Across India, and especially in the northern states, stray cattle have become a hot-button issue. In Uttar Pradesh, in the run-up to the 2017 assembly elections, gau raksha or cow protection was used by right-wing outfits to create an atmosphere of fear and to halt the cattle trade.
After the BJP came to power, the Yogi Adityanath government shut down illegal slaughterhouses and banned the sale of cattle for slaughter, destroying the trade in indigenous or non-descript cows and bulls. The militant gau raksha movement has led to the brutal lynching of Muslims and terrorising of farmers, cattle traders and bystanders from mostly marginalised backgrounds.
Stories from Sitapur district illustrate how this violence has been bolstered by dominant versions of cultural practices around cow protection, which stand in contrast to the long-standing economics of cattle rearing.
Sitapur district in central Uttar Pradesh has not featured in any of the horrific lynching reports over the past few years; however, it has not been free from violence. A few years ago, riots broke out in a few villages of the Machhrehta block after the dismembered carcass of a cow was discovered.
Rioters looted Muslim-owned businesses in the area. Rioting at a pilgrimage site for similar reasons was narrowly averted by the prompt action of the administration and prominent citizens.
Crop damage caused by cattle
Historically, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has had a strong presence here and has actively campaigned against cow slaughter.
Residents of another small town in the district with a sizeable Muslim population describe how, a few decades ago, the local RSS karyakarta (worker), who is also the town’s doctor, publicly thrashed a man for transporting a bull for slaughter.
Locals believe that such actions contributed to the closure of a neighbouring slaughterhouse. The cattle trade continued, although slaughtering became less visible. Now, with the collapse of cattle markets, it is the farmers who are angry.
In the villages of western Sitapur, where Sangtin Kisan Mazdoor Sangathan (SKMS) is active, farmers are rattled. Crop damage due to stray cattle has become a daily occurrence – even sugarcane and mature wheat are not safe from them. Most fields are now fenced with wire, although it is of a thin, cheap variety.
Farmers must stay out night and day to protect their crops. “I didn’t attend my nephew’s wedding, what to do?” rued Jagatram, guarding his 3 bigha field planted with food crops, armed with a lathi. “I just go home to bathe and then come back here. My daughter brings me food.”
Earlier, nilgai (wild antelopes) were a problem and in 2016, the SKMS had even organised a rally to protest their incursion into farmland. But now they seem manageable. “Nilgai are easy to chase away. But saand (uncastrated bulls) aren’t afraid, they attack you,” remarked Sushma, an SKMS activist. And indeed, many incidents of people injured by bull attacks have been reported.
The magnitude of the problem can be assessed by a simple arithmetic exercise – a cow in its reproductive phase typically calves every year, and a female calf matures in 3-4 years. Thus, a single cow can lead to 5-8 animals within five years. Without cattle sales, milk is the main source of income for dairy farmers, for which their cows must continually reproduce.
According to government estimates, there were about 4.9 million milk-producing local breed cows in Uttar Pradesh during 2016-17. Even after accounting for deaths, a few million desi calves are born every year and almost all the male calves (and some of the female calves) are abandoned.
Incidentally, very few exotic breeds can be found in the stray cattle – “Jersey or Holstein cows cannot survive if abandoned,” said Kallan, who rears indigenous breeds. Fodder prices have shot up in the meantime. “I used to pay Rs 200 to 400 for a quintal of fodder last year, now I pay Rs 1,200 for the same amount,” complained Prema, a dairy farmer.
However, milk prices have not kept up (and have even fallen in some seasons). As a result, some people have abandoned all their cattle.
Brahmanical traditions of cow worship
At the same time, there is a deep-rooted reverence for cows in this part of Awadh, which comes from its association with Brahminical practices of purity and impurity. Many supported the ban on cow slaughter, even among Dalit communities. Members of the Chamar caste traditionally skinned animals and processed leather.
Gradually, agriculture and other trades began providing opportunities and the leather trade, which was ‘unclean’, became less desirable. In the 1990s, when the Dalit Shoshit Samaj Sangharsh Samiti (DSSSS, abbreviated as DS-4) and later the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) grew in strength, many Chamars took an oath to give up the leather trade. However, shaking off the caste Hindu practices around ‘gau hatya‘ or cow slaughter has proven to be tougher.
In the villages of this region, anyone accused of cow slaughter has to atone for it or suffer ostracism along with his or her family. Dilip, a marginal farmer who went through this ordeal, recounted how his children would come home crying as none of the other children in the village would play with them.
The atonement process that Dilip was forced to undergo consisted of begging for alms in a few villages and then visiting Hatyaharan, a nearby pilgrimage site, where the sin was washed away through a puja conducted by local priests.
Nowadays, the begging has become a token, but the visit to Hatyaharan is compulsory. The priests at Hatyaharan, in conversation with SKMS members, admitted that most of the people who went there for repentance were poor. As one of the priests himself put it:
“Who would be in contact with the animals – the rich landowner or the labourer working in his fields?”
This atonement process was documented by SKMS in its January 2018 newsletter and discussed in multiple meetings. People shared how they had spent up to Rs 15,000 to complete the required rites. The label of ‘cow killer’ was mostly assigned for unintended or indirect deaths, such as an animal found dead a day or two after being beaten.
A couple of years ago, Ram Bhajan was accused of cow slaughter when a bull was injured (and later died) due to the barbed wire he had installed around his field. The reluctance of many farmers to install barbed wire in the early days of the stray cattle crisis can be attributed to this.
“What if a cow dies?” asked Rampyari while refusing to fence her field to protect her pulses and millets, which are particularly attractive to animals. In fact, pulses have almost disappeared in this region that was famous for ‘dal’. Further, with small and fragmented landholdings, it is often not economically viable to fence a field.
Demand for reopening the cattle market
The existence of extensive pasture lands until the 1980s meant that poor families could afford to rear cattle. Milk and milk products provided crucial nutrition. “The rich drank milk, but we had mattha (buttermilk) at home or asked for it. Sometimes we had nothing to eat – we just drank mattha and ate a little bit of jaggery,” said Radha, an agricultural labourer.
The care and reverence for their animals went hand-in-hand with a thriving cattle market. Bulls were not needed for ploughing, as well as cows past their productive stage, were sold in local cattle markets or to travelling Banjara traders. Most of these animals would eventually be slaughtered for meat and leather. Milk and the sale of cattle provided livelihoods to many landless families.
“My father would buy male calves, rear them and sell them at a much higher rate,” commented Jabeena, whose family has now stopped rearing cattle. Further, in an emergency, cash could be generated easily by selling an animal and thus cattle were considered the fixed deposit of the poor.
Villagers are reluctant to talk about consuming beef, although Birju Baba, a Dalit farmer, told us that he used to eat daangar, the meat of cattle that had died due to natural causes. “After eating, we would bathe and pray and only then return home.”
The attitudes of farming families towards cattle have shifted in the past two years. Where earlier, villagers in the region were hesitant to talk of cow slaughter, today they are voicing the need for markets to be re-opened, even if their primary purpose is to transport animals for slaughter.
Meanwhile, the urban elite don’t seem to understand the problem or care about it. “What next – will we start eating humans?” quipped Kalpana, a small business owner. Kalpana felt that it was good to consume milk and curd, but the connection between reproducing cattle and new calves escaped her. And she herself has complained about the stray cattle in Sitapur town and the inconvenience caused to motorists.
Officials blame villagers for the crisis. The District Magistrate (DM) when visiting an SKMS village, stated,
“If each family catches one stray animal and takes care of it, the problem will be solved.”
In a district-level agriculture meeting, the scorn exhibited by officials was striking.
Multiple complaints from attending farmers were dismissed. “This is a problem you have created, you are responsible for fixing it,” was the dominant message from the podium. These officials refuse to admit that the closure of markets, without any contingency plan, had a cascading effect on the cattle population. And, as they toe the government line, farmers are the convenient scapegoats.
On another front, in an environment where the benefits of cow urine are being touted regularly, the importance of cow urine and cow dung for agriculture are emphasised by new promoters. “By selling biosolutions (such as Jeevamruth) and compost, you can make a profit,” exhorted Rajiv Singh, a big upper-caste farmer who promotes organic farming. Left unsaid was the fact that he mainly cultivates sugarcane using conventional methods and chemical inputs.
Agricultural officers are also increasingly advocating for the use of cow dung to improve the carbon content of soils in Sitapur district. But after promoting chemical inputs for decades, they are ill-equipped to advocate for the usage of ‘traditional’ methods. SKMS Saathis recognise that cow-dung-and-cow-urine-derived products improve soil fertility and have been experimenting with them.
But the claim that such products will offset the cost of rearing animals is hard to believe. Currently, Prema, the dairy farmer, is able to sell gobar ki khaad (compost made from cow dung) at Rs 5/kg, but this is only possible because of her many contacts. Even then, she is struggling to break even.
Remedies for stray cattle?
In response to widespread anger over stray cattle, the UP state government issued a letter ordering gaushalas to be set up across the state and stated that no cattle would be left abandoned after January 10. Officials took this as seriously as any other order and did little to implement it. As the deadline approached, protests broke out across UP and in Sitapur district as well.
In Baraha village, stray cattle were loaded by government workers onto a truck, with the promise that they would be taken to a gaushala in Sitapur town. Instead, they were let loose in nearby forest land and eventually found their way back to the village. When the villagers protested this, the resulting altercation led to criminal cases filed against some of them.
In a few other villages, farmers locked up cattle in the Veterinary Department centre or in schools on a Sunday. They were charged by the police for disrupting government activities and were asked to report to the nearest police station and post bail. The protestors refused and demanded that the cases be withdrawn.
“They were supposed to be rounding up cattle. They didn’t, so we are helping them,” argued Jaidevi, one of the protestors. Under pressure, tehsil-level officials withdrew the cases. But the atmosphere of fear created by the police actions has had a chilling effect. Rather than protest and face the risk of expensive litigation, farmers are choosing to quietly continue protecting their crops. And the problem continues unabated.
Many villagers had expected markets to reopen in the lead-up to the 2019 Parliamentary elections, in order to pacify the rural population. Instead, the ban on cow slaughter is being touted as a ‘major achievement’ by the Yogi Adityanath government. There is bewilderment at the complete lack of concern for rural families.
“As if giving Rs 6,000 is enough,” grumbled Maya, commenting on the recently launched income-support scheme for farmers. Maya had recently faced the destruction of crops on 0.4 acres of her 1-acre plot. And even if markets are reopened, will the damage caused by stagnant milk prices and soaring fodder rates be reversed? “Poor families are rearing fewer cattle than before,” commented Mohan Pande, a retired agricultural extension officer, “and the numbers are only going to drop further.”
Nutrition deficiency in Sitapur
Sitapur district has some of the worst malnutrition figures in the country. A list, published in 2017 when the National Nutrition Mission was launched, placed it third from the bottom nationwide in childhood stunting. A village-level survey conducted the same year by SKMS with IIT-Delhi found abysmal levels of protein consumption among the rural population.
This is all the more striking given the historical consumption of pulses, dairy products, fish and meat here. “We used to eat urad (black gram) ki roti with urad ki dal,” commented Ramesh, an SKMS activist. Many factors have led to this decline in diets, but the stray cattle problem is severely hampering efforts to change the state of affairs.
How the stray cattle issue will evolve after the 2019 elections is yet to be seen. But the blinkered focus on banning cow slaughter has had adverse, wide-ranging and even unexpected impacts as this essay has described. The continuing demand for milk in cities, coupled with the difficulties of cattle rearing, will result in more industrial-scale dairies and the disappearance of cattle from small farmers’ homes.
If cattle rearing as a source of livelihood and nutrition for the rural poor is a desirable goal, it will require a radical re-imagination of our relationship with livestock, and concerted efforts by politicians, policymakers and society at large. Else, like the garlanded photos of cows found mostly in urban settings indicate, the reverence for gau mata will become further disconnected from reality in rural India.
* Names of respondents have been changed in this essay due to the sensitive nature of the topic
Sudha Nagavarapu is a community health researcher and activist with the Sangtin Kisan Mazdoor Sangathan, a collective of Dalit workers and farmers in Sitapur district.
This piece is coauthored with members and supporters of Sangtin Kisan Mazdoor Sangathan.