Doha, Qatar - Crime is a problem in any big country - but in predominantly Hindu India, an underground mafia has embarked on lucrative raids running counter to sacred beliefs: cow rustling.
Despite being a blessed creature in India, cattle theft has grown rampant throughout the country, authorities say. Cows are illegally sold to factories to be processed into leather and, surprisingly, more and more often for beef on the dinner plate.
With tens of thousands of cattle left to roam freely on city streets and in the countryside, rustlers generally pack pick-up trucks with 10 cows or more, with each animal fetching between $35-$90 in the illegal trade.
Unfortunately the issue is mired in vote bank politics... Owing to communal and sectarian interests, the Indian political establishment is turning a blind eye to this gross violation of constitution, as well as the sentiments of scores of Indians.
In a country where about 29.8 percent of the 1.2 billion populace earn only 40 cents a day, a single night's cow catch of $900 makes it a highly lucrative enterprise.
India's cowboys often scout for stray animals during the day and seize them at night. Gangs of rustlers come well prepared and in some instances heavily armed, with some not hesitating to open fire at police vehicles when chased after "lifting" cows, police say.
"They even threw the cattle from their vehicle in front of the chasing police vehicles, thereby forcing the chasing vehicles to stop," said an extensive police report discussing how officers caught a notorious rustler.
Clementien Pauws, president of the Karuna Society for Animals and Nature, told Al Jazeera the theft and ensuing high-speed car chase was not a rare occurrence.
"Cattle lifting is not an isolated crime. It is a well organised underground business with many players of society and government involved," Pauws said.
Police officer Bhisham Singh is in charge of tackling illegal rustlers. Repeated calls to his office seeking comment were not returned.
A record 150 cattle thieves were arrested last year, and the number continues to rise in 2013.
Cow killing is illegal in most of India, with the exception of West Bengal and Kerala states where the consumption of beef is not deemed an offence, said T Ramesh Babu, secretary of the Animal Welfare Board of India.
A number of states in India have anti-cow slaughter laws. "But they are mostly flawed, or implementation is tardy. Corruption and general apathy of the society add to it," Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh national spokesperson Ram Madhav told Al Jazeera.
Despite strict social mores towards cows in the Hindu religion, in recent years eating beef has gained acceptance among some cow worshippers.
N Kumar - who asked that his real name not be used for fear of offending devoted Hindus - grew up in a strictly vegetarian family. He started eating beef during his college days.
"I started with eggs and ended up with meat. Now I eat all," he told Al Jazeera, admitting his beef consumption was a well-kept secret from his parents - even his wife.
|Cows are considered holy by Hindus [AFP]
"I can even make out the difference between the cow flesh and buffalo meat," the New Delhi-based engineer said, adding many of his friends also ate beef.
Cows are not only considered holy in the country, but they also serve an important economic function. India is the world's largest dairy producer, but also the largest cattle producer and beef exporter, according to the US Department of Agriculture. Much of the beef ends up on dinner tables in the Middle East.
In Andhra Pradesh state, one of the busiest in the cow trade, there are an estimated 3,100 illegal slaughterhouses, officials say, while throughout India about 30,000 operate illicitly.
More than 600 cattle are sold illegally each week in Andhra Pradesh's Anantapur district alone, translating into more than 28,000 cattle a year.
"Andhra Pradesh is a transport state for cattle from the northern states to be hauled off for mostly illegal slaughter," said Pauws.
Still, despite an increase in cow consumption in India, eating beef is considered widely unpopular, as the vast majority of Hindus still worship cows.
"Unfortunately the issue is mired in vote bank politics... Owing to communal and sectarian interests, the Indian political establishment is turning a blind eye to this gross violation of the constitution, as well as the sentiments of crores of Indians," Madhav told Al Jazeera.
Cattle rustling goes back more than 7,000 years to the Rigvedic period in India, when cow raids were often the opening salvo in a war between tribes. In modern times, it has led to the extinction of 100 breeds of cow, according to a report by Akhil Bharatiya of the Gau Samvardhan Samiti.
"The country had some 118 breeds of cows till 1947. Now, only 18 of them survive," said Swayamanand Giri, president of Delhi-based Swami.
The Karuna Society is one of the few organisations that attempts to save the creatures taken.
|A herd of cows walk down a street in India [AFP]
"Since 2002 we have rescued about 600 cattle from illegal transport and recently we received another 146 cattle, nine cows pregnant," said Pauws.
But it's a dangerous business trying to save the sacred creatures. Sadhana Rao, secretary of the Indian Institute of Animal Welfare, said cow rustlers had threatened her life for intervening to protect the animals.
"They were looking for me and I moved about in a burka for over four months to save my life," Rao told Al Jazeera.
The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has demanded that the government strengthen laws against cow slaughter.
"What is needed is a federal law banning cow slaughter. Contours of that law should be such that there is no scope to circumvent it," Madhav told Al Jazeera.
Pauws said it was an issue that politicians must address.
"A party for animals is much needed, to give cows a voice in parliament."