The CBI crackdown on cattle smuggling along the India-Bangladesh border in West Bengal unearthed two worst-kept secrets — the involvement of security agencies in the crime and that tall talk of “gau raksha” is more about politically milking cows than its conservation.
Raids conducted by the Central Bureau of Investigation sleuths in 15 cities and towns of West Bengal and other states over the past two days revealed a close nexus between the Border Security Force (BSF) officers, Customs officials and cattle smugglers.
Sources said that the illicit trade has an estimated annual turnover of anything between ₹15,000 and ₹20,000 crore with most of the cattle that end up in abattoirs in neighbouring Bangladesh, coming from Rajasthan, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and other ‘cow belt’ states.
Incidentally, these are the states that claimed to have implemented strict cow protection laws and also have a robust network of self-styled cow vigilante groups who apparently do not even hesitate to kill humans to “protect cows” as was witnessed on quite a few instances.
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At least seven BSF officials and five of the Customs are reportedly under CBI scanner in connection with a case registered in 2018 after a commandant of the border force, Jibu D Mathew, who served in West Bengal, was booked in Kerala.
A BSF officer of commandant rank, Satish Kumar, who is now posted in Raipur, his son and others, including the kingpin of the racket, were booked by the CBI.
Officials familiar with the probe said the BSF and Customs officials connived with the smugglers to ensure that the cattle seized by the force along the border were auctioned back to the smugglers.
In its FIR, the CBI claimed that more than 20,000 cows, which were being smuggled to Bangladesh, had been seized when Kumar was posted in Bengal from December 2015 to May 2017, but no smuggler was arrested.
Within 24 hours of the seizure, the cattle were auctioned with the help of Jangipur Customs office in Murshidabad district.
To reduce the price of the cattle, the seizure list used to be modified prior to the auction, mentioning cows as calves or changing the breed of the cattle. The price of a general breed of cow found in West Bengal and neighbouring states is ₹15,000-16,000 in the grey market whereas the cattle brought in from states like UP, Haryana and Rajasthan fetch around ₹25,000-30,000.
By changing the breed or age of the cows in the seizure list, the officials helped the smugglers buy back the cattle at a much lower rate, the official said.
BSF officials allegedly used to get ₹2,000 and Customs officials ₹500 against each auctioned cattle head, according to the CBI FIR, apart from regular bribes.
The CBI also booked Muhammad Enamul Sheikh, Anarul Sheikh and Muhammad Gulam Mustafa, who are believed to be the kingpin of the smuggling racket.
The smugglers use the porous riverine India-Bangladesh borders in West Bengal to smuggle cattle. During monsoon, high flow of water to downstream Bangladesh is also used to transfer the cattle across the border.
“Before putting the cattle in the river, traffickers blindfold the animals and tie their legs with a rope. They then attached banana stems with the cattle to ensure that the animals kept floating. The entire operation is done at night,” a BSF official said.
The current in the river takes the animal to Bangladesh where hundreds of Bangladeshi smugglers wait with their speed boats to catch them.
The BSF accuses that the operation is often done with the help of Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) soldiers.
Most of these cattle are brought to the bordering districts of West Bengal by road from north Indian states, traversing hundreds of kilometres, which cannot be possible without a larger nexus of police, border guards, other officials, so-called gau rakshaks with traffickers, sources alleged.
What the CBI unearthed is just the tip of the iceberg, they added.