#Bundelkhand: stray cattle in a saffron state

#Bundelkhand: stray cattle in a saffron state

An on-ground report on the prevalent cow crisis in Bundelkhand in peak rabi season.

By Khabar Lahariya

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A loud, persistent chanting of mantras greets us as we enter a private gaushala or cow shelter in the Banda district of Bundelkhand, Uttar Pradesh. A pandit, fashionably clad in a muffler inscribed with a thousand Krishnas in golden thread, holds court, furiously reciting shlokas and mantras off a book he holds in one hand, wielding a ghanti with the other. We have to bide our time in order to get information so we spend it gauging the situation at hand, finally beginning to comprehend what we’re witnessing—and confirmed by the pandit, Manish Dwivedi, when he finishes the chanting 45 minutes later. “It is for the cows. It is for their peace of mind.”

Listing the various texts he refers to, Dwivedi tells us he is convinced that the cows—housed inside the gaushala directly behind him—listen to him every morning, and are also benefitted by the obviously affirmative vibes of his chanting. Dwivedi comes here by order of Rajababu Singh, an IPS officer who has commissioned the mantra-chanting in honour of his recent promotion. A real cow lover, we’re told.

He’s in important company. The Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh Yogi Adityanath has been prolific in issuing directive upon directive around cows—indeed, you could call it a chant of its own. Recent among these have been the Gau Kalyan cess levied on public sector institutions, and more importantly, the one around cow shelters—arguably, the most important factor offering a chance at survival to a poor stray cow who has been abandoned by her owners—that should be housing all stray cattle in the state by January 10, 2019.

The date has come and gone and the cattle, along with millions of their two-legged well-wishers, are still waiting. Most of the latter are farmers, undoubtedly most directly affected by stray cattle.

Ask Shri Ram, a farmer in Gureh village, also in Banda, who has been spending night after night in his fields, trying his best to keep the cattle away from his precious crop. “We stand to lose our entire harvest,” he says, a blanket sentiment across Bundelkhand which is currently in peak rabi season. Narayan, a farmer from Gadhva village in Chitrakoot district, emphasises the extreme discomfort that comes with the job, even as his peer Dheeraj Mishra spells it out: “It is so very cold at night when we keep the vigil. Who wants to be awake at the time, in the open? But we have no choice.” Shri Ram also tells us that he’s planted only 4 bighas of his land—he has 12 in total—because there’s only so much he can monitor night after night, in the bitterly cold winters.

Bundelkhand has a peculiar tradition around stray cattle, known as anna pratha, a semi-ritualistic tradition in which cows, buffaloes, etc. are let go of once they are past their prime. It is a well-known tradition, which Chitrakoot’s local MLA Chandrika Prasad Upadhyay had once described to us in a tone laden with something not too dissimilar to nostalgia: “I have seen anna pratha in my Bundelkhand ever since I was a little boy.” No wonder then that the 2016 animal census estimates the number of cattle in Bundelkhand at 2.3 million, with close to 88 per cent of that number being stray.

While this is nowhere close to utopic, developments that came into place since the Bharatiya Janata Party took over the state in 2017 have ensured that the balancing out of this tradition has suffered. Santosh, a farmer from Mataundh in Banda, wants to give “Modi baba and Yogi baba” a piece of his mind. “Earlier, we could sell our cattle to the meat shops, or middlemen who would deliver them to the slaughterhouses, but now with going on about cows, even that’s not possible.”

The closing down of slaughterhouses across Bundelkhand, coupled with the very real fear of Right-wing violence, has played a big role in the stray cattle saga. Balmukund, a Banda local, elaborates: “People would always dispose of the calves in this manner. The cattle would follow, once they had stopped giving milk, but the calves would straight off go for katna (slaughter). Now that’s also not an option here.”

Bhagwandeen Ambedkar, another Mataundh farmer, is more vocal. “Ever since the BJP has come into power, we can’t sell off our animals for profit—the very action is viewed with suspicion. Gau hatya bandh karva rahe hain, lekin hamara jo kharcha chalta tha, jaanvaron ko bechkar, woh bhi bandh karva rahein hain (They’re putting a stop to the killing of cows, but why are they putting a stop to our livelihood also)? They’re our cattle, after all, why can’t we make a living off them?”

This is a state haunted by episodes of lynching that were entirely spun around carcasses of cows and the alleged peddling of cow meat—the Bulandshahr violence is the most recent one—and Bundelkhand is no exception. The sight of saffron-clad self-styled vigilantes, who swear by gau mata and her protection, whizzing by on bikes is not an uncommon one in Banda. Here, hordes of Hindu Yuva Vahini members congregate almost immediately on hearing about a cow that was mowed down by a truck. Within minutes, a riot-like situation bubbles. “It looks like war,” is how a Khabar Lahariya reporter on her rounds had described it.   

Meanwhile, Ashok Katariya of the BJP holds a local press conference around Adityanath’s announcements on the matter. He waxes eloquent on “hamaari gau mata”. In the same moment, in Chitrakoot, hungry dogs feast upon a dead cow in the middle of a garbage dump masquerading as a road, and nobody bats an eyelid. Least of all Bhairon Prasad Mishra, the local MP—who has also adopted two villages reeling from lack of basic development as per the Adarsh Gram Yojna—who decides to go on the offensive as a line of defence. “What are you demanding? That suddenly we’ll be able to provide closed enclosures to all the cattle? Everything can’t be done so quickly.”

Mishra is possibly alluding to the deadline that has whooshed by him. In Chitrakoot, out of the 70 government-registered cow shelters, we found both facilities and budgets wanting. Balram Tiwari, district head of the farmers’ union chapter in Banda, talks numbers: “₹90 lakh was the Bundelkhand budget, we were told. But our surveys have revealed that not even ₹20 lakh of that was actually spent on shelters.”

As per the Kanha Gaushala scheme of Uttar Pradesh put into place for stray cattle, or “besahara pashu”, ₹98.5 crores were sanctioned for the state. Tiwari tells us these shelters were to be built in the Mataundh and Attarra areas of Banda, but the funds have disappeared. “Sab paper-baazi hai ji,” pooh-poohs Mahendra Kumar Oberoi, a Chitrakoot-based RTI activist, who is of the opinion that this government works very hard—on paper.  

Recces of a few private gaushalas around Bundelkhand reveal that the state is only marginally better, most surviving due to private donations. Balmukund, who is hanging around one such shelter, says, “Protect our cows, respect our cows, worship our cows—this is all very good. We also agree. But give us the means to do so. Give us the water for them to drink. Give us the food for them to eat. Make sure the facilities are working for them and they are being taken care of. Otherwise, what does all this lip service to sanskriti mean?”

Perhaps the cows listening hard to the Gita verses can answer.

Reporting: Khabar Lahariya Bureau

Written by Pooja Pande

This piece is jointly published by Khabar Lahariya and Newslaundry.