This article originally appeared on VICE AU.
India’s having problems with its sacred cows. Over the past few years, the country’s Hindu nationalist government—led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party—has been tightening “cow protection” laws to ensure the safety of the nation's holy bovines. That’s good news for the cows and bad news for the farmers, who are not only facing severe restrictions on their livelihood but also having their crops overrun by unruly herds of cattle.
Throughout large swathes of India’s Hindi-speaking north, stray cow populations are growing out of control and wreaking havoc in rural communities. There are reported cases of villagers and farmers locking hundreds of “sacred” animals in public schools to prevent them from causing damage, The Washington Post reports, while citizens are appealing to the government to solve the problem.
Things are particularly bad in Uttar Pradesh, the country’s most populous state, where in 2017 the Hindu extremist Yogi Adityanath was appointed Chief Minister. Since coming to power, Yogi has been cracking down on illegal slaughterhouses and enforcing strict regulations on the sale and transportation of cattle. Violent “cow vigilante” squads patrol the highways looking for smugglers, swarming buffalo trucks, beating dairy farmers to death, and performing "cow lynchings" on Muslim cattle traders. As a result, people are becoming too scared to deal even in the trade of bullocks and other animals which are not considered sacred in the Hindu faith, Reuters reports—with stories of traders who run buffaloes legally being beaten and thrown in jail by vigilantes and police.
All of this, combined with the closure of dozens of slaughterhouses and some 50,000 meat shops in the state in recent years, has disrupted the livestock economy and resulted in huge populations of cows being abandoned and turned loose by farmers. The last official count of stray cattle in Uttar Pradesh, conducted in 2012, put their numbers at more than one million. Local farmers say that number has sharply increased over the past few years, with more cows than animal shelters can handle spilling out into agricultural areas and trampling crops. Now farmers are forced to spend shifts out in the cold, beating packs of stray cattle away with sticks.
"We already had enough problems and now the government has created one more," farmer Baburao Saini, from a village outside of New Delhi, told Reuters. "For the first time, we have been forced to stay in the fields to protect our crops."
Bharatiya Janata Party spokesman Gopal Krishna Agarwal, meanwhile, told Reuters that "the government has only enforced the laws by closing down unlicensed abattoirs and cracking down on cattle smuggling. We're not trying to hurt either any community or the rural economy."
In any case, the unchecked abundance of cows doesn’t seem to be a problem in Prime Minister Modi’s estimation. Last week, the conservative leader declared cows an important part of India’s tradition and culture, according to Scroll.in, while his government approved the setting up of a national cow commission for “conservation, protection and development of cows and their progeny.”
Cow slaughter is currently illegal in 21 of India’s 29 states.