By Ashis Biswas
In Assam the illegal smuggling of cows will get more difficult: The Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled State Government has decided to ban the transporting of cattle to any district that shares the international border with Bangladesh. This is the main feature of the new Cow Protection Bill whose details have just been announced by Chief Minister Mr Himanta Biswa Sarma.
The decision is indicative of the state government and GOI’s seriousness in ensuring that the country-wide ban on the illegal smuggling of especially cows and other animals to Bangladeshis effectively implemented.
However, even as Assam is in the process of toughening up legislation and punishment norms for smugglers/offenders, no similar initiative has been seen in neighbouring West Bengal. Ruled by the Trinamool Congress (TMC) , the administration in West Bengal has adopted a different approach in consonance with its declared policy of not banning cow slaughter.
Oddly enough both states have high Muslim populations, next only to Kashmir — 35 per cent of the population in Assam and only marginally less in Bengal.
In Bengal, the recent high-level probe being conducted by the CBI into the comparatively high levels of animal smuggling to Bangladesh seems to have hit a roadblock of late.
It needs stressing that some months ago, when the strong involvement of TMC youth organisation leader Vinay Kumar Mishra with the large scale cattle smuggling racket in West Bengal came to light as the CBI’s probe began, several traders and many senior BSF/Customs officials were either arrested or questioned. The high profile case, as sensational as politically sensitive, pitting the centre/BJP and the CBI in direct confrontation against the TMC/state government, soon took a dramatic turn.
Mishra escaped from India ignoring repeated official summons for questioning. He had been personally appointed as the Gen Secretary of the TMC Youth Congress by Mr Abhishek Banerjee, Lok Sabha MP from Diamond Harbour, west Bengal. Also the chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s nephew, Abhishek himself has also faced a nine-hour long interrogation session with officials some time ago.
Officials found records of payments made through foreign banks of large sums of unaccounted money that Mishra received from shady traders and local racketeers involved for years in the smuggling operations. Further, there were documents showing that he/others had regularly made payments to Mrs Abhishek Banerjee, also known as Rujira Narula Banerjee. She had been questioned twice on this issue but claimed total innocence.
As for Vinay, apparently securing the co-operation of a section of high officials he is now suspected to have suborned, escaped abroad, repeatedly ducking CBI summons for questioning. He is currently in Vanuatu, having given up his Indian citizenship. His brother Vikash, who also had been questioned, has just been arrested by the CBI. Some property/assets belonging to the Mishras worth several crores of rupees have been officially seized.
Senior BSF official Satish Kumar, who had worked in Bengal, was also arrested along with shady traders such as Enamul Haque, Anwarul Sheikh, and Mohammad Ghulam Mustafa. At least six senior West Bengal police officials have either been summoned or questioned by the CBI already.
As can be expected in any face-off between the BJP and the TMC, the issue got highly politicised in Bengal, with the latter charging the centre/BJP of following communal politics.
Assam officials have explained to Guwahati-based media that the intention was not to stop Muslims from eating beef, or stop cow slaughter totally. However, the killing of cows would not be allowed within a certain distance of temples, holy places belonging to the majority Hindu/Jain and other communities.
As such, cows and cattle could be brought to Assam from other states. However, they would not be allowed to reach districts bordering Bangladesh. Assam shares about 260 kilometre border with Bangladesh, with about 115 kms being along the rivers, which makes effective patrolling difficult. Steps are being taken to plug the existing gaps.
From 2019 to 2020,over 25,000 cows on the point of being smuggled had been seized in Assam. A prison sentence of several years along with fines up to Rs 800,000, depending on the magnitude of the offence, await aspirant smugglers. The state which has gradually brought its legislation closer in line with similar strict laws prevailing in several North Indian States, has indicated that for repeat offenders, the quantum of punishment would be significantly increased.
While the Assam Government has turned the heat on cattle smuggling, the situation in Bengal, which has a 2216 km long border with Bangladesh– some parts of it yet to be fenced and including stretches in the shared rivers –is noticeably different. BSF (South Bengal) officials say that there has been a major drop in the level of livestock smuggling following the centre’s ban and the CBI’s efforts. During 2019 and 2020, over 21000 cows had been ‘rescued’.
There still remain some loose ends in official measures taken to stop cattle smuggling. Assam officials point out that they will not allow animals carried from West Bengal or Meghalaya to reach the border districts through Assam. But according to some reports, they are powerless when it comes to preventing any movement of animals from Assam to the same states! Meghalaya follows more relaxed norms than Assam on cow slaughter and related matters because of its Christian population.
Intriguingly, the phenomenon of a section of high officials/influential politicians colluding with smugglers and rich traders with a dubious record. is not restricted to West Bengal alone. Parties opposing the BJP in Assam claim that there had occurred a major increase in cattle/cow trade and related matters specifically with Bangladesh to the tune of 25 per cent during the last 3 years! (IPA Service)