'The cow is not just an animal; it is a goddess'

NEW DELHI • Early this month, Mr Kapil Prabhakar, a member of a cow protection group in the right- wing Hindu group Vishva Hindu Parishad, was among 1,000 people who formed a blockade in Delhi to stop three trucks transporting cows from the state of Punjab to the outskirts of the Indian capital.

"We got information from our group in Punjab that three trucks would be passing through Delhi at this point, giving us time to organise our people," said Mr Prabhakar. He heads one unit of 36 people - aged between 20 and 60 - of the group, called Bharatiya Govanshrakshan Samvardhan Parishad.

They "rescued" 19 cows and bulls, caught two of the three truck drivers and handed them over to the police, who are investigating if the cows were being moved illegally.

Mr Prabhakar, who used to run a diary business, said cow protection was now his full-time job.

"The police don't act so we have to do this to protect the cow, which is not just an animal; it is a goddess," he said, sitting in his local temple in East Delhi.

Since the Bharatiya Janata Party took power last year, banning cow slaughter has become a hot issue with vigilante groups, which have been around for many years but are now more visible.

Hundreds of such groups operate through a network of informers. They use social media and word of mouth to further their message, which is mainly that cow slaughter should be stopped and the cow made the national animal.

The groups are most active in the states of Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh and Delhi, said Mr Prabhakar.

New ones are popping up. Three months ago, former bank worker Chandra Prakash Mishra started his own group of 16 people.

He claimed they have rescued 20 to 25 cows abandoned by farmers after they stopped producing milk. "I felt I had to do more to protect the cow," said Mr Mishra.

While he and Mr Prabhakar condemn the death last month of a blacksmith who was falsely accused of consuming beef in Uttar Pradesh, they insist that all steps need to be taken to protect cows.

But for now, Mr Prabhakar is busy with another project: selling hampers of gifts made of cow urine and dung during Deepavali.

"We are very busy with the launch now," he said as he took out a rose-scented soap made of cow urine, one of the products that will be in the hamper.

Nirmala Ganapathy

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 20, 2015, with the headline ''The cow is not just an animal; it is a goddess''. Print Edition | Subscribe