With an increase in activism by self-styled protectors and vigilante groups in the last two years, a new term – gaurakshak or cow vigilante – has slipped into India’s lexicon of politics and culture. A gau rakshak is one who claims to have dedicated his life towards cow protection. Gaurakshaks mostly operate outside the law, sometimes even resorting to violence and vigilante behaviour.
Such vigilantism took a deadly turn in September 2015 when a 55-year-old Mohammad Akhlaq was killed and his son seriously injured by a mob over allegations of cow slaughter. Since then, gaurakshaks have hit newspaper headlines frequently. The case of an elderly dairy farmer mercilessly beaten to death by vigilantes over suspicion of cow smuggling has been the most recent incident of murder happening in the name of cow protection in India.
But who are gaurakshaks and why do they do what they do? It was in order to find answers to these questions that Doctor VC from the 101 India, decided to become a gaurakshak himself for one night – accompanying cow vigilantes in their hunt for cow smugglers through the remote, dusty countryside of Ramgarh, a small village on the border of Rajasthan and Haryana.
Tracing cow smugglers in the pitch darkness of Ramgarh’s unfamiliar terrain – Doctor VC learns first hand just how the groups operate. Secret signals to alert the outpost, spikes laid out to deflate tyres of smugglers’ vans, motorcycles used as barricades, and a lathicharge on bikes – the rakshaks are willing to any length for the sake of the cow. At times, they are even seen interacting with the police, who seems to have no objection towards their activities.
Explaining why they undertake such operations in the middle of the night, one of the members even states matter-of-factly, “Jaise Bharat mata hai, jaise janani mata hai, aise hi gau mata hai (Just as Bharat is mother, birth mother is mother, cow is also the mother).”
A whole night and a long cow chase later, Doctor VC ventures a few guesses about the vigilantes.
“For some, it is about religious belief, for some, it’s about political mileage,” he says. “For some, it’s about cruelty to animals and even personal freedoms and individual choices,” he adds.
The answers, however, are neither straight nor easy. And even after spending a whole night with the rakshaks, they end up confusing the volunteer night vigilante even more.