Modi’s India: Cash cows and rising nationalism


MUMBAI: Krishna N Das was wrapping up an interview with the head of a group of gau rakshaks – Hindu “cow protector” vigilantes in India – when the man gave him a parting piece of advice: “Let me know if anyone troubles you here, including the police. No one dares to touch our people here.”

It was a glimpse of how power can work on the ground in India, where such groups have risen to prominence since Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi became prime minister in 2014.

Reuters special report this month investigated the vigilantes, who snatch cows from Muslims whom they are convinced intend to slaughter the animals. It is an accusation that inflames passions in a Hindu majority nation, where many consider the animal sacred and killing cows is outlawed in most states.

The reporting process revealed some fresh details about a rising tide of religious nationalism in India, beyond the country’s booming stock market and rising direct foreign investment. Interviews with just two of the Hindu-led groups found they’d seized some 190,000 cows, at times working with police, since Modi took office.

As reporter Zeba Siddiqui interviewed a local head of a right-wing Hindu group, the man paused and asked: “You’re Muslim, right?” Siddiqui said she was.The man began to rant: “It is in their religious books that you should kill non-believers, and that you should kill and eat animals. What kind of holy book says that? The Gita (a Hindu holy scripture) doesn’t. I don’t have a problem with the religion, but the people who follow it.”

Siddiqui asked whether the man was saying he disliked all Muslims. He did not answer the question.

The Special Report is part of our continuing coverage of a rising class of nationalist power brokers in India, where newly assertive traditionalist groups, suspicious of foreign influence and particularly outspoken against large multinationals such as Monsanto, have Modi’s ear and hold sway in the government. In the face of increasing populism and religious divide, Reuters has made it a particular point to uphold its commitment to unbiased and reliable news under the Trust Principles.

The story’s central narrative traced the life and death of Pehlu Khan, a Muslim dairy farmer who was killed in April while travelling home from a cattle fair with his two sons. An angry crowd stopped them after seeing cows in the back of their truck and beat the Khan family in the middle of the road.

In the course of reporting that incident, Reuters journalists traced the distribution network of Pehlu Khan’s milk. They found a trader who bought milk from the dairy operation that Khan dealt with in his village. They then visited the regional milk company that bought from the trader.

The man in charge of the regional company explained to a pair of Reuters reporters that “the murder of Pehlu Khan was correct.” It is necessary for India, he said, to “control the Muslim population.”