Holy Cows, Illegal Trade, Hindu Right Wing and Dalits

Nothing's sacred: the illegal trade in India's holy cows

Andrew Buncombe reports from Kaharpara on a bloody war between rustlers and border guards


Even in the dog days of summer, the quiet paddy fields that mark the border between India and Bangladesh look as supple and green as the soft stems of herbs grown in a window box. But the daytime tranquillity belies a stark reality. This delta region of the Ganges river is a place of often deadly conflict that underpins an activity many in India would rather not discuss. Every year, hundreds of thousands of cows – considered sacred in India, with export of the beasts banned – are illegally smuggled into Bangladesh where they are turned into shoes, belts, bone china crockery and, of course, meat.

"There is smuggling here every day," said Umesh, a member of a three-man Indian Border Security Force (BSF) team on duty at a watchtower near the village of Kaharpara, just a few hundred yards from the Bangladesh border. "The smugglers will take 50, 100 or 200 cattle at a time. We try to create an ambush and surround the smugglers."

The story of the annual smuggling of an estimated 1.5 million cattle says much about modern India – about the sometimes hypocritical treatment of supposedly sacred cows, the political power of right-wing Hinduism and the corruption that allows the £320m illegal trade to flourish. But ultimately this story is about supply and demand. Hindu-majority India has an estimated 280 million cows but killing and eating them is legal in only a handful of states. Meanwhile, Muslim-majority Bangladesh, where beef is eaten with relish, suffers from a shortage of cattle. Half of the beef consumed in Bangladesh comes from its large, western neighbour.

The snaking border that divides the two countries runs for 1,300 miles. Here in the Murshidabad district of West Bengal, 150 miles north-east of the state capital Calcutta, large sections of it are unfenced. It is a lure both for human traffickers and gangs from both sides of the border smuggling cows.

Villagers, who claimed not to know any smugglers but appeared to know the intricacies of the operation, said cattle were brought by truck from states across eastern India such as Bihar, Orissa and Jharkhand. Some may even be brought from further away. Despite the effort involved, the mathematics is persuasive. An animal that might sell for £60-£80 in the country's cow-belt hinterland will here fetch £130. Once inside Bangladesh, they could change hands for £225 or more.

"Those buying the cows always look to see how fat it is. They feed them husks from the paddy," said Mohammed Ashraf, a blacksmith who was hammering into shape a glowing curved sickle that locals use to cut the rice crop that is harvested three times a year.

Yet the trade comes with a deadly price. The BSF has been accused of killing hundreds of cattle smugglers, as well as civilians not involved in the trade. A 2010 report published by Human Rights Watch (HRW) suggested that more than 900 people had been killed with impunity by the BSF over the past 10 years. It also said locals claimed some BSF members were complicit with the smuggling and took bribes. This year, an incident in which an alleged smuggler was badly beaten by the security force personnel was captured on video.

"Over the last decade, they used excessive and indiscriminate force, shooting at villagers on suspicion that they were smugglers," said Meenakshi Ganguly, HRW's south Asia director. "While many may have been engaged in cattle rustling, the BSF ignored the most basic principles of protecting the right to life. Instead of arresting suspects, they shot and killed them. The BSF claimed they had to use lethal force as self-defence, an argument hard to believe since the police reports on the weapons recovered usually [refer to] sickles and sticks."

Asked about the allegations, a BSF spokesman said: "The BSF is a disciplined and professional force [and] exercises utmost restraint in the use of any force. The BSF has also an impeccable record of upholding human rights."

Ms Ganguly said that since issuing its report, the BSF had started using rubber bullets which led to a drop in fatalities. But, villagers said their evenings were still sometimes disrupted. "We hear the gunshots at night-time. Sometimes the smugglers get shot. It's mainly people from the other side of the border," said Mr Ashraf. Locals said the smugglers often used teenagers to transport the cattle across the border in the belief the security forces were less likely to shoot a youngster.

There is a clear antagonism between the guards and the villagers. Some locals said the BSF troops retaliated against anyone they could find. Matir Rahaman, a rice farmer who was cycling back from the fields, said he had been badly beaten by BSF personnel. "One night the cows came over the border and the paddy got smashed. I went to the BSF and said, 'Why is this happening'. They said, 'You are smugglers' and they attacked us with [metal-tipped bamboo sticks]," he alleged.

Ashfaqur Rahman, a retired Bangladesh diplomat who now chairs the Dhaka-based Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies, said the matter was sensitive but that legalising the export of cows or beef would put an end to corruption and violence. "There needs to be wise counsel on both sides," he said.

An irony is that India is expected to become the world's largest exporter of beef – from non-sacred buffaloes, rather than cows – by next year. According to an estimate recently published by the US Department of Agriculture, India is likely to export 1.5 million tons of beef in 2012, a 25 per cent increase from last year. Its biggest markets are south-east Asia, the Gulf and Africa.

Cows have been considered sacred in India for centuries, and in only a few states is killing and eating them legal. More recently, a movement by Dalits, or so-called untouchables, demanding the right to eat cows has gathered pace. In 2004, Indian historian DN Jha published the controversial The Myth of the Holy Cow, which argued that during the period when a number of the most important Hindu religious texts were produced, people in India ate cows.

Kancha Ilaiah, a Dalit activist and a professor at Maulana Azad National Urdu University in Hyderabad, believes Aryan invaders of Hindu promoted the (white) cow over the (black) buffalo. "The buffalo predates the Aryans," he said.

There have been attempts by the Indian authorities to review the ban on cow exports. Earlier this year, a report by the government's central planning committee suggested changing the law to allow the export of beef. The plan was hastily dropped and explained away as a "clerical error" amid an angry backlash from right-wing Hindu organisations such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and so-called "cow protection" groups.

Among those who complained was the UN-affiliated International Organisation for Animal Protection. The group's India director, Naresh Kadyan, said: "It is the fundamental duty of Indians that [everyone] should respect all animals. We strongly opposed the lifting of the ban and the government made a U-turn," he said. "The cow is a very important animal for Hindus."

Revered and worshipped: Saintly beasts


In Thailand, the elephant is considered the national animal, and it is also revered in Burma, Cambodia and Laos.

Particularly auspicious is the white elephant – not a distinct species but an albino or elephant with particularly pale skin – which Buddha's mother is said to have dreamt about before the birth of her son. The appearance of a white elephant in the reign of a monarch or leader is meant to signify good fortune and power.


The ancient Egyptians took their worship of animals to artistic heights with statues to honour their feline gods, which frequently featured cats' heads on human bodies.

Cats were prized for their useful rat-catching abilities, and some argue they were first domesticated in the region.

While cats are no longer worshipped as gods in modern Egypt, they are certainly preferred as pets to dogs, which are traditionally considered unclean in Islam.


Their association with the Hindu faith – the monkey god, Hanuman, helped Lord Rama defeat the evil king Ravana – has largely protected India's monkeys in the face of much annoyance at their mischievous and sometimes aggressive ways.

Delhi's tens of thousands of monkeys are a frequent nuisance, stealing food, breaking into homes, and even attacking people. But residents continue to feed them.

Intimate Connection between Colour and Caste in India

The fairer sex? Indian company launches an intimate wash designed to 'brighten' the vagina


By Catherine Eade

PUBLISHED:17:28, 12 April 2012 | UPDATED: 16:06, 13 April 2012

A feminine hygiene product launched in India which promises to 'brighten' skin around the vagina is causing widespread controversy.

A 25-second TV advert for Clean & Dry Intimate Wash is being advertised on prime time television, and shows a woman using the product to lighten her sexual organs to please her man.

The product has attracted condemnation on Twitter and blogging sites, with one (male) user branding it 'the ultimate insult' and others bemoaning the extent of discrimination against darker skin tones.

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Forced Sterlisation of the Poor in India


UK aid helps to fund forced sterilisation of India's poor

Money from the Department for International Development has helped pay for a controversial programme that has led to miscarriages and even deaths after botched operations.

Sterilisation remains the most common method of family planning in India's bid to curb its burgeoning population of 1.2 billion.

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Beef the most popularly consumed meat in India

Of Laws, Cows and People’s Mutinies: Will the beef ban in BJP-ruled states fuel a new Mutiny?


Cynthia Stephen

The Gau-Vansh Vadh Pratishedh (Sanshodhan) Vidheyak (Prohibition of slaughter of cow-progeny Bill) just passed in Madhya Pradesh empowers the government to prosecute any person found slaughtering a cow or even transporting the calf for the purpose of slaughter. Anyone found guilty of this act would face seven years of imprisonment and a minimum fine of Rs 5000.

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Dalits Remain 'Untouchables'


Davinder Kumar

Development journalist and Chevening Human Rights Scholar

Dalits Remain 'Untouchables'

Posted: 28/9/11 13:02 GMT

The UN General Assembly sessions, like listings at bookmakers' parlour, have favourites, and on occasions, even clear winners. As a scribe, for instance, you have a fair idea that Israel-Palestine issue will incite passions and dominate the agenda. From leaders with well-rehearsed speeches to news channels on a countdown, the stage is purpose-set for a grand show.

Political careers are pitched; channels get a ratings boost; activists have a field day before a global audience; and street vendors in New York too make a brisk business. Everybody wins. Then, who are the losers?

Ask 170 million dalits of India. For decades, organisations representing dalits who are traditionally regarded as 'untouchables' in centuries-old caste grouping in the Indian subcontinent, have tried relentlessly to make themselves heard at the UN forums. However, they very much remain outcasts in the world outside, as much as they remain excluded and marginalised within the South-Asian societies they live in.

Ten years ago in Durban, the UN World Conference Against Racism adopted the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action. Heralded as a united global action against racism, the declaration expressly set out to tackle racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance. But despite years of protests, lobbying and advocacy, mention ofdalits and caste-based discrimination were ignored in the declaration following a strong opposition led by the Indian government.

Organisations representingdalits have for decades argued that caste-based discrimination is a distinct form of racism and must be acknowledged and addressed in its own identity. Being born a dalit may mean being made to sit separate from other children in a classroom or denied education altogether; forbidden to touch other higher caste people; denied entry into temples and places of worship; not allowed to own land or property; only expected to do menial jobs; and face risk of violent retribution if you dare to challenge or transgress your social ranking.

Even though caste-based discrimination is a crime and punishable in local laws across South Asia region, yet centuries of social hierarchy is still deeply rooted in the subcontinent and governs daily lives of hundreds of millions. It is existent more or less uniformly across all religions and cultures in the region, making it a very unique social practice of discrimination endemic to the region and even common among the South Asian diasporas across the world. As a result, millions are deprived of dignity and freedoms which constitute the basic core values of human rights. It is common to read about atrocities committed on dalits because of their caste and status in the society. Very often, their status is exacerbated by poverty and limited chances they enjoy to progress in life.

Dalitorganisations are often blamed for their failure to articulate their standpoints and advocate their rights. This, to a certain degree, is true. I recall sending stories to Outlook magazine in New Delhi from the media hub in Durban conference describing how fractured the dalit caucus was as compared to the Palestinians or the Israelis.

However, we are missing the point. It is not the failure of the dalit organisations or their leadership for their lack of ability and success in putting a robust case together. It is fundamentally a failure of the system that guarantees parity and fairness for all at platforms such as the UN. On the crest of political clamour, media rally and raucous protests, poorly resourced groups and unfashionable causes routinely fall off the agenda at key UN sessions. The case of dalits also exposes the fact that like the nations projecting themselves as moral torchbearers, human rights discourses too have a tendency to follow popular causes.

Last week, world leaders met at a high-level UN General Assembly meeting to reaffirm their commitment to the fight against racism on the 10th anniversary of the Durban Declaration. Once again, there was no mention of dalits. A scourge that blights the lives of millions who collectively represent more than half the population of the United States or roughly the populations of United Kingdom, France, Canada and Australia put together, continues to be underplayed or buried under generic definitions.

For leaders there is no political leverage to be gained; for sheer force, dalit protests rarely go beyond playing of traditional drums and sporadic sloganeering; caste-based discrimination isn't a sexy story for the media; and often broke dalit activists travelling on a shoestring budget from rural pockets in India are no joy to enterprising street hawkers either. Nobody wins, certainly not dalits. In their quest for a separate identity, dalits are fighting a very lonely battle. Not only at home, but also on global forums they continue to be 'untouchables.'