Travels through the Hindi belt: Hatred, unemployment spur UP youths in search of purpose to join cow vigilante groups

Parth MN
After Yogi Adityanath took over as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh in March 2017, things have gotten worse, say critics, with cow vigilantes running amok.

Editor's note: This is part of a multi-article series on the jobs crisis in the three states crucial to Lok Sabha election 2019: Chhattisgarh, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.  

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Shailesh Pratap Singh, 24, has been looking for a government job for over three years. He has a BSc degree, an MSc degree and a BEd degree. "But the vacancies have not come by," he says. "And the competition is too much."

But he is not crestfallen or depressed, like most other unemployed youth. When he is not busy preparing for exams, Shailesh said he devotes his time to "social work", which makes him feel alive. He is a member of the Rashtriya Chetana Samiti, an organisation that takes great pride in its Gau Seva in the district of Bulandshahr in Uttar Pradesh's western region.

The founder of Rashtriya Chetana Samiti is Hemant Singh, 32, a former Bajrang Dal leader, and currently a government teacher at a primary school in Bulandshahr. "My team of about 50 members is full of youngsters," said Hemant in a telephonic interview. Hemant was in Ayodhya as his team was in Bulandshahr on a sweltering afternoon. "Most of them are either students or job seekers. Our major focus is on blood donation camps, arranging funerals of unclaimed bodies and protecting cows. We depend on a network of people across the district for tip-offs."

Saving cows that are allegedly being taken to slaughterhouses and ensuring the ones carrying them are "taken to task" is what they call "fieldwork." Shailesh said he does not feel jobless since he has been engaged in Gau Seva. "When you are active, you don't feel frustrated or worthless," he explained, soaking the sweat on his forehead with the saffron gamchha wrapped around his neck. "Even the family members feel the boy is doing something productive with his time instead of wasting it. The people in the society treat you respect."

Unemployment is obviously not the sole reason why the youngsters become Gau Rakshaks, who have, in fact, been around for a long time. At the core of it is hate. Shailesh, asked about lynchings in the name of cow, said there is nothing wrong in taking any step to save the cow. "We do not want riot or conflict," he added. "But cow is our mother. Its security is our priority."

However, with increasing societal approval, unemployed youth are gravitating towards Gau Raksha to feel important, to be treated with respect. Observers believe that eco-system gives them a sense of purpose and identity, and the narrative of hate becomes an integral part as a process.

"Our donors who help us financially are respected people in the society," said Hemant. "They are bankers, chartered accountants running their own businesses or factories and so on. Many struggling youngsters get in touch with us because we are associated with people who are in a position to recruit. And quite a few of the youngsters have gotten jobs due to our referral."

Hemant said he is active on over 250 WhatsApp groups, through which he gets volunteers. Those who have gotten jobs have not been able to dedicate as much time after that, said Hemant. "They show support financially," he added.

Shailesh said once he gets a job, he would not be able to devote as much time to Gau Seva. "I cannot leave a 9 to 5 job and do fieldwork," he said. "I will have to delegate it to somebody who has the time."

Since 2012, according to the database of IndiaSpend website, Uttar Pradesh has turned out to be the worst in terms of cow-related violence, recording 16 such instances that resulted in nine deaths. After Yogi Adityanath took over as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh in March 2017, things have gotten worse, say critics, with Gau Rakshaks running amok.

One such horrific instance transpired in Bulandshahr. The district hit headlines in December 2018 when a policeman was murdered by a mob over alleged cow slaughter. Cow carcasses were found scattered in the forests near the village of Siyana in Bulandshahr, which led to frenzy, eventually resulting in the murder of Subodh Kumar. The police arrested Bajrang Dal leader Yogesh Raj as a prime accused behind the murder.

Hemant, who used to be a district coordinator with Bajrang Dal until he got the job of a teacher, said Yogesh was his junior, and he is aware of the role Bajrang Dal plays in such situations. "Whenever someone slaughter's a cow, the locals notify us," he said. "We notify the police. Sometimes the police reach first, sometimes the crowd gathers before that. In case of the latter, it is hard to control the situation. People don't trust the police to act against cow slaughterers, and they tell us to ensure justice."

Hemant claimed Subodh could not pacify the crowd that day, and "one thing led to another". "Our people were not involved in his killing," he said, adding the police are only defaming the Bajrang Dal by pressing charges against their people. "In fact, we were in touch with the police and the administration throughout the day. And it has been happening since my time. When the public is out of control, police themselves call us to pacify the crowd so they can go about their work."

Speaking of the police, one of Hemant's team members is planning to become a sub-inspector. Nitin Gurjar, 21, wearing a short-sleeve shirt, with his muscles bulging out, said he cannot wait to join the force. "I go for a run every morning," he said. "In the evening, I hit the gym. I have the entire day in between to do fieldwork. It makes me feel good about myself."

Just as Nitin said he is upbeat about joining the police force, a friend sitting alongside him said, "I hope he gets through quickly. Police force mein bhi apna koi aadmi hona chahiye na" (we should have our own man on the police force).

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