GOSSAIGAON: The Srirampur check gate was a state-of-the-art facility through which cattle from other states used to be brought into Assam. From here, animals for slaughter were trucked into Bangladesh where beef is sold at a premium. The closure of the check gate on July 31 has delivered the legal cattle trade into the hands of the cow smuggling mafia that flourishes in the western Assam districts bordering Bangladesh.
One of the first things the BJP government in Assam did in March 2016 was to stop the entry of cattle from other states into Assam through the Srirampur and Bakshirhat gates. It was meant to prevent Assam from being used as a transit point for the beef trade with Bangladesh and Meghalaya.
However, cow smuggling continued. The complete closure of the gates and cessation of checks on July 31 only spelt open sesame to the smugglers. It was these smugglers against whom All Bodoland Minority Students' Union (ABMSU) president Lafiqul Islam was fighting a crusade until he was cut down in a market in Kokrajhar on August 1.
The Assam government on Friday asked the CBI to investigate Lafiqul's murder. The ABMSU and the All-Assam Minority Students Union called for an Assam bandh on Saturday to protest the murder.
While the murder of Lafiqul, just a day after the closure of the Srirampur gate, may be pure coincidence, ABMSU says he was murdered because he was working to expose the nexus between cow smugglers and corrupt officials in the Kokrajhar district administration. Workers at the check gate, some 1,000 of whom have lost their jobs due to the closure, say they smell the hand of the cow smugglers in the slaying.
"Until July Earlier, 90-100 trucks laden with cows used to pass through Srirampur gate every day. Our veterinarians used to check them and let them pass. Everything was systematic. Now, the trade is uncontrolled. Smuggling goes on unchecked at night," said Nibarun Basumatary, former president of the Inter-state Border Gate Workers Association (IBGWA).
Nibarun said his union submitted a memorandum to Prime Minister Narendra Modi six months ago demanding regulation of the trade. "Absence of police checkposts makes things worse," he added.
Echoing the ABMSU’s allegations, the present president of the Border Workers' Association, Raghunath Basumatary says cow smuggling cannot be done without the support of the local administration. "While a small Assam cow weighing 100 kg costs Rs 25,000, a kilo of beef costs around Rs 500-Rs 700 in Bangladesh. It is such a lucrative trade that everybody wants a slice of it. It’s not possible unless you have links with top officials and politicians," he said.
The emergence of gau rakshaks
Cattle smuggling is a frantic business. Since the closure of the Srirampur check gate, the smugglers’ cattle trucks now cross over from Samuktala in neighbouring West Bengal in the dead of night and rumble into the Haraputa market in Kokrajhar district by 3 am in the morning. The unloading is done within an hour. By 6 am, half of the cattle are sold.
Once sold, the cattle are walked out in pairs by the smugglers’ agents. This is to avoid suspicion. The walkers charge Rs 500 per cow. From Bilasipara, the animals change hands and are taken to the banks of the Brahmaputra for the crossing to Bangladesh, a trader Sheikh Hamid (name changed) told this correspondent at the Haraputa market.
Since the closure of the legal cattle trade, posters in Hindi calling for protection of 'gau mata' have appeared around the Srirampur check gate. That had never happened before. It’s gone down as a warning.
The beef-pork divide
Though Bengali Muslims in Kokrajhar love beef and stay away from pork, the latter is the staple diet of the Bodos who consume it at least thrice a week. However, dietary differences have never been a point of contention between the two communities.
Sabbir Ali of Sapkata village is a social worker whose job requires him to visit Bodo villages regularly. “Every house has pigs here. Though consuming pork is haraam for me, I respect their right to food," he said.
On the other hand, the Bodos, being a mainly farming community, don't see any wrong in selling off their old cows. "It is really economical to sell old cows to Muslim traders. They use everything, from meat to skin. An old cow would cost me money to feed," said Alongbar Daimary, a Bodo resident of Bhaoraguri.