Stories from Karnataka: Cow vigilantes are not born, but made

All this while the Sangh Parivar told us Muslims are like this and like that, says a former Bajrang Dal activist
Stories from Karnataka: Cow vigilantes are not born, but made
Stories from Karnataka: Cow vigilantes are not born, but made
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On Sunday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke about “gau-rakshaks” in a critical manner. It has been 10 months after Dadri in Uttar Pradesh and less than a month after Una.

Naturally, the Prime Minister’s remarks have evoked much debate.  Among other things, Modi said that 80% of “such people… will be found to be involved in activities which no society will approve of… Swayam seva is not about suppressing and terrifying others, it is about empathy and sacrifice”.

The two statements quoted above are possibly the most interesting of what Modi said about cow-protectors on Saturday. In Karnataka, there is enough evidence to suggest that many cow vigilantes have criminal links. As for the second statement, by their own admission, cow vigilantes appear to think that their job is to terrify, not to empathise or sacrifice.


“All my friends were in the Bajrang Dal. There’s no concept of membership. If you love the organization, you become a part of it,” says Prashant Rai*, a 25-year-old member of the Bajrang Dal in a village in coastal Karnataka.

His love for the organization has led him to participate in cow vigilante missions, the rescue of girls from “love jihad”, and the prevention of “conversions” by Christians and Muslims in his area. For some of these activities, he has landed in jail - on suspicion of assault, and even murder. All the heat has made him cautious when he talks to the media, but he has no qualms stating that he has no intention of stopping what he’s doing.

“If you are a Hindu, it will automatically come to you. We do gau-puje at home. The cow is a walking temple. It is like a mother to us, so we will stop people from killing it. Whether we do it lawfully or unlawfully depends on us.” He is careful to reiterate that the Bajrang Dal does not cast the first stone. “Why take the risk of a police case? We always tell the police and go. They are always ready to help."

Cow vigilantism generally gets more attention than other activities of Hindutva groups, as it often involves a public spectacle. Be it Adi Udupi, where it may have started all those years ago, Kabir, Dadri, or Una, all these instances of cow vigilantism have been shocking.

One of the earliest cases filed against Prashant was that of cow vigilantism, in which he is accused of grievously assaulting a Muslim man. It was later that he was booked for hate speech and murder. He now goes to court regularly, while awaiting the approval of a bank loan that would enable him to start a business in his village.

Prashant doesn’t know exactly how many instances of cow vigilantism he has participated in, but has a carefully rehearsed spiel to justify it. “When we get information that cows are being taken to slaughter houses, we go. We don’t assault anybody. They know they will be stopped, so they carry weapons. When you are attacked, you can either run away, or stand and fight. Running is not in us, we defend ourselves,” he claims.

The Bajrang Dal has learned to be more careful over the years – thanks to its former state president Mahendra Kumar who was hung out to dry after the Mangalore church attacks.

The Sri Rama Sene, which Pramod Muthalik started in 2006, is a breakaway faction of influential leaders who were dissatisfied with the BJP and the Bajrang Dal. While they claim that they espouse true Hindutva, they too have learned to be cautious.

Jeevan Neermarga, the district convener of the Sri Rama Sene, too echoes the same ‘we-only-retaliate’ theory. “Our boys are there, but we always tell the police. We don’t take the law into our own hands. It is natural that the police register cases against us if there is a fight. They (cattle traders) carry weapons and attack us.”


While Prashant is cagey about discussing the Bajrang Dal, he has no reservations answering questions about his childhood.

Joining the Bajrang Dal five years ago was very natural for him. His father was in the RSS but is no longer associated with it. “He’s neutral now, I think. But I’ve never asked why. He didn’t say anything when I was booked for all these cases, but everyone at home was sad. I didn’t feel bad about it because I didn’t do anything wrong. They (the cow transporters) were bad people, they were doing something wrong,” Prashant says.

Prashant’s idea of right and wrong in this context comes from the atmosphere that he grew up in. Although he was always aware of “what was going on” as a child, pre-university was a turning point for him. Prashant attended an institution run by an RSS leader in the region. He was all praise for the manner in which the institution was run, including the low fees it charged and the meals provided to the students.

“It was there that I realized what our culture was. That college is a full package. It’s not just education there. I learned about how they attacked us, how they convert people, about gau-hatye (cow-killing).”

“They” refers to Muslims or Christians or both, depending on the context. As a Bajrang Dal activist, he has handled all such cases. Once, he “rescued” a cousin who was in love with a Muslim man and made her break off all contact with him. In another instance, he stopped a priest of a Christian sect from “converting” a man.

After much prodding, Prashant talks about the Bajrang Dal’s baithaks. “Our elders in the VHP talk to us. They show us the shanti marga (path of peace). They are all over 60 or 65, they never tell us to fight. Fights happen spontaneously, because you want to do something to stop cow slaughter. Our VHP seniors always tell us to take the police and go.”

However, this a whitewashed version of what really goes on, says Shivu*, a Sri Rama Sene member. Shivu is one of the original members of the Sene when Muthalik decided to form his own organization.  

In a light tone, Shivu explains that there a certain number of police cases are a "minimum requirement", to have “membership” in some of these organizations. “For the Sene, you need to have between three-five cases against you. This is a basic requirement. There is no one who doesn’t have a case against him. But with the Bajrang Dal, you could choose the level of your involvement,” he explains.

Shivu had started out with the ABVP and graduated to the Bajrang Dal. Basically, he “grew up” in a shakha. “They had told us that we had to struggle together, to be prepared for anything, that each of us was Shivaji. They (RSS workers) do such good marketing, how can the youth not be attracted?”

Asked how many cases of cow vigilantism he had participated in, Shivu said nonchalantly: “I don’t know. Back then, that was what I did all day.” But today, he prioritises his own work over that of the Sene. He’s had enough of trips to police stations and the courts, even though he's committed to the Sene's ideology.

But regardless of this, members of both the Sene and the Dal attend baithaks – classes at the local, regional and state level - in which the organization’s leaders would impart ideological education to the cadre. Local leaders decide when and how often to hold training sessions.

“Let me explain this to you. If you work in a small company, you go to work and return. But in an MNC, every now and then, a big leader will come to talk to you. Jagadish Karanth was like that. Anyone who has heard his speeches would be ready to pick up a talwar then and there,” Shivu says with awe in his voice. “It was Karanth who taught Pramod Muthalik to make (such powerful) speeches.”

Jagadish Karanth is a senior RSS leader who is known to make powerful speeches. He was with the Bajrang Dal before moving on to the Hindu Jagrana Vedike, the youth wing of the RSS.

Although it was the ABVP and Bajrang Dal which initiated him into Hindutva, Shivu threw in his lot with Muthalik and the Sene. “The BJP started the minority morcha. All this while they told us Muslims are like this and like that. They filled our heads with all this stuff, and then they allow Muslims to join. We (Sene) don’t make compromises like the BJP,” Shivu said.

Claiming that Hindutva activists “informed” the police and did not take the law into their own hands was to whitewash the whole thing, Shivu says. “Once, a police man told our leader Praveen Valke that we (the Sene) should inform the police when learned about cattle traders. You know what Valke said? He said: ‘If you do this, what are our boys for?’”

(*The names of Shivu and Prashant have been changed on request)

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