpur, Jahangirganj and Khandkari at the time of Bakr Eid.”

Masihuddin Sanjari, the social worker from Azamgarh, explained why Brahmins had an advantage when it came to transporting cattle. “It’s only the Brahmin caste that can come and go with the cow anywhere,” he said. “He will neither be caught nor killed in the name of cow protection, nor will the police arrest him. If a Brahmin is taking a cow to sell it for slaughter and someone stops him on the basis of suspicion, he can make an excuse that the cow has come as a donation from some village and he is taking it to some other village.” Other castes such as Yadavs also transport cattle for slaughter, he said, “but they have to take a calf along to pretend that it is a milch cow.” As for Muslims, “anyone coming and going with a cow for any purpose would always be accused of either taking it to the slaughterhouse or eating it.”

In fact, Sanjari explained, there had been a major shift among Muslim traders away from cows. “The Muslim community has held meetings everywhere and made it clear that the community should only deal in goats and buffalos whether for business or personal consumption. Whoever gets caught with bovines, the community would not be able to defend him.”

But this had not protected Muslims from harassment and abuse. The young man in Chhaun explained that it had always been standard practice for Muslim cattle traders to pay “commissions” to be allowed to conduct their business—essentially a system of extortion. “Previously, there was a fix for Bajrang Dal people or cow protectors and policemen,” he said. The system continued, he explained, but “now the cow protectors have mushroomed everywhere.” Under Adityanath, he added, “in the name of cow smuggling, the crowd can beat and kill us anywhere. Not only this, in the neighbouring areas, Hindu boys in the morning and evening are beating up our boys or snatching their things if they find them alone. Since our Chhaun village is known for the meat trade, we bear all this silently because it will be made into an issue.”

Cow protection is not a failure only at the level of economic policy. The scale of the so-called crimes is so vast that police have no means to handle them. Thus, when it comes to actually enforcing the law, cow protection often plays out as farce. This was glaringly apparent when I tried to locate rescued cows across Uttar Pradesh.

A police officer posted at the police headquarters in Allahabad told me that he knew of many instances “where the police stations gave the cattle to the same smugglers from whom they had seized them, in return for money.” In cases that reach trial, “it becomes so complicated to tell the court about the number of the cattle seized, and show proof of them being alive, that the officers run away.” When seized cattle are returned to a farmer, “it sometimes turns out that they die at his home, or run away. Or for some reason, he sells it to someone else.” In such a scenario, he added, “it becomes easier to be corrupt than to do your duty.”

I travelled to several police stations in eastern Uttar Pradesh that lie on routes through which cattle are smuggled. Everywhere, the same scene played out. Officers would boast of successful raids, and reel off details of operations, such as the number of cattle rescued and vehicles seized. But when I asked where those cattle were, they feigned ignorance, pleaded helplessness or dodged the question. Ravinder Kumar, the SHO of Mayil police station, in Deoria district, told me that his station had taken action in five cases of bovine smuggling between January and March 2019. As he began to list the names of the accused, I asked him where the animals were, to which he retorted that he had only recently been posted there and that I should go the Rampur Karkhana police station to meet its SHO, Vina Singh.

At the Rampur Karkhana station, Singh was equally unhelpful. He ordered tea for us, handed over a copy of the FIR and boasted that he had risked his life to rescue cows. I asked him where the cows were. He stood up immediately, and declared that he had a meeting with the superintendent of police at the district headquarters, and rushed out of the room. I ran behind him, repeating my question, but Singh quickly sat in his car and was driven away.

I then went to several other police stations in Deoria and Kushinagar districts, adjacent to the Bihar border. At each one, officers gave me details of operations, including dates and the names of the accused. They even permitted me to take photographs of seized vehicles. But when I asked about the seized cattle, they usually pretended to ignore me.

At Ubhaon police station, in Ballia district, a police official told me with satisfaction about a January 2019 operation in which 21 bulls, one cow and two calves had been rescued. A trailer, two pickup trucks and one Tata Magic vehicle used in the operation were all at the station. The two pickup trucks had BJP flags on them. When I later checked the licence-plate number of the trailer on the state transport department’s website, it appeared that the owner was a Muslim. But no details were available for the vehicles with BJP flags. When I asked about the rescued animals, the sub-inspector at the station said, “Ask the station house officer.” Police stations do not have facilities to house or take care of seized cattle, he explained. “They are given to farmers to raise. The smuggled cattle are not in a condition that anyone would take them happily.”

It is not just the police who have struggled with huge numbers of rescued cattle. Dhananjay Singh, the president of the Kamdhenu Gaushala Seva Samiti in Shankargarh of Allahabad district—who told me that he was affiliated to the BJP and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad—was equally evasive about the 250 heads of cattle that were given to him by the Allahabad Municipal Corporation in 2017. Apart from three troughs, there were no other facilities at the shelter for taking care of such large numbers of cows.

Singh grew nervous when I asked him about this. “The people from the municipal corporation had brought the bovine animals here, but there were not so many,” he said at first.

I assured him that I had been given the numbers by Allahabad’s chief livestock officer, Dheeraj Goel. At this, Singh began to talk about the difficulty of running a cow shelter, and how government grants were insufficient. He simply avoided the question of where the 250 animals were. I asked him directly, “Should it be assumed that you have sold the cattle to smugglers?” He grew flustered and said, “A true Hindu cannot do this. If I have committed this wrongdoing, I should be sent to hell alive.”

As you move away from Uttar Pradesh and towards the Bangladesh border, cow smuggling becomes increasingly brazen. In Jharkhand, between 2017 and 2018, when the state was governed by the BJP, the Hindi media reported that police had cracked down on a gang of cattle smugglers that had been operating since the 1980s through an organisation called the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Shockingly, the gang members would pass themselves off as members of the police, and had even received letters of support from government officials for their activities. Often, in its letters, the organisation would use the national emblem to fool people into thinking it was a government body.

Binay Kumar Singh, who has served as the “co-in-charge” of the BJP’s Kisan Morcha in West Bengal, had even written a letter to Amit Shah, detailing the workings of the organisation and requesting investigation into its activities. Singh claimed that the organisation had amassed illicit wealth amounting to R1,000 crore. When asked in April about the response to the letter, Singh said the organisation’s activities in Jharkhand had been stopped.

In border districts such as West Bengal’s Murshidabad, smuggling is treated almost like any other profession, so much so that the terms associated with the business are well known. The three main terms are the Bengali words ghati, goru and ghatiyal. The ghati is the port from which smuggling is carried out. The gorus are the cattle. And the ghatiyal is the owner of the port, the “link of the demand and supply on whom the rise and fall of this entire billions of dollars’ worth cattle smuggling trade depends,” as one ghatiyal in Raninagar in Murshidabad told me. Estimates of the number of heads of cattle smuggled across the thousands of kilometres of porous border each year range from a million to 20 million.

The ghatiyal also manages a crucial link in the chain, whispered about elsewhere but openly referred to near the border: India’s Border Security Force, whose officials, according to every smuggler, trader and ordinary local I spoke to, play a key role in facilitating the smuggling of cattle across the Bangladesh border. They do this by giving the all-important “green signal” for smugglers to move cattle across the border. The ghatiyal in Raninagar told me that only ghatiyals “know when the BSF will give the green signal and whether the line with Delhi is open or closed”—that is, whether permission has been given for smuggling to be allowed across states and through border points. “The ghatiyal counts the cows at the ghat after 10 pm after getting the green signal from the BSF,” Majnu Mandal, a resident of Hakimpura Bazaar in Murshidabad, told me. Mustafa,the BJP’s mandal president of Tarali village, in the border district of North 24 Parganas, told me that that there was a BSF post one kilometre away from his village, through which smugglers passed easily.

In the border districts of West Bengal, cattle smuggling is treated almost like any other profession, so much so that the terms associated with it are common parlance. Locals say there is little they can do to curb the trade.

At Bogjol village in North 24 Parganas, a local speaking in a mix of Hindi and Bengali explained that where we were, “every day, ten trucks full of cows are unloaded and reach Bangladesh overnight, but no department of the central or state government will accept it.” He added that “in a country where such a huge business is not even recognised, how can anyone give you permission for that? But, on the contrary, the truth also is that if there is no clear line from Delhi, the BSF does not give the green signal, which means there is a parallel bureaucracy at the central and state level which controls it.” These allegations by locals seem significant in light of the arrests of two BSF commandants, in 2018 and 2020, on suspicion of aiding cattle smuggling for a Kolkata-based businessman named Mohammad Enamul Haque. (My fellow journalist Rahul M traced Haque’s links with Marwari and other business networks in the story “Bull Run,” also in this issue.) Attempts to speak to the Central Bureau of Investigation and track the progress of the case, and understand the extent of BSF involvement, elicited no response.

According to the Bogjol resident, facilitating smuggling is seen as part of a BSF officer’s job here. “The BSF officer who is not able to fix a commission, becomes an eyesore for the local politicians, the traders sitting in Kolkata, local smugglers, the police and the BSF itself,” he said. “He does not stay for long. The officers showing honesty are brought to their knees, because the atmosphere goes against them.” But he argued that it was not really a matter of corruption. “It’s more about the fact that in the border areas it has become everyone’s life and livelihood,” he said. “What I mean to say is this is a criminal activity in the eyes of investigating agencies but life and livelihood for us.”

My colleage Rahul M emailed the CBI and the BSF, seeking responses to these allegations. The CBI spokesperson responded, asking for our contact details, as well as those of the magazine’s editors. The details were sent, but at the time of going to press, we had not heard back from the agency. We did not receive a response from the BSF.

In the meanwhile, there is little that locals can do to curb the trade. “The people affiliated with ghatiyals have illegal guns and country weapons,” Majnu Mandal said. “They know they are involved in a crime, so they attack everyone trying to make an effort to know their secret. People may even be killed.” Mandal told me about one crossing site he knew of, in Tarali village. Villagers stay away during crossings, not just because of the criminals, but also because of the danger from the large herds of cattle. “One or two thousand cattle pass through in one go,” he said. Later, “in the name of the proof for smuggling you can only get the hoof marks of the cattle passing through the fields.”

On one of the days in July 2019 that my colleague and I spent reporting in the border districts of Murshidabad and North 24 Paraganas, we spotted a truck loaded with cows in Hakimpur, and followed it to a secluded clearing not far from a cattle market in Murshidabad. There, a group of men dressed in lungis and undershirts stood guard with guns while cows were unloaded from several trucks. It was like a scene out of a gangster movie. The interiors of the trucks were divided into three levels, and cows were stacked onto them: the larger ones in the bottom level, and the calves seated on the floor of the top level, their hooves tied together. Hundreds of cows, calves and bulls were being unloaded all around.

We had placed a camera on the dashboard of our car to record what we saw. But the men around us repeatedly threw suspicious glances at us, and so we quickly hid the device. Our Bengali driver told us that anything could happen to us, and warned us that we should leave quickly.

The animals were herded away in groups of different sizes. Some animals resisted, but the men, many of small build, tugged at them with all their strength and moved them along. We later learnt that the cows were being taken to nearby fields, through which they would be transported across the border.

A BSF commandant who said he was from a family that farmed and raised cattle told us about his utter disillusionment with his work. A few years ago, “I used to be really stern at the time of crackdowns on smugglers,” the commandant, who asked to remain anonymous, said. “It seemed some difference could be made.”

But with subsequent postings, he realised that he “was in a setup” and that he was “just a pawn who has to protect the king, protect the system.” He recounted that he had seized many trucks loaded with cattle, only to realise that smugglers were buying them back in auctions. “How laughable it is to think that we have to give back the cattle to those smugglers from whom we rescued them and get our name published in media,” he said. “Although in the register we call them farmers.” He said he would ask his senior officers why this was happening, and they would reply, simply, “This is the system.”  

Ajay Prakash is a Delhi-based journalist who has 15 years of experience with ground reports and investigations. He is the founder-editor of
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