Balasaheb Londhe never imagined a decision he made over 20 years ago would come back to haunt him today. Born to a family of marginal farmers in the small town of Fursungi in Maharashtra’s Pune district, Londhe started working in his farmland, where they mainly grew cotton, fairly early in his life. When he turned 18, he decided to double up as a driver for some extra income.

“A friend put me in touch with a Muslim family that ran a business of transporting livestock,” the 48-year-old says. “They needed drivers, so I signed up for it.”

Londhe was an enterprising young man who studied the business meticulously. After about a decade, Londhe felt like he had learnt and saved enough.

“I bought a second-hand truck for Rs. 8 lakh, and still had a capital of Rs. 2 lakh,” he says. “In 10 years, I had made contacts with farmers and traders in the market.”

Londhe’s enterprise paid off. It was his business that bailed him out when his five-acre farmland incurred losses due to falling crop prices, inflation and climate change.

The task was straightforward: pick up cattle from farmers who wanted to sell them at weekly bazaars in the village and sell it with commission to either a slaughterhouse or another set of farmers who wanted to procure livestock. In 2014, about a decade into his business, he bought a second truck to expand his trade.

After factoring in the cost of petrol, vehicle maintenance expenses and the driver’s salary, Londhe says his average monthly income hovered at around Rs. 1 lakh at that time. It didn’t matter that he was among the few Hindus to be in a trade dominated by the Muslim Qureshi community. “They were generous with their contacts and tips,” he says. “I thought I was set.”

PHOTO • Parth M.N.

Babasaheb Londhe switched from farming to running a successful business transporting cattle. But after the Bharatiya Janta Party came to power in 2014, cow vigilantism began to rise in Maharashtra and Londhe's business suffered serious losses. He now fears for his own safety and the safety of his drivers

But in 2014, the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) came to power, and cow vigilantism began to intensify. Cow vigilante violence is mob-based brutality observed in India. It involves attacks carried out by Hindu nationalists targeting non-Hindus, primarily Muslims, in the name of protecting cows – an animal which holds sacred status in Hinduism.

In 2019, Human Rights Watch, a New York-based rights group, found that between May 2015 and December 2018, more than 100 beef-related attacks took place in India, in which 280 people were injured and 44 died – an overwhelming majority of them Muslims.

In 2017, IndiaSpend, a data website, released a report that analysed cow-related lynchings since 2010. It found that 86 percent of the people killed in such cases were Muslims, while 97 percent of attacks transpired after Modi came to power. The website has since taken down its tracker.

Londhe says such violence, which includes threatening people with their lives, has only increased in the last three years. For a man who once earned Rs. 1 lakh a month, Londhe’s losses have amounted to Rs. 30 lakhs in the last three years. He also feels physically unsafe and fears for his drivers.

“It is a nightmare,” he says.


On September 21, 2023, two of Londhe’s trucks carrying 16 buffaloes each were on their way to a market in Pune when the cow vigilantes or ‘ gau rakshaks ’ intercepted them near the small town of Katraj – about half an hour away.

Maharashtra has had a cow slaughter ban since 1976. But in 2015, the then chief minister Devendra Fadnavis extended it to bulls and oxens. The buffaloes, which Londhe’s truck carried, are not covered under the ban.

“Yet, both the drivers were manhandled, slapped and abused,” says Londhe. “One was a Hindu, the other was Muslim. I had all the permits required by law. But my trucks were still confiscated and taken to the police station.”

PHOTO • Parth M.N.

'Driving a truck with cattle is like risking your life. It is too stressful. This gunda-raj has destroyed the rural economy. The only people who have flourished are those disrupting law and order'

The Pune city police filed a complaint against Londhe and his two drivers under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960 , claiming the cattle were cramped in a small space without fodder and water. “The cow vigilantes are aggressive and the police never push back,” says Londhe. “This is just a harassment tactic.”

Londhe’s cattle were transferred to a cow shed in Pune’s Dhamane village in Mawal taluka , and he was compelled to take the legal route. Nearly Rs. 6.5 lakh were at stake. He ran from pillar to post and even consulted a good lawyer.

Two months later, on November 24, 2023, the sessions court of Pune in Shivaji Nagar, delivered its verdict. Londhe heaved a sigh of relief when the judge ordered the cow vigilantes to return his livestock. The police station was tasked with the responsibility of executing the order.

Unfortunately for Londhe, the relief was short lived. While it’s been five months since the favourable court order, he is yet to get back his livestock.

“Two days after the court order, I got my trucks back from the police,” he says. “With no trucks, I couldn’t get any work at all during that period. But what happened after was even more frustrating.”

"After the court order, I got my trucks back, but then came the frustrating part," Londhe recalls. He went to the Sant Tukaram Maharaj Goshala to retrieve his cattle, only to be told to come back the next day by Rupesh Garade, the cowshed in-charge.

What followed were multiple excuses made over different days – Garade cited the unavailability of a doctor who needed to run tests on the animals before their release. Days later, the man-in-charge procured a stay order from a higher court – invalidating the session's court verdict. It was becoming clear that, Londhe says, Garade was buying time to not return the animals.  “But the police just said okay to everything he came up with. It was ridiculous.”

Interactions with the Qureshi community in and around Pune reveal this isn’t an anomaly but the modus operandi of cow vigilantes. Multiple traders have experienced similar losses.  While vigilantes argue they withhold cattle out of concern, the Qureshi community remains sceptical.

PHOTO • Parth M.N.

'Many of my colleagues have seen their livestock disappear after the cow vigilantes confiscate it. Are they selling them again? Is this a racket being run?' asks Sameer Qureshi. In 2023, his cattle was seized and never returned

“If these cow vigilantes are so worried about cattle, then why aren’t farmers targeted?” asks Sameer Qureshi, 52, a trader in Pune. “They are the ones selling it. We only carry it from one place to another. The real reason is to hound Muslims.”

In August 2023, Sameer had a similar experience when his truck was intercepted. After a month, he went to the cowshed in the village of Zendewadi in Purandhar taluka with a favourable court order to retrieve his vehicle.

“But when I reached the location, I couldn’t see any of my livestock,” Sameer says. “I had five buffaloes and 11 calves worth Rs. 1.6 lakh.”

For seven hours between 4-11 p.m., Sameer waited patiently for someone to show up and explain his missing livestock. Eventually, the police officer pressed him to return the following day. “The police are scared to ask them questions,” Sameer says. “By the time I returned the next day, the cow vigilantes had a stay order ready.”

Sameer has given up on fighting the court case because he fears he will end up spending more money than what the livestock is worth, the mental stress notwithstanding. “But I want to know what they do with the livestock after they confiscate it from us?” he asks. “Where were my animals? I am not the only one who has observed this. Many of my colleagues have seen their livestock disappear after the cow vigilantes confiscate it. Are they selling them again? Is this a racket being run?”

On odd occasions when the cow vigilantes end up releasing the livestock, traders say, they end up asking for compensation for looking after the animals for the duration of the court case. Shahnawaz Qureshi, 28, another trader in Pune, says the cow vigilantes ask for Rs. 50 a day for each animal. “That means, if they look after 15 animals for a couple of months, we will have to pay Rs. 45,000 to retrieve them,” he says. “We have been in this business for years. That is an absurd amount and nothing short of extortion.”

PHOTO • Parth M.N.

Shahnawaz Qureshi, a trader from Pune, says that on the rare occasions when the cattle are released, cow vigilantes ask for compensation for taking care of them during the court case

In the small town of Saswad in Pune district, 14-year-old Sumit Gawde witnessed the roughing up of a truck driver carrying livestock. This was in 2014.

“I remember being thrilled,” says Gawde. “I thought I should [also] do that.”

The belt of western Maharashtra in which Pune district falls is where Sambhaji Bhide , an 88-year old radical Hindu nationalist, is extremely popular. He has a history of brainwashing young boys, and misusing the legacy of Shivaji, an erstwhile warrior king, to further anti-Muslim rhetoric.

“I attended his speeches where he spoke about how Shivaji defeated the Mughals, who were Muslims,” says Gawde. “He educated people about Hindu religion and the need to protect ourselves.”

For an impressionable 14-year-old, Bhide’s speeches energised him.  Observing cow vigilantism up close was exciting, Gawde says. He got in touch with Pandit Modak, a leader of Shiv Pratishthan Hindustan, the organisation founded by Bhide.

Based in Saswad, Modak is a prominent Hindu nationalist leader in Pune, and is currently closely associated with the BJP. Cow vigilantes in and around Saswad report to Modak.

Gawde has been working for Modak for a decade now and is fully committed to the cause. “Our vigil starts at 10:30 in the night and goes on till four in the morning,” he says. “We stop the truck if we think something is fishy. We interrogate the driver and take him to the police station. The police are always cooperative.”

Gawde’s day job is in construction, but ever since he has become a “ gau rakshak ”, he says the people around him have begun to treat him with respect. “I don’t do it for the money,” he clarifies. “We put our life on the line and Hindus around us acknowledge that.”

There are about 150 cow vigilantes only in one taluka of Purandhar, where the village of Saswad falls, says Gawde. “Our people are connected in all the villages,” he says. “They may not be able to participate in the vigil, but they contribute with a tip whenever they see a suspicious truck.”

PHOTO • Parth M.N.

The cow vigilantes ask for Rs. 50 a day for each animal. 'That means, if they look after 15 animals for a couple of months, we will have to pay Rs. 45,000 to retrieve them,' says Shahnawaz, 'this is nothing short of extortion'

Cows are central to the rural economy. For decades, farmers have used the animals as insurance – they traded their livestock to raise instant capital for weddings, medicines or an upcoming cropping season.

But the vast web of cow vigilante groups has completely destroyed that. With each passing year, their activities get more intense, their strength grows in numbers. Currently, besides Shiv Pratishthan Hindustan, there are at least four more Hindu nationalist groups – Bajrang Dal, Hindu Rashtra Sena, Samasta Hindu Aghadi and Hoy Hindu Sena – all with a history of bloody violence – active in just Pune district.

“The activists on ground all work for each other,” says Gawde. “The structure is fluid. We help each other out because our objective is the same.”

In just Purandhar, Gawde says that cow vigilantes intercept about five trucks a month. Members of these different groups are active in at least seven talukas of Pune. That is 35 trucks a month, or 400 a year.

The math checks out.

Senior members of the Qureshi community in Pune estimate that about 400-450 of their vehicles have been confiscated in 2023 – each carrying livestock worth at least Rs. 2 lakh. Even at a conservative estimate, the cow vigilantes have caused a loss of Rs. 8 crore in just one of the 36 districts of Maharashtra, compelling the Qureshi community to consider abandoning their livelihoods.

“We never take law into our own hands,” Gawde claims. “We always follow the rule book.”

The truck drivers subjected to the wrath of such vigilantism, however, will tell you otherwise.


In early 2023, Shabbir Maulani’s truck with 25 buffaloes was intercepted by cow vigilantes in Saswad. He still remembers that night with dread.

“I thought I would be lynched that night,” says Maulani, 43, resident of Bhadale village in Satara district – about two hours north of Pune. “I was abused and beaten up badly. I tried telling them I am just a driver, but it didn’t matter.”

PHOTO • Parth M.N.

In 2023, Shabbir Maulani's trucks were intercepted and he was beaten up. Now, e very time Maulani leaves home, his wife Sameena keeps calling him every half an hour to ensure he is alive. 'I want to quit this job, but this is what I have done my entire life. I need money to run the household,' Maulani says

An injured Maulani was taken to the police station, where he was charged under the Animal Cruelty Act. The people that beat him up faced no consequences. “The cow vigilantes even looted Rs. 20,000 cash from my truck,” he says. “I tried explaining it to the police. Initially, they heard me out. But then Pandit Modak arrived in his car and the police were completely under his spell.”

Maulani, who earns Rs. 15,000 a month, was able to retrieve his employer’s truck a month later, but the livestock is still with cow vigilantes. “If we have done something illegal, let the police punish us,” he says. “What right do they have to beat us up in the streets?”

Every time Maulani leaves his home, his wife Sameena, 40, is unable to sleep. She keeps calling him every half an hour to ensure he is alive. “You can’t blame her,” he says. “I want to quit this job, but this is what I have done my entire life. I have two children and an ailing mother. I need money to run the household.”

Sarfaraz Sayyad, an advocate based in Satara, who has handled several cases like Maulani’s, says the cow vigilantes regularly loot cash from the trucks they intercept and mercilessly beat up the drivers. “But none of it ever makes it to an FIR,” he says. “Transporting cattle is an age-old business, and the markets in our western Maharashtra region are well known. It isn’t difficult for them to track and harass drivers because they all take the same highway.”

Londhe says it has been increasingly difficult to find drivers to employ. “Many have preferred to go back to labour work even when the pay is much less and infrequent,” he says. “Driving a truck with cattle is like risking your life. It is too stressful. This gunda-raj has destroyed the rural economy.”

Today, farmers are paid less for their livestock, he says. Traders are losing money, and a lack of drivers is weighing down an already overwhelmed labour market.

“The only people who have flourished are those disrupting law and order.”

Parth M.N.

Parth M.N. is a 2017 PARI Fellow and an independent journalist reporting for various news websites. He loves cricket and travelling.

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Editor : Vishaka George

Vishaka George is Senior Editor at PARI. She reports on livelihoods and environmental issues. Vishaka heads PARI's Social Media functions and works in the Education team to take PARI's stories into the classroom and get students to document issues around them.

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Editor : Sarbajaya Bhattacharya

Sarbajaya Bhattacharya is a Senior Assistant Editor at PARI. She is an experienced Bangla translator. Based in Kolkata, she is interested in the history of the city and travel literature.

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