The announcement that the government in the state of Madhya Pradesh has used the stringent National Security Act (NSA) against three men accused of cattle theft is that moment when easy assumptions of political partisanship meets hard data in India.

It also forces a sensible inquiry into one of the most widespread but rarely discussed agrarian crimes in India, a crime that has been assessed at touching nearly a billion dollars a year, and which affects a perpetually distressed agrarian community.

Despicable incidents of violence relating to cattle vigilantism has led to a debate on communal polarisation in the last few years, and no doubt any defence of mob violence is utterly repugnant in any situation and should be protested, as should the dreadful murders, including beheading, of people trying to prevent cattle theft.

Many of these incidents had happened in Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) -ruled states and therefore led to a political debate on cow protection as a BJP-fuelled polarising issue. Therefore, when the Congress beat the BJP in three major state elections, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, a few months ago, some suggested that this debate would end.

In fact, since then not only have incidents happened in the (now) Congress-ruled states but the party has seemed more stringent on the cattle issue than the BJP – for instance in Rajasthan the Congress has introduced a host of schemes to boost the cattle ministry started by the BJP, and now in Madhya Pradesh, the Congress has unprecedentedly used the NSA in a cattle theft matter. In the campaigns that the Congress fought to win these states, there was tremendous emphasis on cattle protection which had shocked many who believe that this is a usual BJP ploy.

Why is the Congress taking what seems like the same sort of strident stance against cattle theft as the BJP? What is really going on? Why are India’s two biggest political parties united, it seems, in going to great lengths to save cattle?

What is missing from the story is context and data – not only is cattle theft a historical problem but data shows that it continues to be a gruesome crime that spills blood even today.

Riots on cattle theft were commonplace in colonial India because, as the historian David Gilmartin showed in his 2003 paper Cattle, Crime and Colonialism: Property as Negotiation in North India, cattle was the most valuable easily movable property in a predominantly agricultural society and its loss, or murder, led to deadly strife. The long history of this battle has been duly established in the research of a range of scholars – that such references are not to be found in most reportage today on the issue says more about the condition of journalism than the seriousness of the crime – from David H. Bayley to Ramnarayan Rawat. Bayley’s 2015 book Police and Political Development in India, for instance, points out that in 1963 more than 20,000 cases of cattle theft and arrests were made in India.

While the crime numbers have fallen from the past, the extent of the problem can be understood through a few simple facts. About 20 out of 29 Indian states have some form of restriction on cow slaughter and yet India is the biggest beef exporter, and the fifth largest producer, in the world with a 20% market share.

What should be understood is that a large portion of this is the meat of water buffaloes and not cows. It is of course the slaughter of cows, considered holy by Hindus, which is prevented by law in most states and is even a stated aim in the Indian constitution.

But the extent of the cattle meat trade is steeped in corruption – some estimates have suggested, for instance, that there are more than 3,000 illegal abattoirs in the state of Andhra Pradesh alone. There are many more in various other states and the closing down of such abattoirs has been a political landmine, for instance, in India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh.

The story doesn’t even end here but crosses the border into vigorous and violent cross-border cattle smuggling between India and Bangladesh.

The problem is simple – there is tremendous demand for beef in Bangladesh but simply not enough cattle. India has the largest cattle population in the world – more than 280 million of them, by some counts.

The researcher Bimal Pramanik has calculated that the illegal, and extremely murderous, smuggling of cattle from India to Bangladesh is worth nearly $1 billion. It is a trade where one haul of around 10 heads of stolen cattle from India could bring in about a $1,000 in the bazaars of Bangladesh.

With the Indian agricultural economy in perpetual crisis, it is not difficult to see why farmers are sometimes so desperate to save their cattle, and the thieves so frantic to steal them.

This is the context that is drowned in the noise about cattle related violence in India – as always unless the economic reasoning is resolved, the bloodshed tragically will continue.

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