Officer Javed Khan was trying to feed a cow in the backyard of his police station. His men had picked up the animal from the road after the Uttar Pradesh government asked the police to set an example by adopting stray cattle - the latest twist in India’s age-old tension between Hindus, who worship cows, and Muslims, who eat beef. Reports of clashes between the two groups have surged after a clampdown on cattle trading and illegal abattoirs prompted dairy farmers to abandon unwanted livestock on the streets. “No one cared about stray cows before,” said Khan, wearing his service revolver and police radio. “Now people call us to help if a cow needs to be protected.”
The tightening of rules by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, backed by Hindu nationalists, has created a media storm in the country just as politicians begin campaigning for a general election. The rising population of strays has been blamed for trampling crops, causing road accidents and setting off a spate of extra-judicial killings.
The issue has polarized a country of 1.3 billion people that is almost 80 percent Hindu and also home to the world’s third-largest Muslim population. Cow vigilantes have killed at least 44 people in the past three years, according to Human Rights Watch. While cow slaughtering is banned in most states, including Uttar Pradesh, previous administrations never strictly enforced the laws.
The difficulty of selling cows for slaughter has angered some dairy farmers who relied on the sales for extra income and disrupted the country’s leather and meat industries. Damage to fields by wandering cattle has also hurt crop farmers, a key voting bloc for Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, which faces a general election between April 11 and May 19.
So-called Gau Rakshaks, or cow protectors, have taken to the Internet to ridicule those in the cattle trade and convince people to look after cows.
“It’s already creating mistrust in the country,” said Himanshu, who goes by one name and teaches economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. He said unproductive cattle have to be disposed of as they are not giving farmers any return, but cow shelters are not enough as the number of stray animals will keep increasing. “The government should find a long-term solution.”
Many of the headlines are from the most populous state of Uttar Pradesh, ruled by Modi’s BJP, where about 40 million Muslims make up almost a fifth of the population. Police in the state, home to the Taj Mahal, registered a case against 24 people for evicting students and teachers from a primary school so they could use the building to house stray cattle, according to a report in the Indian Express in January.
Modi has his electoral district in Uttar Pradesh, which sends more lawmakers to parliament than any other state and is likely to be a key battleground in the election. The region is ruled by the BJP’s saffron-clad Hindu monk Yogi Adityanath and was the scene of one of India’s worst religious clashes when Hindu mobs razed a 16th-century mosque in 1992 in Ayodhya, triggering deadly riots that killed at least 2,000 people, mostly Muslims.
Modi has to find a balance between appeasing hard-line Hindu supporters and the nation’s more than 260 million farmers who are already upset about falling commodity prices and lower wages. The prime minister has promised to pay 6,000 rupees ($86) a year to farmers who have less than 2 hectares of land, a $10.6 billion gift that will widen the fiscal deficit.
“The cow issue will dethrone the current government,” said Jagvir Singh, 50, a wheat and millet farmer in Uttar Pradesh. “Stray cows are everywhere. They have made our life hell.”
One in five of the world’s cattle and buffalo are reared in India and the nation is the world’s second-largest beef exporter, after Brazil. Exports dropped 20 percent to 1.67 million tons in 2018 from the record shipments of 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture data. The South Asian nation also produces 2.5 billion square feet of leather a year, 13 percent of global output, much of it for a large domestic footwear and garment industry.
Dairy cows live for 12 to 15 years, but typically produce milk only for about 7 years, when they are bearing calves. Millions of cows become unproductive each year, and many, along with unwanted male calves, are simply abandoned. According to the latest livestock census, there were some 5.3 million stray cattle in 2012 in India.
To stop strays entering fields, some farmers have erected fencing or hired guards to shoo the animals away, but for many the cost is prohibitive. Fencing costs about 50,000 rupees an acre, while guards charge 500 rupees a day.
In a village about 100 kilometers (62 miles) from Khan’s police station, 50-year old Ashok Kumar is waving a stick to drive a herd of stray cattle out of his potato field. The animals depart and cross the road into the field of Sunahari Lal, an older farmer, whose crops are trampled. It’s a common sight now in agricultural communities in India, a country ranked 103rd out of 119 in the Global Hunger Index.
“The government has made our life miserable,” said Kumar, who also grows wheat. “If we beat cows for destroying crops, we might go to jail and won’t get bail for months. It’s the people abandoning the cows who should be behind bars.”
But cows are deeply embedded in Hindu mythology. Kamadhenu, the mother of all cows, emerged from the churning of the oceans after a battle between gods and demons, fulfilling the needs and ambitions of all and providing milk for food used in religious rituals. Paintings of Lord Krishna with cows are common in Hindu households.
“Cow is our mother,” Modi said in February in a holy town of Vrindavan where Lord Krishna is believed to have spent his childhood. “No one in India can forget the debt of cow’s milk.”
Few practical solutions have emerged. The Madhya Pradesh government said it plans to acquire 6,000 acres of land to build shelters, according to the Hindustan Times. But this would only accommodate about 100,000 animals. In February, the federal budget allocated 7.5 billion rupees for a cow program.
Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath proposed using taxpayers’ money to fund shelters. Officials plan to tag strays with barcodes to build a database and are trying artificial insemination technology to ensure only female calves are born.
“There should be enough shelters to protect cows, but right now they are being built only on paper,” said Ramvir Singh Ponia, a 50-year old farmer from Sujat Nagar who grows mainly wheat and potatoes on his 12-acre farm. The problem is “people quietly abandon their unproductive cows in the night.”
Mostly, the country is relying on volunteers like Akhil Manglik, who runs a bovine shelter for some 350 injured animals. “This place is like a hospital for cows,” he said. “Once a cow enters here, it never leaves.”
It costs about 60 rupees a day to keep a cow in India, translating to about $1.6 billion to accommodate all the nation’s strays, not counting the cost of lost agricultural land. That leaves Modi with a dilemma summed up by farmer Trimohan Singh in Uttar Pradesh. “A home without a cow is a devil’s place,” he said. “But the main problem in our lives now is cows. They are destroying our crops and we can’t do anything about it.”