A Letter From Sitapur: The Night Of…

IT IS 6.30 pm on a Thursday, and as the sun starts to set in Mangopur village of Sitapur district in Uttar Pradesh, Ram Kishore, 32, is getting restless. “You should have got the dinner ready earlier,” he admonishes his wife. Every minute the fields are left untended, he fears, the animals could have a free run.

Suman, 29, is now used to this “roz ka naatak (daily drama)”, and is unfazed. However, she also understands Kishore’s worry. The two of them share a two-room thatched house with three children — 10, 7 and 5 — a makeshift chulha, a few utensils, some clothes, and no electricity. All their earnings come from the land — and Kishore has on his mind his 2.5 bighas of wheat, 2 bighas of mustard and a bigha of pulses.

In the absence of power, darkness engulfs the village of 300, mostly Pasis (Dalit), swiftly, and in house after house, men are hurriedly finishing meals and getting ready to leave. They have with them a torchlight; a lathi; a cap, muffler, shawl and matches for fire to keep away the cold; and beedis to survive the hours.

At a gaushala at Pakariyapuraina village in Sitapur. Local BKU leader says many more cow shelters are needed, with more grants, aid (Express Photo by VISHAL SRIVASTAV)

The problem of stray cattle has been rising in UP since the Yogi Adityanath government tightened curbs on slaughterhouses after coming to power in 2017. Those accused of illegal slaughter face charges including under the National Security Act, and remain vulnerable to violence by self-styled cow vigilantes. While in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, similar anger against “chutta janwar” had not made much difference to the BJP’s eventual sweep, this time the party is worried enough for both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Adityanath to promise relief.

Kishore is still golfing down his roti-sabzi, when neighbour Ram Milan, 55, calls him up. Ram Milan’s farm lies next to Kishore’s, and he tells Kishore he is ready to leave.

Walking over to meet the others, Kishore says he misses spending time at home. “Because of this shraap (curse of stray cattle), I spend most of my time in the fields. Suman is not happy left with the kids on her own.”

By the time he reaches, Ram Milan is there with seven others — Sukhram (18), Vishal (20), Siyaram (50) Kanshiram (32), Sandeep (19), Virendra (22) and Shobhit Kumar (26). They decide the groups for the night: Kanshiram and Ram Milan will position themselves next to the pucca road skirting the fields, some will climb onto the machaan (a high lookout point), while the rest will make rounds of the fields, which are located 1 km from the village.

“We can’t stay put. Else, we will lose our hard work of months,” says Ram Milan, who as the eldest is heeded to.

Most of them have planted mustard, sown in October and ready to be harvested in March. Wheat that was planted in November will be ready by April-May. Ram Milan says they are reconciled to losing some of it. “Look at Siyaram’s wheat field,” he says. “Some of the crop is half the height because seven cattle entered two days ago and destroyed it.” Siyaram says last year too, cattle had destroyed his crop. “The losses are accumulating.”

The vigil is just beginning for Ram Kumar at his fields in Chitrehta village in Sitapur. Temperature has started dropping, with dew fall (Express photo by Vishal Srivastav)

In January, farmers in Sitapur district had locked stray cattle inside dozens of primary schools and anganwadi centres, and blocked the National Highway demanding a solution.

Around 7.30 pm, next to the machaan, which has space barely for two, the group lights a fire, using hay, leaves and sticks collected from the jungle that surrounds Mangopur village.

The machaan’s temporary structure, tied with ropes, stands on two thick wooden logs dug into a 3-ft deep pit. It is firm, but shakes as anyone gets up or down, and at 10-feet height, it can be scary.

Sukhram is reassured by the others as he climbs up. “Girega nahin, daro mut (It won’t fall, don’t be scared),” says Kishore.

The machaan is used both to keep a watch and rest, and Sukhram says he will take his turn atop to sleep for an hour. The rest of the group settles down next to the fire, adding wood and hay from time to time to stop it dying out. The flames dance on their faces as, from a village 2 km away, the chant of Ramayan katha drifts over.

By 9 pm, the temperature is down to 18 degrees C, with the open space and dew making it colder. Kishore resists covering his ears with a muffler or shawl, telling the others to follow suit as they might not “hear the cattle”.

Kanshiram talks about how he graduated from a college in Sidhauli, but couldn’t pay the bribe for a government job. “I had to be content with farming,” says the father of four girls. He has married off three, but raising dowry for the fourth is proving difficult due to depleting incomes, he says. “Even if the boy doesn’t have anything to eat at home, they want Rs 5 lakh.”

As the hour inches towards midnight, the younger ones in the group are hungry. Vishal suggests they grab a bite at home, and return in 30 minutes. The elders know they won’t return, but no one has the heart to stop them.

Minutes later, the cattle come. It’s Kishore who first hears a rustling. “This is why I don’t cover my ears,” he tells the others, as they throw their beedis, grab their lathis and rush towards the noise.

In Kishore’s wheat field, a herd of 10-12 bulls has entered. Siyaram warns: “Be careful, they may be markauni (aggressive). Let’s stay together.” He spots the opening in the wooden fence from where they have entered. “We need to herd them out from there,” he shouts out, while rushing towards the cattle, making shrill calls of “Hoye, hoye”.

As the bulls don’t display any aggression, the confidence of the four grows. However, Siyaram reminds them of a recent bull attack on Sandeep. “They were all shaant (quiet) before they attacked,” says Ram Milan.

Kishore, who was with Sandeep that day, says they have to guard against both the bulls attacking, as well as escaping their attempts to gather them. The men beat the ground with lathis to force the animals together, or swing the same to scare them. They are careful not to hit. “If one gets angry, all of them can attack us,” says Kishore.

The bulls finally leave, moving over to another farm. Kishore says they can’t protect all. “The animals are also living beings, and I can only look after the farms of those who are with me,” he says, shining the torchlight to assess the damage. “Zyada nahin chare hain (They have not grazed much),” Ram Milan says.

By the time they return to the machaan, the fire has gone out and they light another.

Soon the group is having a conversation about the attack on Sandeep. “Pehle Sandeep saand ko daudawat rahe, phir saand usko daudaya, aur woh gir gaya (First, Sandeep was chasing the bull, then the bull chased Sandeep, and he fell),” says Kishore.

Amidst a round of laughter, he adds: “We all climbed up the machaan to save ourselves. They caused damage to Sandeep’s field but thankfully he suffered minor injuries. The good thing is bulls do not attack you once you fall. The buffaloes are ruthless that way.”

Around 12.15 am, they decide to make a round of their fields, which all fall within a radius of a kilometre. When Ram Milan and Kishore return and report they haven’t seen any cattle, there is a unanimous sigh: “Bach gaye (we are saved)!”

As dawn comes, and farmers head home for a couple of hours, stray cattle have managed to go unnoticed in this area in Chitrehta village (Express photo by Vishal Srivastav)

But the night is not done, and by 1 am, talk has moved on to elections. Mangopur village falls under the Sidhauli Vidhan Sabha seat, which voted on February 23. Ram Milan, who calls himself a fan of SP chief Akhilesh Yadav, says: “It seems Hargovind Bhargava will win Sidhauli for the SP.” A two-time BSP MLA, Bhargava is now with the SP. However, even he admits: “But for chutta janwar, the BJP would have won.”

As Kishore intercepts to say, “the BJP can still win”, Siyaram asserts it will be a “kaante ki takkar (close contest)”.

They agree on when the stray cattle became an issue. “It was after they shut down slaughterhouses and closed cattle markets. Otherwise, cattle were sold and what the buyer did was not our issue,” says Kishore.

The UP government has brought multiple schemes to control the population of the cattle, who are abandoned now by farmers after their utility is over, but the group says none has had an effect. As part of election promises, Adityanath has guaranteed a stipend of Rs 900 per month per cow to farmers; the SP a compensation of Rs 5 lakh for deaths caused in bull attacks; and the Congress relief for those whose farms are destroyed, at Rs 3,000 per acre.

BKU leader Shyamu Shukla, contesting as an Independent from Maholi seat in Sitapur, says the only solution is that the government form a policy after discussing it with farmers, “not intellectuals”. “Small farmers can help resolve the issue,” says Shukla, adding that more gaushalas should be built, with additional subsidies and grants to them.

Ali Khan Mahmudabad, the SP national spokesperson who belongs to Sitapur, says the BJP government did not think through the issue. “Cows were not slaughtered anywhere in the state ever. It may have been done illegally in stray areas earlier… They (the BJP) may think they are targeting just Muslims, but it impacts everyone — the Dalits, others, the tanning business, the leather industry… People realise this,” Mahmudabad told The Sunday Express, adding that the effect may vary, but the issue will have an impact on the polls.

BJP Minister of State (Animal Husbandry) Jai Prakash Nishad quotes PM Modi’s speech, promising a sustainable solution after the March 10 results. Contesting again from Rudrapur in Deoria, he tells The Sunday Express: “Shelters have already been made in all the districts. Block officials ensure that stray animals are taken to these shelters.”

At Mangopur, Siyaram, Ram Milan and Kishore are discussing Modi’s promise, centred around income from cattle dung. Ram Milan declares the idea impractical. “Who will buy gobar?”

Accusing Ram Milan of being a hardcore SP supporter, Kishore says: “If he (Modi) is saying, maybe it can happen.” However, seconds later, he adds: “But you are right, how will it happen?”

Like the others, Kishore gets most of his news on his mobile phone. “We watch speeches. On the basis of what politicians are talking about, we decide whom to vote for,” he says. Kishore likes listening to songs too, but that is becoming less due to lack of time. He doesn’t get his phone to the fields at night; “dhyaan bant jaata hai (I get distracted)”.

Siyaram says fencing, the other option, is costly and not long-term. “I borrowed Rs 3,000 from relatives in 2017, and got two rounds of double razor wire and one round of rope installed. Someone stole the wire because it can be sold as iron,” he says, adding he is still to pay back the money.

“If one wants to fence 1 bigha with double wire and one rope, it costs Rs 2,500,” adds Ram Milan.

The cattle die a slow, painful death if caught in the wire, he points out. Was slaughter better, he wonders, before stopping himself. “I am a Hindu, and I know the importance of the cow.”

It’s 2.45 am, and time is crawling. Kishore says this is the most difficult hour — 3 am to 4 am. “Aunghai lagti hai (I fight sleep),” he says, as the others nod.

In the quieter hours, the worries of the day also return. Kishore talks about the loan he took in 2017 to plant sugarcane on 4 bighas. “The whole crop was ruined by cattle, and I have been in debt since… Small farmers like us can barely save enough from the cattle to eat at home, we have not sold anything for the last four or five years.”

At 3.13 am, one can hear jackals in the nearby forest, while a layer of fog hangs thick over the fields, making spotting difficult. Soon the jackals are howling in a synchronised manner. “It must be past 3,” quips Kishore.

By 3.45 am, with the fire almost out and no more wood, the group decide to head home. Ten minutes later, having put water on the fire to ensure it is fully out, they are on their way. As Kishore wonders if his wife would be sleeping, Ram Milan jokes: “Nahin toh kya? Chaar baje tak intezaar karegi tumhara (What else? She will wait up till 4 am for you)?”

Entering his house, Kishore says: “I will catch a wink, return to the fields at 7. Agar gaiiya ne nahin chara hoga, toh theek. Nahin toh haath par haath dekar rounga (If the cows haven’t eaten the crops, fine. Otherwise, I will hold my head and cry).”

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