Last month, a video of struggling helpless cattle, their legs tied tightly to logs, being smuggled across a river from Assam to Bangladesh went viral. It blew the lid off the meat mafia operating in the border states along Bangladesh, to which around 3,000 cattle are illegally sent across daily from India and Nepal. From Assam, bovines are trafficked to Bangladesh via river routes of the Brahmaputra. Traffickers in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand also enter border destinations in West Bengal and Assam with cattle.
Last week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi sent out a strong signal to gau rakshaks (cow vigilantes) to stop lynching suspected cow smugglers, or else face the full wrath of the law. An advisory has been sent to all states. But it’s not just cows that are targeted by the meat mafia that has spread its tentacles across India. In Bihar, cow smugglers chopped off the fingers of a gate man who refused to open the railway crossing gate for their trucks carrying the animals to pass before the train did.
CUTTING ACROSS STATES
When Yogi Aditynath took over as Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh in April, he had ordered an immediate crackdown on illegal slaughterhouses, sending the state’s district and police machinery in western Uttar Pradesh, the hub of cattle smuggling, into overdrive.
“Animal markets are under strict vigil and police have been ordered to keep a close watch on suspects,” said Uttar Pradesh’s Additional Superintendent of Police Ashutosh Pandey. And the move has been successful.
“Cow smugglers from Rajasthan, Gujarat, Punjab and Haryana may use Uttar Pradesh to cross into West Bengal and Bangladesh, but there is no cow smuggling in the state as law enforcement authorities are vigilant enough,” says Pandey.
Others differ. “Cow smuggling is a huge racket involving the high and mighty from across caste and religious groups. Raids by police in Bareilly, Meerut, Agra, Varanasi and Gorakhpur have fuelled the grey market,” says Uttar Pradesh’s former Director General of Police Vikram Singh. “Customers are willing to pay whatever it takes.”
The heat is felt elsewhere in the country, too. Beef traders are smarting.
Arshad Ali, a sixth generation beef butcher from Awadh in Uttar Pradesh, sits in his stall in the beef hub of Metiabruz in the south-west fringes of Kolkata. He takes one last drag of his beedi before stubbing it out. He is unhappy. “The bulkier breed of cattle from Haryana, Rajasthan and Gujarat, which came to Kolkata via Uttar Pradesh, are now stopped by gau rakshaks and we’re unable to cater to the local demand,” he laments.
HOOVING IT TO BANGLADESH
The Army is aware that cow smuggling, a racket worth $5 billion a year in India, is to sell the bovines for slaughter in khattals—Bangladeshi cattle markets where the demand for Indian beef is high. It's a highly lucrative trade for the smugglers from both sides of the border—during Eid, Indian cows that fetch 30,000 (`24,000) to 45,000 takas (`36,000) in Bangladesh go up to two lakh takas (`1.6 lakh). Cows and oxen are also procured from villages of Haryana, Rajasthan and Maharashtra.
Ali had links with a cattle smuggling syndicate in Murshidabad, over 200 km from the Indo-Bangladesh border. “Cattle packed off to Bangladesh are divided into three categories and branded by colour codes. The larger breeds, mainly from north India, fetch the most, followed by the middling variety from eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. The rather diminutive Bengali varieties are dismissed as leftovers. With gau rakshaks on the prowl, smugglers have to rely mostly on medium-sized cows, as the larger north Indian breed comes in smaller numbers,” he says.
From the cattle haats (markets) in Jharkhand’s Pakur district and Kishanganj near the Bangladesh border, hoards of cattle are also quietly slipped after sunset across the river Ganges to Chapai Nawabganj in Bangladesh, to waiting agents who sell them at triple their buying price. Only on rare occasions are some shot by Border Security Forces and Border Guards Bangladesh due to ‘miscommunication’.
According to the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), border security personnel killed six cattle smugglers in 2014 and 17 in 2015 while they were trying to cross over to Bangladesh. Last year, 1.78 lakh cattle were seized near the Indo-Bangladesh border, the government told the Supreme Court following a PIL seeking to stop cattle smuggling in the region. The bulk of it—76 per cent—came from West Bengal alone. But seizures rose by hardly 50,000 since 2013, going by the MHA figures, and it may not be difficult to see why.
“At times, border guards stand watch over cattle-loaded vehicles waiting to cross into Bangladesh, shielding traders from the wrath of villagers and religious groups opposed to cow slaughter,” says Dilip Parida, a social activist in Odisha, a converging point for cattle smuggled from neighbouring states en route to West Bengal and Bangladesh meat markets.
“Cows and oxen are distributed among local goons who smuggle them across the border into Bangladesh,” says an Odisha Police official. “They’re offloaded some distance away from the border, made to walk across and loaded onto trucks in Bangladesh. We conduct surprise raids and arrest traders, but these should be more frequent and the punishment more stringent,” he says.
TUCKED AWAY IN TRUCKS
It’s 3 a.m., and the only sound in the stillness of the night is that of crickets calling. In the darkness, gau rakshaks and police lie in wait at a road block near Rewari in Haryana. They are awaiting a truck with a Rajasthan registration number heading to Mewat from Narnaul. They have been tipped off that it is ferrying 17 cows for slaughter. As the policemen try to stop the truck, its two occupants open fire and try to flee. They are finally apprehended 12 km away after a gunbattle.
Miles away, gau rakshaks in Punjab are tipped off by their counterparts in Uttar Pradesh that a dozen butchers are moving cows to slaughter them. Along with a police party, the vigilantes apprehend the butchers in a village near Moga at night, by when 17 animals are dead and 40 are waiting to be killed.
Cattle are smuggled to the border in large container vehicles and in covered trucks carrying vegetables. After receiving the green signal from their handlers—they’re well linked with the police and local authorities—they set out on a two- to three-day journey on fixed days of the week. These convoys of 10-20 trucks are led by a pilot vehicle, which does a 2-km recce to check for hurdles ahead. The small group of armed men who man the vehicle use a secret code—‘white paper’ is one of them—if the coast is clear. Vehicles starting out from Haryana and Punjab at night will not break journey until Gaya, Bihar. Here, the cattle are fed and rested for half a day. The next is a day halt at Buxar, before the hapless beasts are sent to West Bengal and Assam.
Cattle markets are cruel places, says Arun Prasanna G, founder of the Chennai-based People for Cattle in India. “Last December, we stopped a vehicle carrying 31 cows who had chilli powder in their eyes.”
Lorries transporting cattle are supposed to have a door that doubles up as a ramp, according to the Transport of Animals Rules, 1978. Most of the trucks don’t have the facility. “It’s difficult to examine the animals being transported in closed lorries,” says District Animal Husbandry officer Dr S Venugopalan Nair.
Rules also require cattle to be fed before the journey, but activists say they are given fodder for only two days before the three-day journey, with not even water on the way. Cattle must be certified as disease-free and vaccinated, but grease the right palms, and the trader can skip the inspection. “In Tamil Nadu, a bribe of `500 per lorry can get you a fitness certificate without inspection,” says Dr N Shudhodhanan, former deputy director of Kerala’s animal husbandry department.
“If you're a cattle trader, you’ll know just the right routes—many run through private properties—to avoid check posts,” says Kerala social activist Jyothish Puthens. “Each lorry carries well over the stipulated 16 cattle. With bribes, traders evade the cattle tax of `15 per head.”
Local gangs smoothen the path for `15,000-20,000 a lorry, says Poonam Parekh, an animal rights activist in Coimbatore. “Every week, the mouths of 10,000 to 12,000 cows smuggled in from Punjab and Haryana are singed with sulphuric acid and their anus with chilli powder to immobilise them over long stretches,” says Naresh Kadyan, chairman of People for Animals, Haryana. “Polythene sheets are spread on the floor of the vehicles to trap the urine of the animals. These vehicles stop only at designated dhabas (highway eateries), where the smugglers bribe the local police.”
BEEFING IT UP
It’s not just Bangladesh that is a favoured destination for cattle smugglers who send the animals to the domestic beef market. Balasore district in Odisha is a common route for smugglers from districts such as Khurda, Cuttack, Jagatsinghpur, Kendrapara, Dhenkanal, Angul, Jajpur and Bhadrak. Cattle marked for slaughter are sent from Puri, Ganjam, Koraput, Rayagada and Malkangiri to Andhra Pradesh. Odisha has close to 300 regulated cattle markets, besides the 100-plus privately held ones, where animals are mostly destined for the slaughterhouse. On an average, 150 truckloads—fetching an estimated `150 crore a month—head out to Bangladesh via the state everyday.
Corruption is endemic in the illegal beef business too. “Even when the beef is suspected to have been seized from smugglers and sent to forensic labs, criminals are let off the hook when money changes hands under the table,” says a meat trader. Telangana has the highest number of meat eaters in the country— 98.8 per cent men and 98.6 per cent women. Cow theft here is not uncommon, especially during Ramzan, when people from neighbouring districts visit to savour delicacies such as haleem. Cyberabad Police arrested Mohammmed Aizaz Ali, 28, in May with 40 stolen cows stuffed into a van designed to hide livestock. Ali and his gang’s modus operandi is to nab cattle grazing on the city’s outskirts and sell them illegally to the meat market.
In December 2015, Prasanna was informed under the Right to Information Act that 53,000 cattle were traded—mostly for slaughter—at the 100 weekly animal markets in Tamil Nadu. “The head of a cow will fetch at least `15,000 to `25,000, a price decided on by middlemen who then sell it for three to four times as much. The meat of an animal weighing 250-400 kg will fetch `250 per kilo in the local market. Even the leather and bones bring in cash,” says Prasanna. Authorities say Tamil Nadu’s cattle traders are more organised than the sand mafia, and are well connected with authorities. “Every year, at least 2.5 lakh cows, bulls and buffaloes are transported to Kerala through the Walayar check post from Coimbatore alone,” adds Prasanna.
THE COW ‘SAVIOURS’
In spite of the violent reputation lynchings have earned gau rakshaks, many have been effective in checking the illegal beef trade. Abida Mir, a Gujarati folk and pop singer, doubles up as a gau rakshak. Often returning home to Surendranagar—some 100 km from Ahmedabad—from a late night performance with her son, she routinely intercepts cattle-laden lorries bound for the slaughterhouse. “Sometimes they escape, sometimes they flee leaving the vehicle with the cattle behind. They are difficult to catch as they are well connected with the local police,” she says.
According to the Cow Protection Task Force formed by the Haryana government last July, incidences of cattle smuggling from the state dropped by almost three times over the last four years. Last month in Karnal, Haryana, members of the Gauraksha Dal posing as policemen in an SUV with a blue beacon and sirens allegedly killed the driver of a cattle van coming from Punjab. In Yamunanagar, two cows were found in the back of an SUV and two alleged cattle smugglers were booked. Neighbouring Punjab, however, does not share the same zeal, and registered just 72 such cases last year. Rajasthan reported 6,400 cattle-related arrests over the last seven years.
Down south in Mangaluru, the gau rakshak is still perceived as a rabid activist. Subramanyashwara Rao, the city’s former police commissioner, says, “Cow vigilantes in Mangaluru are not organised, but they attack cattle transporters when they get information through their network.”Some cow vigilantes are also a part of the beef mafia, says Kasim Fazduar Rehman, a beef butcher in Bengaluru. “When the police enters the picture, the amount of the bribe goes up,” he says.
Sometimes the agreement is more tacit. Says Kaseem Ejaz Ahmed Qureshi, president of Karnataka’s Beef and Poultry Markets Association, “They (gau rakshaks) may not be directly linked with the buyer or seller, but extort money based on their knowledge of the date and time of the transaction.”
In the remote Ujire district in Dakshin Kannada, Ravi Raj, who owns a dozen cows, says it is common for middlemen to lure poor farmers into selling their cattle.
“Often middlemen, who double up as butchers, don’t inform farmers that their weaker animals are to be sent to slaughterhouses since people are attached to their domestic animals. En route, the middlemen dodge the police, regional transport officers and gau rakshaks who can teach farmers to maintain cattle profitably,” he adds. Prime Minister Modi’s warning will go a long way to stop cow vigilantes from acting outside the law. But stopping cattle smugglers is altogether another matter. with Namita Bajpai, Aishik Chanda, A Satish, Venkatesan Parthasarathy, Anuraag Singh, Kiran Parashar K M, Hareesh Polavarapu, Hemant Kumar Rout and Harpreet Bajwa
“Cow smuggling is a huge racket involving the high and mighty from across caste and religious groups. Raids by police in Bareilly, Meerut, Agra, Varanasi and Gorakhpur have fuelled the grey market.”
Vikram Singh Former DGP, Uttar Pradesh
“The bulkier breed of cattle from Haryana, Rajasthan and Gujarat, which came to Kolkata via Uttar Pradesh, are now stopped by gau rakshaks and we’re unable to cater to the local demand.”Arshad Ali
Sixth generation butcher from UP
Jammu & Kashmir
Slaughter of cow punishable by up to 10 years’ jail. Possession of “flesh of any [of these] slaughtered animal(s)” punishable by a year; killing of buffalo punishable with fine five times animal’s price.
Killing a cow, storing/serving/eating beef banned; eating meat of buffalo, bullock, ox also banned.
Slaughter of agricultural cattle (cow, calf, bull, bullock) and “possession of [their] flesh” banned.
Two-year jail, `1,000 fine for cow slaughter. Old bulls, bullocks can be killed on fit-for-slaughter certificate; cow if it suffers from contagious disease.
Slaughter of all bovines punishable by five years’ jail. Killing allowed in the interest of research, or if animal has contagious disease.
Slaughter allowed for export, with government permit.
Cattle (bulls, bullocks, oxen, heifer, calves and diseased cows) can’t be killed. Punishment: 3-10 year jail, fine up to `1 lakh. Sale of beef and beef products, and export of cows banned.
Slaughter of cow, calf, heifer, bull or bullock, and possession of their meat, transport prohibited.
Ten-year jail and/or `10,000 fine.
Slaughter of cows, calves banned; of bulls, bullocks older than 15 years allowed. Violators face six months’ jail and/or `1,000 fine.
Slaughter of cows and oxen; possession, consumption of their meat, banned. Punishment: 10 years’ jail and/or `10,000 fine.
Banned except on issue of ‘fit-for-slaughter’ certificate.
Slaughter of cow, calf, bull and bullock; transport, sale of their meat banned. Punishment: `50,000 fine, up to seven years’ jail.
Cow, calf slaughter banned. Up to three years’ jail and/or `1,000 fine. Beef consumption and slaughter of ‘worthless’ cattle allowed.
Slaughter of cow, progeny banned. Punishment: Seven years’ jail. Buffaloes can be killed.
Slaughter of cow, bullock, ox banned. Can’t store or eat beef. Seven years’ jail and/or `10,000 fine. Can import in sealed containers, to be served to foreigners. Buffaloes can be killed.
Andhra Pradesh & Telangana
Slaughter of cows, calves prohibited. Bulls, bullocks can be killed against “fit-for-slaughter” certificate. Violators face six months jail and/or `1,000 fine.
Slaughter of cow, buffalo, bull, bullock, calf, and possession of their meat banned.
Export for slaughter banned; attracts seven years’ jail, fine up to `50,000.
Slaughter, consumption of meat of cow, bull, bullock banned. Five years’ jail and/or `10,000 fine. Slaughter of buffaloes allowed.
Cows can be slaughtered if old or diseased.
“At times, border
guards watch over cattle-loaded vehicles waiting to cross into Bangladesh, shielding traders from the wrath of local villagers and religious groups opposed to cow slaughter.”Dilip Parida Social activist, Odisha
“Every week, the
mouths of 10,000-12,000 cows smuggled in from Punjab and Haryana are singed with sulphuric acid and their anus with chilli powder to immobilise them.”Naresh KadyanChairman, People for Animals, Haryana