For the past two days, Bajrang Dal leaders in Seoni district in Madhya Pradesh have been in damage control mode. They have issued an apology over the death of two tribal men over cow slaughter allegations, and released a video purportedly showing both had been handed over to police. They also claim to be working in coordination with police, a fact acknowledged by the force.
Of the 13 men arrested for the death of the tribals, families of six told The Sunday Express they had Bajrang Dal links.
The video released by the Bajrang Dal shows policemen at the spot along with its men armed with sticks, surrounding the tribals Sampatlal Vatti and Dhansai Invati. Says Devender Sain, Zila Sahyojak of the Bajrang Dal’s Seoni unit: “The men who are accused of being members of our unit handed over the two men to police. We coordinate with police on every cow protection raid giving them crucial tip-offs. Those two men should not have died. We are sorry about that.”
Senior officers of Seoni district admit they rely on tip-offs from various vigilante outfits, including Bajrang Dal men, to check cattle smuggling in the region.
Every year around 120 cases of cattle smuggling are reported in the district. The Kurai Police Station, where the lynching case is being investigated, sees 30-40 cases per year, police said. On Saturday, police reported the arrest of three persons for alleged cow slaughter and seizure of over 19 kg of suspected beef in Seoni district.
SP Kumar Prateek, posted in Seoni district for the past two years, says he has repurposed a highway patrol unit comprising five policemen, including an armed officer and four constables, who instead of highway robberies, now focus on cattle smuggling.
Prateek says that roping in the vigilante outfits denies them the excuse that the administration is not checking cattle smuggling. “I am in touch with most of these outfit members… Per day we get one-two informer tip-offs,” the SP says.
He adds that most of the inputs are about the colour of vehicles, and that of the 120-odd cases a year, 80% involve rescue of live cattle. The rest are of cattle slaughter. There have been cases of cattle smugglers taking on police, says Prateek, including damaging their vehicles or ramming through a police barricade.
Tapasvi Upadhyay, the Seoni district chief of Bajrang Dal, says their cow protection members are chosen with care, after testing their knowledge and articulation on key talking points, such as the “importance of cow” in Hindu religion. “The recruitment drive is carried out during yearly Hindu festivals. We look at whether a karyakarta has aastha (devotion) towards the cow,” he says.
The members are deployed at the local road and transport authority offices to keep tabs on vehicles, he says, adding: “The transport authorities can’t make out if cattle are being transported. Our karyakartas rely on cues like the sound of a cow’s hooves thumping the vehicle, or their smell… The vehicle number and its destination state are noted and provided to police.”
VHP Seoni president Akhilesh Chauhan says their cow protection unit members are deployed at multiple exit points to the district, covering a 60-km stretch. They don’t have any ID or certificates, Chauhan adds. “They along with their neighbours go out on operations. They note down vehicle registration numbers if there is suspicion of cattle smuggling. The input is given to the local SP and town inspectors, who are our point of contact.”
Kurai Police Station in-charge Ganpat Singh Uike says staff shortage means they can’t always patrol the two checking points near Kurai. “We are short of 15 men… We do depend on tip-offs from vigilante outfits and coordinate with them.”
Tribal leader and Congress MLA Arjun Singh Kakodia says the Seoni killings were the first they had heard of, but alleges a deep racket behind the whole vigilante-police operation. “This is all a business. The largest animal market in Seoni district is in Barghat area, which sees business of Rs 10 lakh per week. This market is visited by local farmers who buy and sell cattle… The vigilante outfits don’t rescue cattle and send them to gaushalas. They are sold at these animal markets for a profit. The prices of cows, buffaloes and goats have escalated this year.”
VHP and Bajrang Dal leaders refute this by claiming to have rescued 1,980 cattle this year, and around 10,000 since 2016.
BJP district chief Alok Dubey says the district has nine gaushalas managed by local temple trusts, which suffer from a manpower shortage. “The younger generation does not have much love for the cow. The older generation is busy with their own work. We need support to sustain them,” Dubey says.