Some 30,000 Indian soldiers guarding the border with Bangladesh have a new mandate under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government this year — stop cattle from crossing illegally into the Muslim-majority neighbour.
Roughly every other night, troops armed with bamboo sticks and ropes wade through jute and paddy fields and swim across ponds to chase aging bovines, and smugglers, headed for markets in Bangladesh.
The crackdown is one of the clearest signs yet of how Indian policies, increasingly influenced by Hindu nationalist ideology, are having an economic impact on neighbouring countries as well as the sizable Muslim minority at home.
About two million head of cattle are smuggled into Bangladesh annually from India. The $600-million-a-year trade has flourished over the past four decades and is considered legal by Dhaka.
Modi’s government, which came to power with the help of the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), wants to put an end to it.
Interior Minister Rajnath Singh travelled this spring to the frontier with Bangladesh, calling on India’s Border Security Force to halt cattle smuggling completely so that the “people of Bangladesh give up eating beef,” media reported at the time.
“Killing or smuggling a cow is equivalent to raping a Hindu girl or destroying a Hindu temple,” said Jishnu Basu, an RSS spokesman in West Bengal, which shares a 2,216-km (1,375-mile) border with Bangladesh.
So far this year, BSF soldiers have seized 90,000 cattle and caught 400 Indian and Bangladeshi smugglers.
Bangladeshi traders who operate auctions to facilitate the sale of cattle to slaughterhouses, beef-processing units, tanneries and bone-crushing factories estimate the industry contributed three per cent to the country’s $190-billion economy.
India is home to 300 million cattle and is the world’s largest beef exporter and fifth-biggest consumer.
Critics say tougher anti-beef laws discriminate against Muslims, Christians and lower-caste Hindus who rely on the cheap meat for protein. Butchers and cattle traders, many of them Muslim, say the push threatens thousands of jobs.
The rhetoric has also emboldened vigilante cow protectors.
“I was chained to a tree and beaten by members of the cow protection force. They forced me to recite a Hindu prayer,” said Mohammed Tarafdar, who was caught smuggling two calves near the Bangladesh border in April.