Tuesday, 21 March, 2023
HomeFeaturesHow Maldharis defeated Gujarat govt’s 'black’ cattle bill—milky river, WhatsApp, boycott

How Maldharis defeated Gujarat govt’s ‘black’ cattle bill—milky river, WhatsApp, boycott

‘Cattle didn’t come to the city, the city came in the way of the cattle,’ say Maldhari leaders who led the protest against the BJP government’s cattle control bill.

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Ahmedabad: It took the powerful Maldhari community in Gujarat six months to force the Bhupendra Patel government to take back the controversial stray cattle bill, or the black bill. What worked for them is a bouquet of good-old pressure tactics, including milk boycott, political push, street protests and the power of WhatsApp and Telegram groups.

The Maldharis, a cattle-rearing community, are a major vote bank in large parts of Gujarat and claim to be the kingmakers in around 42-46 assembly seats and three Lok Sabha constituencies. During election season, they flexed their political clout by threatening to withdraw their votes from the ruling BJP.

In an attempt to tackle the growing stray cattle menace, the Patel government introduced the Gujarat Cattle Control (Keeping and Moving) In Urban Areas Bill on 31 March, mandating cattle-rearers to get a license, tag the animals and pay fines up to Rs 5,000 if their cattle stray in urban areas. This hurt the Maldharis directly. It would apply to eight major cities and 162 towns.

“The biggest reason for the downfall of the Bill was their vote bank,” said political analyst Jagdish Acharya. “The Maldhari community is very organised. They put pressure by stopping the supply of milk, leaving the cattle in the open and mobilising. The government was left with no other choice but to bow down.”

Also read: Gujarat cattle-rearers hold ‘mahapanchayat’ to seek scrapping of bill on stray cattle

Protests and pouring out milk

At first, the Maldharis went to government officials and requested them to take back the bill. They met the chief minister and the governor in April and submitted a memorandum. They also reached out to 182 MLAs. The Maldharis said the licensing of cows was wrong, the penal provisions severe, and registering even cattle sheds quite impractical. But the Patel government wasn’t in a mood to listen.

“That’s when we turned to our community strength. Others like the Patels and Thakurs also came forward to support us,” said Dasrath Desai, spokesperson of the Maldhari Maha Panchayat.

The community leaders began organising khatiya (cot) meetings where each was tasked to enlist the Patidhars, Choudharys, and Brahm Samaj members in the struggle.

After mobilising came political pressure. The community issued warnings to the Maldhari leaders in the BJP. Gujarat has 50 lakh registered cattle says a Maldhari leader, and pressure on the bill reflected that.

Cattle in makeshift sheds in Ahmedabad | Satendra Singh/ThePrint
Cattle in makeshift sheds in Ahmedabad | Satendra Singh/ThePrint

“We told our people that we will not support BJP, it doesn’t matter if we have to vote for the AAP, Congress, or independent candidates. But not BJP,” recalled Desai, who played a major role in the Maldhari protest.

When continuous street protests exhausted them, the youth in the Maldhari community threatened to take violent action and court arrests too. Messages, appeals, photographs and videos were sent on 48 community WhatsApp groups, two Telegram channels and Facebook pages, say Maldharis.

Then came the most drastic of all steps.

The community stopped their supply of milk on 21 September. This affected the larger public and the government could not ignore it anymore. The protesting Maldharis closed dairies in Rajkot, and distributed it directly to patients in the Rajkot Civil Hospital. In Surat, milkmen poured milk into the Tapi river.

Finally, on 21 September, the Gujarat government proposed withdrawing the bill from the assembly.

“We did not take this bill back under any pressure, we took it back because it was in the larger public interest,” said BJP spokesperson Yamal Vyas. “This bill was taken back by the governor and he sent it to us because there were some technical issues.”

The BJP’s Maldhari Cell head Sanjay Desai blamed the Congress for instigating the community in an election year.

Also read: In poll-bound Gujarat, it’s Patil over Patel as BJP state chief calls the shots, not ‘humble’ CM

Why the bill was brought in

A PIL was filed in the Gujarat High Court earlier this year regarding stray animals. The Gujarat Cattle Control (Keeping and Moving) in Urban Areas Bill, 2022 was passed by the Gujarat government on 31 March in response.

At that time, Gujarat’s urban development minister Vinodbhai Moradiya had said in the assembly that “cows, bulls, buffaloes, and goats are seen roaming in urban areas,” which was affecting traffic and leading to accidents. The bill was brought in to combat that.

During the debate on the bill, former deputy CM Nitin Patel termed the penalty amount too high and demanded a reduction. The Congress protested against both the bill and the fine.

The Maldhari community held several meetings | Photo by Special Arrangement

“There are about 70 lakh Maldharis in Gujarat, 70 per cent of whom are illiterate and poor. This bill is an affront to their fundamental right to own property. It is a conspiracy to uproot them,” Raghu Desai, Congress MLA and Maldhari Samaj leader, had said in the assembly.

During the debate, the BJP defended the bill, saying that its purpose was to control stray cattle and that it would not cause any problem to law-abiding cattlemen.

But by April, BJP state president C.R. Patil had already started retracting. “It is not right to have to take a license to keep a cow. It is also not right to put a man in jail or charge him a fine if his cow strays on the road,” Patil said.

The High Court also advised that alternative land be given to cattle-rearers. But Maldharis say that the government ignored this part of the order and went on to fine them.

Acharya said that the suggestion of an alternative land and animal hostel is not practical because the land wouldbe given 10-15 km away from the city. Traveling back and forth to supply milk would be a problem.

Also read: In Kutch camps, sick cows gnash teeth, flies cover wounds, as they wait to die of lumpy skin disease

The city came to the cattle

Lalita Desai, a 29-year-old from Ahmedabad, actively participated in the Maldhari struggle against the cattle bill. For her, it was a matter of “life and death” because her family depends on cattle rearing.

Authorities took Lalita’s two cows a few months back because they were found on the road. She is the only one who takes care of her mother and the cattle they own in Ahmedabad’s Maninagar, which used to be a village. Now her cattle live on the road because there is no land for them.

Lalita Desai with her mother in Ahmedabad | Satendra Singh/ThePrint

“They don’t give us any facility and then propose this black bill,” says Desai.

The issue is a reflection of the urbanisation of Ahmedabad.

“The government says the cattle came to the city, but the cattle did, it’s the city that has come in the way of cattle,” says Virambhai Desai, a spokesperson of the Maldhari community.

Ahmedabad gradually grew when surrounding villages were urbanised. Earlier, Ahmedabad was in the Kot area, and then villages like Paldi and Makarba were merged into the city. Virambhai says if a colony like Mumbai’s Aarey Milk Colony is built in Gujarat, then the milkmen can move out of the city.

“There was a rule—if there are 100 animals, there should be 40 acres of grazing land. This problem will be solved only if cattle zones are created in every village,” said Dasrath Desai.

There is a nagging fear, though.

“This time the government has bowed down to the Maldharis. But there is the fear that if the BJP comes back to power, they can dig up the bill again,” says Virambhai.

(Edited by Neera Majumdar)

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