NUH, Haryana — If the situation was not so dire, Azmat, a dairy farmer from Haryana, believes he would laugh at the absurd circumstance he finds himself in.
After buying a cow from another dairy farmer in a neighbouring village, Azmat is terrified of making the short trip, around 12 to 13 kilometers from his village Jaisinghpur in Nuh, to pick up the cow. He, together with another dairy farmer in his own village, have already paid Rs. 40,000 for the cow, but neither man is willing to travel the short distance to bring it home.
Cow vigilantes watch the roads linking the villages and the highway like hawks, and any Muslim seen with a cow runs the risk of a beating or worse.
Azmat should know.
The first thing he did when stopped by a group of cow vigilantes in April, 2017 was show them the receipt that said he had purchased two cows for Rs. 75,000 from a government fair in Jaipur, Rajasthan. The cow vigilantes did not listen. They tore up the receipt and beat him hockey sticks, belts and stones for a half hour, he said.
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While Azmat, now 26 years old, survived the attack, another dairy farmer from his village, 55-year-old Pehlu Khan, who was beaten by the same vigilantes at the same time, died after two days.
Azmat, and many young dairy farmers in Jaisinghpur, believe that cow vigilantes have the backing of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and that is why they have managed to unleash so much violence in the past few years.
If the BJP was to return to power in 2019, and the writ of the cow vigilantes continues to run large in Nuh, Azmat plans to give up dairy farming entirely.
“One Pehlu Khan is dead. We are afraid that a 100 Pehlu Khans could die,” Azmat said.
“We are already living half a life. We will be more scared than we are now,” he said. “Living in fear is very tiring.”
One Pehlu Khan is dead. We are afraid that a 100 Pehlu Khans could die.
Way of life
Azmat rather woefully recalled that his grandfather had 22 cows. He has none.
For Azmat to give up rearing cows would not just end a means of livelihood, but a way of life.
Azmat is a Meo Muslim, a community of dairy farmers living in Haryana and Rajasthan. People say they are Rajputs that converted to Islam in the 15th-16th centuries. Meos, famous for harmonizing Hindu and Islamic practices in their traditions, have been known to celebrate Hindu festivals like Holi and Diwali. They do not marry cousins. They only form matrimonial alliances outside their clan, and follow local rules of inheritance instead of Islamic law.
For Meo Muslims, cows, which have sustained them for centuries, are special.
Some take care of their cows well into old age and when they die, choose to bury them instead of selling them to tanners.
Pointing to the house across the street, Azmat said that his neighbours buried their cow in their courtyard.
Pointing to the fan whirring in the empty cowshed in his own courtyard, he said, “Our rooms do not have fans, but we had one installed for the cows.”
For as long as they can remember, the Meo Muslim dairy farmers have lived peacefully in the lands that are now the border areas of Rajasthan and Haryana.
After the BJP came to power at the Centre and then in Haryana, their routine — buying and selling cows, grazing them, selling milk — was disrupted.
Cow vigilantes, made up of local Bajrang Dal and Vishwa Hindu Parishad leaders, as well as goons and thugs, took it upon themselves to patrol the roads frequented by dairy farmers. A BJP lawmaker in Rajasthan said that Meo Muslims were “criminals,” who went around entrapping Hindu women.
Having the BJP in power in Haryana, Rajasthan and the Centre was tough on Meo Muslim dairy famers. They were relieved when the BJP lost Rajasthan to the Congress, last year, but they don’t feel as if they can go back to their old way of life.
The result in Rajasthan, they believe, was a vote against the unpopular Vasundhara Raje government, not the BJP and its ideology of Hindutva.
Haryana ranks second only to Uttar Pradesh in incidents of cow-related violence, casualties and deaths from 2012 to 2019, according to the IndiaSpend Hate Tracker.
In January, this year, a Muslim dairy farmer was accused of being a cow smuggler, tied to a pole and beaten by cow vigilantes for two hours in Rohtak, Haryana. Instead of taking him to a doctor, policemen tied him with a chain to a bed at the police station.
The police in Haryana and Rajasthan claim that the highway connecting the two states is overrun by cow smugglers, making their way to Aligarh. Instead of stopping the cow vigilantes, the police coordinate with them.
While speaking to HuffPost India, last year, Nawal Kishore Sharma, a Bajrang Dal leader and the most famous cow vigilante in Rajasthan, laid out how his team tracks “cow smugglers” and relays information to the police.
Sharma, who has multiple criminal cases against him, said that he does not intend to stop even if the BJP loses the election.
“We are serving the cow, not the BJP,” he said, as he launched into a tirade against Prime Minister Narendra Modi for not doing enough to aid cow vigilantes.
It is worth noting that it was a BJP lawmaker in Rajasthan, who connected HuffPost India with Sharma, and praised his “good work.” During a phone conversation, at the time, the two men spoke as if they were old friends.
We are serving the cow, not the BJP.
Neither the Member of Parliament (MP) from Gurgaon and BJP leader, Rao Inderjit Singh, nor the Member of the Legislative Assembly(MLA) from Nuh and Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) leader, Zakir Hussain, have visited the families of Azmat and Pehlu Khan. (In 2000, the INLD and the BJP formed the government in Haryana).
Arif, Pehlu’s son, who was also beaten badly on 1 April, 2017, blamed Modi for the impunity with which cow vigilantes are operating.
“The Prime Minister has given them the freedom to kill us, beat us, do anything they want with us,” he said. “The police won’t catch them. They won’t go to jail. Modi is saying that you are free until I’m there.”
While Modi has been critical of cow vigilantes, berating them on more than one occasion, they have not stopped killing Muslims.
Since 2014 to 2018, forty six people, the majority of them Muslims, have lost their lives in cow-related violence, according to the IndiaSpend Hate Tracker. Cow related violence increased tenfold in the past five years, spreading from the cow-belt in northern India to other parts of the country.
The Prime Minister has given them the freedom to kill us, beat us, do anything they want with us.
Fear and Debt
Two years after he was beaten near Behror in Alwar, Rajasthan, Azmat, a father of three children, is living in fear and in debt.
He would rather not dwell on the 30 minutes in which he was beaten, around three kilometers away from the closest police chowki, begging the cow vigilantes to call the cops.
There are other things he remembers about that day: how he had initially planned to buy a buffalo, laying out the mud in the back of the vehicle to stop the cows from slipping during the journey, and the money he lost.
The two cows that Azmat bought in Rajasthan were confiscated by the local police. He lost the Rs. 75,000 that he spent on them at the government fair. And he owes money to friends and relatives who helped pay the hospital bills worth almost Rs. 1.5 lakh.
While the recurring pain in his spine prevents him for taking up work as a driver or as a farm labourer, Azmat is paying lawyers to fight two cases in Behror — one against the men who beat them up, and killed Pehlu Khan, and the second is to defend himself against the Rajasthan government, which has charged him with cow slaughter under the Rajasthan Bovine Animal Act.
“Our money has gone, our cows have gone, our buffaloes have gone, our livelihood has gone, and they have slapped a case against us. We cannot expect any justice,” he said.
Our money has gone, our cows have gone, our buffaloes have gone, our livelihood has gone, and they have slapped a case against us. We cannot expect any justice.
Mohammed Suleiman, Azmat’s 83-year-old father, added that it isn’t just their livelihood that is threatened.
“Everyone is supposed to be equal before the law, but under this government, even the law is not working for us,” he said. “No matter what is done to Muslims, if we say something, we will get beaten and thrown in jail.”
Still hoping to revive his family’s milk trade, Khan said that he offered to pay the dairy farmer, who is selling him a cow, an extra Rs. 3,000 for transporting it to Jaisinghpur.
The dairy farmer, who is Hindu, refused.
Then, Azmat asked drivers — Hindus and Muslims — in the area, offering Rs. 3,000 to Rs. 5,000, but they too refused.
The cow seller, Azmat said, is getting impatient. He has offered to return the money and sell the cow to someone else.
Azmat has considered moving to the city to find work. Given that he has only studied in a Madrassa, and has no special skills, his family is opposing this “desperate measure.”
“No one is going to bring a cow into a Muslim village. You tell us, how will we survive?” he said.
No one is going to bring a cow into a Muslim village. You tell us, how will we survive.
Jats to the rescue?
Muslims, mostly Meo, constitute seven percent of the population in Jat-dominated Haryana.
Jaisinghpur, a village of around 2,000 families, has always voted for the Congress, villagers say.
Mohammed was 12-years-old when he saw India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru giving a speech in a neighboring village Bhadas.
“I remember he told everyone to sit down and said something like ‘you have come to see me. I have come to see you. There is no barrier between us.’ What I remember most is that he came and left in an open jeep,” he said.
Mohammed, who also saw Indira Gandhi in person, and more recently Rahul Gandhi, thinks more of the Congress leaders than he does of the party.
“Congress is no better, but I cannot see any third option,” he said. “The only good thing about the Congress is that we felt safe in our daily lives. We did not live in fear.”
At this point, Mohammed’s younger son, 20-year-old Amjad, said, “When we were growing up, we did not know the name of any prime ministers, but now, every kid knows Modi’s name. Even a six-year-old.”
Every kid knows Modi's name. Even a six-year-old.
After 10 years of Congress rule in Haryana, the BJP won the state election for the first time in October, 2014, a few months after winning the Lok Sabha election.
Modi famously picked Manohar Lal Khattar, a non-Jat to lead the state.
There are Meo Muslims who are hoping that the Jats, who carried violent protests demanding reservation in 2016, will hit back at the BJP in the upcoming polls.
The BJP, although it won seven of the 10 Lok Sabha seats in Haryana, had a lower vote share in the Congress 2004 and 2009, but it managed to win without the overwhelming support of the Jats, consolidating the non-Jat vote instead.
The only good thing about the Congress is that we felt safe in our daily lives.
Going with the wind
Mohammed, Azmat’s father, is worried that the Meo Muslim community is losing sight of its inclusive traditions. While the community has been changing for a long time, the hostility unleashed against minorities in recent years, has quickened the pace of change.
When he was growing up in Jaisinghpur, there was one mosque that served the surrounding villages, but now there are nine. There was a time when Meo Muslims celebrated Holi and Diwali with as much enthusiasm as Hindus, but that no longer happens. Meo women never had to cover their faces, but now some do.
The younger lot even dress differently, Mohammed pointed out. It is the elderly villagers who still wear the long flowing kurta-pjyama and the elaborate white turbans.
“We have become more religious,” he said. “For a long time, people could not read. After they started reading, the Koran and Hadiths became very important. Now, people feel they must live by the rules of Islam.”
The elderly Meo believes that young Meo Muslims don’t feel the same way about cows. “There is less love and affection,” he said.
Now, people feel they must live by the rules of Islam.
This is hardly surprising given that four men in the village — Azmat, Pehlu Khan, and his two sons, Irshad and Arif, were attacked by cow vigilantes.
Gradually, the sons of dairy farmers are being forced to drive trucks and work as labourers.
Life has become increasingly hard for young Muslim men in Jaisinghpur. Many get married before finishing school and dropout. They have three or four children to support in their early twenties.
Asim, a 23-year-old resident of the village, with four daughters says, works as a security guard in a medical college.
“There are no jobs here,” he said.
“And this is just 70 kilometers from Delhi,” added Qasim, a 25-years-old truck driver, who has three children.
When it is pointed out that a lack of education is probably holding him back, Qasim said, “My brother has done JBT (Junior Basic Training) and ITI (Industrial Training Institute) courses and he still can’t get a good job.”
His brother inspects the bottles in the Pepsi factory close to the village.
In search of justice
In Pehlu Khan’s house in Jaisinghpur village, the sunny courtyard where he used to tie his cows, is empty.
All the family has left are three buffaloes. Playing with the baby buffalo that she has named Haseena, Pehlu’s wife, Jaibuna, explained that milk from the two big buffaloes is used by family. Even though keeping buffaloes is more expensive, they have decided to never keep cows or sell milk.
Instead, her elder son Irshad has started working as a truck driver, and her younger son Arif is a labourer, who removes mud from construction sites.
Jaibuna has nothing more to say about her husband’s murder in April, 2017, but she wants to know why her sons cannot even make it to a court hearing without getting attacked.
“They murdered my husband. Now, they won’t even let us try and get justice. What do they want to do to us?” she asked.
The case against the cow vigilantes was registered in Behror, Rajasthan, where Pehlu’s two sons, who are key witnesses, must travel to give their testimony.
Terrified of making the road trip, the two men travel with other villagers, including Azmat, who is also a witness.
In October, last year, Arif recounted that as they were approaching Behror, a group of armed men stopped their vehicle and told them to go back.
The men, Arif said, then started shooting their rifles in the air.
The Muslim men immediately turned back and they have never tried returning to Behror.
“They killed my father in front of my eyes. Now, I cannot even go to court without risking my life,” said Arif. “We are the witnesses, if they kill us, there is no testimony and they will dismiss the case.”
Pehlu’s family has asked the case against the cow vigilantes be shifted to Alwar or Delhi.
They killed my father in front of my eyes. Now, I cannot even go to court without risking my life.
Arif said that he had hoped for justice after the BJP was defeated in the Rajasthan state election, last year, and the Congress Party took over.
“Nothing has happened, so far,” he said.
Azmat and Arif said that they have already spent thousands of rupees on hiring vehicles that ferry them and the other villagers to Rajasthan. They cannot keep shelling out money for taxis, the two men said, and after Behror, the other villagers refuse to accompany them.
His lawyer in Behror, Azmat said, has told him that he is willing to do the paperwork involved in the case, but would rather not appear in open court, where the accused and their kin are present.
Jaibuna has forbidden Arif and Irshad from ever making the journey to Behror again.
“My husband never came back from Rajasthan. Now I worry that one day, my sons will not come back,” she said.