In 2019, when the National Crime Records Bureau released data nearly a year after it was scheduled to, it was criticised for not publishing statistics about mob lynchings. A clarification issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs stated that this data was not included as it was 'vague or unreliable'. The decision to include such data in the first place was reportedly made after a spate of lynchings across India in the years 2015 and 2016.
When the Supreme Court asked legislators to consider framing laws to deal with lynching and cow vigilantism in 2018, the Rajya Sabha responded by saying that the government "does not maintain specific data on lynching incidents".
But it is not as though numbers to adequately gauge the situation are entirely absent: Muslims are the target of over half of all cow-related issues, and comprised 84 percent of those killed across 60 incidents, states an IndiaSpend report from 2017.
While information remains shrouded in darkness, vigilantism continues to thrive. In Gujarat's Rajkot, the members of a gau rakshak dal prowl the streets at night in coordinated attempts to catch cow 'smugglers'. They claim that the actions of groups such as theirs have brought down smuggling by 10-15 percent in the state. They see themselves as eradicating a societal "disease".
This dal features in a new documentary titled Gau Premi, which plays out like a postmortem of vigilante 'raids', dissecting the motivations of the people who conduct them, their modus operandi, and the twisted, cruel satisfaction and joy they gain out of meting out violence and handing over 'criminals' to the police.
This 12-minute documentary, directed by Maitreya Sanghvi, began out as a college assignment and an attempt to unearth what the mainstream media was not showcasing. He and his team were driven by elements that have become typical of stories of vigilantism and lynching: FIRs against victims, the lack of action against vigilantes and the fact that some of them have been rewarded by local political figures.
The team tried to make contact with gau rakshak dals through social media, and in the process, found a vigilante based in Rajkot, via Facebook. "We messaged him, explaining our assignment showing interest in interviewing them. He responded quickly and seemed excited at the prospect and soon invited us down to Rajkot to shoot the documentary. The gau rakshaks were very interested in being interviewed and mic-ed up, and almost never stopped us from filming anything," the director explains.
The dal's approach is guerrilla, and there seems to be a deep network of information that helps them operate in a planned, almost predatory manner. Sanghvi explains what his team was able to glean about this network of information: "What we gathered from our time there is that they had informers. Sometimes they would actually disguise themselves as members of the other community to win their trust and get information. When they suspect that cows are going to be slaughtered, they stalk their suspects and even watch and wait outside their homes."
Sanghvi says there are differing opinions on who a smuggler is, in Rajkot. The more traditional gau rakshaks who have engaged in vigilantism for decades were adamant that it was Muslims who were the perpetrators. A man featured in the documentary even admits to hating Muslims since he was a young boy; he is quickly interjected in this admission by another gau rakshak, who corrects him and says that he has "always loved cows". "However, there were younger gau rakshaks we met who seemed to have a less communal view and saw it more like a social evil that they must fight. Now whether this was political correctness on their part or not, I can only speculate," the director adds.
At every juncture during the raid, what cannot be ignored is the complicity of the authorities " Sanghvi terms it co-operation " or rather that they seem to look the other way, which is both normalising vigilantism of this type and emboldening its proponents. Alarmingly, they allegedly turn a blind eye to the fact that the rakshaks carry weapons on their person " something a rakshak himself revealed. "It isn't surprising that things can go out of hand when there are untrained and armed vigilantes in charge of the situation, who aren't looking to de-escalate it. The police is literally allowing this and I find that absolutely absurd," he adds.
This explains their bold, confident way of working, with no inhibitions whatsoever. In the film, they are seen going live on Facebook during a raid; it is not uncommon for cow vigilantes to film themselves, and their victims " especially as a shaming tactic. "There is enough footage of gau rakshaks attacking suspected cattle-rustlers to constitute its own genre on YouTube," says a report by The Quint published in 2016.
"They definitely had a sense of pride and community that they felt emboldened by. These 'raids' seemed to be a part of a community experience. It felt like they were showing off what they were doing to their Facebook friends the same way some of my friends go live to show off a party that they're at," Sanghvi explains.
There is no fear of consequences for these gau rakshaks, because there seem to be no consequences to begin with.
A filmmaking approach that centers the oppressor could very easily end up becoming a platform for them and their beliefs. Was this a concern when they were filming? Sanghvi says this was an aspect they were conscious of. "However, when we got there and listened to their rhetoric, we realised that they had found some legal loopholes to justify their actions. We realised that the more you listened to them talk and explain their actions, the more you could interpret them either way. The film is what you bring to it, just like the reality of the situation. There can't be an objective truth, only your opinion and the discussion and debate that it sparks," he says.
Those who were caught that fateful night transporting cows " labelled 'smugglers' " find space in the documentary in an informal interaction where the vigilantes can be seen heckling and calling them names. In particular, they insulted a juvenile. "We didn't think that we'd get a chance to speak with the accused since we'd only glimpsed them from behind bars on the night of their arrest. We didn't feel it was appropriate. However, the gau rakshaks themselves offered us the chance to 'interview' them. It wasn't a formal interview, as you see in the documentary, more a gladiator pit of heckling and laughter. We've managed to keep all the relevant pieces from that interaction within the film, as well as the mood of that unsettling situation," Sanghvi explains.
Many journalistic works and documentaries have tried to analyse what is at the heart of gau rakshaks' motivation to engage in vigilantism " at personal cost, with no monetary remuneration. Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya's The Hour of Lynching (2019) laid bare how vigilantes were seen as warriors, and those who 'smuggled' or 'slaughtered' were demonised " vigilantism is perceived as a fight between good and evil, a worthy sacrifice. At the crux of this belief is veneration for the cow and seeing cow slaughter as an assault upon Hinduism. The rakshaks featured in this film did not see beating up and lynching a man as constituting violence.
In both The Hour of Lynching and Gau Premi, the vigilantes ask why the 'smugglers' were transporting cows at night. In both, it is revealed that 'protecting' cows is viewed as a way to curb Muslims, who are seen as a threat.
The ideology of the dal in Rajkot resembles that which is followed in other places, which have seen violence in the name of vigilantism: "Love for the cow and their regard for it as their 'mother', and hate towards minorities which wasn't always subtle. I think this hate is a part of what prompts them to use vigilantism as a practice to target minorities," Sanghvi explains.
Militant reverence for the cow is a sustained and ongoing project of the Right-wing in India. Extolling its many virtues, a local 'godman' featured in Gau Premi speaks of how the cow represents purity on Earth. "Cows and daughters are attacked because if the two are missing, there won't be any brave men or saints¦ They commit atrocities against our cows and daughters to destroy the Hindu religion," he proclaims.
The rakshaks featured in the documentary are but one manifestation of this communal project.