History of Cattle Poisoning in British India

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While cattle theft for beef is a political hot topic in modern India, where cattle have always been prized possessions, few know of the deep-rooted history of cattle theft in India going back to the 1800s and the motivations behind it. 

Cattle poisoning was generally done by two methods: arsenic, a freely available poison in the market, mixed with fodder or sugar, or the use of Abrus ‘sutaris’ or ‘suis’, made using the seeds of Abrus precatorius, that grew in the wild or could easily be purchased from bazaars.

The small spikes, called sui (needles) or sutari (name given based on the object’s resemblance to the point of a cobbler’s awl), were prepared by preparing a thin paste of the pounded, water-soaked seeds, and then drying the weapon in the sun, after which it is oiled and sharpened upon stone, affixed in a handle, and then used to puncture the skin of the animal. Alternatively, the softened, pounded seed paste was fashioned into a point, which upon hardening became as sharp as steel (to be thrust into flesh). 

The sutaris were about 3/4 inches long and weighed 1.5 to 2 grains (1 grain=64 mg), varied in color from dirty white to black, with a handle of 3-3.5 inches long and frequently made from two joints of bamboo wood, with sockets 1/4 to 3/8 inches deep and with the cavity exposed at one end for storage of additional sutaris. 

A wandering “Brahmanee bull” was procured, and the sutari was inserted so as to break off the cone inside the animal’s flesh – either behind the horn near its brain or in its neck or hindquarters, then the skin was over the broken ends, leaving no obvious trace of the injury. This process was optionally repeated with two more cones to the base of the animal’s tongue or elsewhere. 

The sutaris were driven into the flesh with such great force that any attempt to dislodge it by pulling on the protruding portion would cause it break off inside the flesh, leaving the poison in the wound that would eventually kill the animal. 

The bull generally died after 2-3 days, leaving no visible trace of the sutaris (like many vegetable poisons) except a small amount of pus and inflammation at the wound site. Abrus suis were much a much more difficult poison to detect then arsenic.

The reported lethal dose of abrus toxin for cattle is about 600 mg/kg body weight, and the animal would generally die within 48 hours.

Sometimes sutaris were made with the milky juice of Calotropis giantea (अर्क or aak plant; ‘jilledu’ in telugu) instead of water, or supplemented with metallic mercury, Datura, aconite, and/or arsenic – for augmenting the toxicity and causing a more rapid death of the animal.  

When arsenic alone was employed in the poisoning of cattle, it was generally mixed with fodder or sugar. According to the district magistrate of Gorakhpur, arsenic was sold ‘as openly in the market as rice’. An ear of jowar millet would be hollowed out and filled up with about 2 ounces of arsenic, the outer part tied or sewn back before being fed to cattle. Once ingested arsenic had the same effect on cattle as in humans – it did not require much arsenic to kill a cow.

A few cases of killing of humans with suis were also recorded. In a Bengal Police Report for 1880, the following note was found about a murder in 1871. “in 1871 a man was murdered by a pair of sutaris being driven into his side; lately another man was wounded by sutari while asleep, and though the material had been successfully excised, died from lockjaw (tetanus) three days later; a third man was wounded with the sutari but escaped death by the affected part being excised. This man’s cousin, however died from the effects of a sutari being driven into his cheek. The offenders in these cases are suspected to be Chamars, who, being poor and of low caste, could be induced to undertake such acts of assassination for small remuneration.” The price of one of these killings was said to total 16.5 rupees; the killers were punished by transportation for life. As for arsenic poisoning in human deaths, it was relatively common place, and it was even suggested that opportunistic poisoners would use the cholera epidemic as a cover for human murders.

The idea of Chamars as cattle killing caste was established by the 1850s. By custom, any cow that died a natural death became the property of the Chamars, as for high-caste Hindus, touching a dead cow or working with leather were ritually polluting. Any dead cows/bulls became the property of the untouchables, who removed the animal, stripped the carcasses of their hides, then sold the hides to (generally) Muslim merchants based in Patna and Calcutta, who would in turn supply large quantities of arsenic for the purpose of cattle poisoning. What happened from the 1850s onwards was that the Chamars were deliberately poisoning cattle, rather than waiting for them to die naturally. The expansion of the Indian leather industry and the flourishing export of cattle hides in the mid-1870s gave further impetus for cattle killing.

It was a widespread, organized crime, similar in many ways to thugee. In the 1880s and 1890s, more than 7 million hides a year passed through Calcutta, the main hub of this trade: in 1900-01 alone, hides and skins worth nearly Rs.113 million were exported.

By 1854, the first substantial reports of cattle poisoning came to the attention of authorities in the northwestern provinces. A large traffic of powdered arsenic was reported by the District Magistrate of Azimgarh, who did not have any other logical explanation for such large quantities of arsenic being transported. The district magistrate at the time, George Campbell reported that arsenic had become “cheap plentiful, and common” – in order to poison cattle for the sake of their hides. One Patna merchant alone had imported four tons of arsenic from Kolkata over the course of a year, with no plausible explanation for importing such a toxic chemical except to kill either people or cattle. 

Cattle killing continued to rise despite the 1856 act to prevent ‘Malicious or Wanton Destruction of Cattle’ and its introduction into the IPC. Between 1865-69, 1462 cases were produced before the courts of Northern and Central India, and by 1900, they reached their peak. The crime itself was practically confined to the Chamar caste, and therefore, while in other contexts the possession of arsenic was not evidence of criminal intent, any cases involving Chamars and their possession of white arsenic was taken as sufficient proof of criminal involvement. 

It is not surprising that imports of arsenic, which was a relatively cheap chemical, grew substantially along with the expansion of Indian trade and industry. The commercial significance of arsenic lay in its close connection with the leather industry in the preservation of cattle hides that were sold to primarily to the United States and Europe. In 1878-79, 110 tons of Arsenic were imported, with a value of Rs.38,720; this was up from 57 tons in 77-78, and just 27 tons in 76-77. 

The likely explanation for this four-fold surge in arsenic import in just two years was the expanding leather trade in India, exacerbated by the destructive famine of 1876-78 during which high numbers of cattle died or were sold by peasants solely for the value of their hides. 

In 1899, of the 148 cattle deaths investigated by the Chemical Examiner in Bengal, 75% were attributed to arsenic poisoning. However, in most cases the detection of cattle poisoning was challenging, as carcasses could be partly devoured by dogs, jackals or vultures before being recovered by the police or due to the difficulty in distinguishing from cattle plague. (the surge in cattle poisoning were occurring at a time when rinderpest was rife in many parts of India and the symptoms of arsenic poisoning were hard to distinguish from the disease.) Animal remains often reached the chemical examiner in such a state of decomposition that any toxins were difficult to detect. 

An 1881 work by the District Superintendent of Police for British-occupied Bengal details the preparation and use of the sutari for the killing of cattle and in at least six murder cases. A native, promised a reduced sentence for the poisoning of a fellow villager’s bullock in exchange for his testimony, demonstrated the technique (described earlier). First the outer shells of red or white seeds were cracked between stones, then the two cotyledons from within thirty or forty seeds were soaked in water for ten minutes. These seeds were ground to a paste and rolled up into six sharp-ended one-inch cones, which were inserted into either end of three pieces of straw and “exposed to the moderate influence of the sun” to dry, whereupon they regained some of the original hardness of the seed. In this account, the sutaris were described as being these cones, entirely made up of the hardened seed paste. The dried cones were checked for sharpness, and if need be, whetted with a brick and re-set. Finally, to prevent softening, they were waterproofed by “burying them for a night in some sort of animal grease.” 

The official (and rumored) concerns about the unmonitored circulation of toxic substances, particularly arsenic, resulted in the drafting and subsequent passing of the Poisons Act of 1904 – due to the continued threat of arsenic to human and cattle life. It was aimed at regulating arsenic more heavily than other indigenous plant poisons since it was imported (unlike indigenous poisonous plants) from Europe or elsewhere, and left a paper trail by way of excise and customs records that could be traced. 

The dichotomous treatment of the Chamars following the passing of this legislation is noteworthy. On the one hand the Chamars were distinguished from other legal petitioners by exemption to the possession of arsenic (since it was a necessary component of the leather trade); on the other hand, ironically, became a source of violence against Chamars – who were now the target of legislative violence, despite their prior exemption. Clause 5 of the Act declared the local government’s absolute power to restrict the possession of arsenic: “in any local area in which murder by poisoning with that drug or the offence of mischief by poisoning cattle therewith appears to it to be of […] frequent occurrence”.

This clause was followed by one that spelt out the powers of the administration and penalties that would follow, were the prohibitions breached. This legislation and its enforcement bring to light the manner in which the Chamars, though one of the largest groups of low caste Hindus, came to be hunted and criminalized by the British in the same manner as were tribes of India (despite the Chamars not being included in the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871). 

By 1913-14, though a decade after the Indian Poison Act had come in to force, imports of arsenic into India still stood slightly higher than in 1878-79, at 147 tons (worth approximately £4000). 

Note: Here, the word Chamar is used to denote the historical sect, and modern-day connotations of the word are not applicable in this context.

Sai Priya 

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