KONFRONTASI-As night fell on the bucolic northern Indian hamlet of Mahaban, Gopi Chand Yadav gathered blankets and a flashlight to spend the night sitting on a wooden platform in his field. His task: to use bamboo sticks to ward off stray cattle from intruding and eating a maturing mustard crop.
Like Yadav, many thousands of farmers stay awake to guard their farms over a cold winter or face losing their crops to the cattle - a double whammy for growers already reeling from a plunge in crop prices.
While stray cows ambling around towns and villages have always been a feature of life in rural India, farmers say their number has increased sharply in recent years to the extent that they have become a menace, and blame the policies of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist government.
Protecting cows - considered sacred to Hindus - was one of the measures meant to shore up support in the heavily populated, Hindi-speaking belt across northern India that has been a heartland of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Instead, it is creating a backlash, even among Hindu farmers.
"We already had enough problems and now the government has created one more," said octogenarian farmer Baburao Saini from Kakripur village, about 85km from the capital, New Delhi.
"For the first time, we have been forced to stay in the fields to protect our crops."
More than 50 farmers the Reuters news agency spoke to in Mahaban and nine other villages in Uttar Pradesh state said they would think twice before voting for Modi's BJP in the next general elections, due by May.
The cattle issue and low farm prices are major reasons behind their disillusionment with a party that most say they voted for in the last election in 2014.
Modi swept Uttar Pradesh in that poll, winning 73 of 80 seats in India's most populous state, with rural voters swayed by a promise of higher crop prices, and as Hindu farmers supported the BJP amid tensions with the minority Muslim community.
Modi is trying hard to claw back support among India's 263 million farmers and their many millions of dependents after the BJP lost power in December to the opposition Congress in three big northern states where agriculture is a mainstay.
Farmers keep cows for milk, but to harm or kill the animal, especially for food, is considered a taboo by most Hindus.
Most states in India have long outlawed cow slaughter, but after coming to power in 2014 the BJP ratcheted up its distaste for trade in cattle, launching a crackdown on unlicensed abattoirs in Uttar Pradesh and on cattle smuggling nationwide.
At the same time, a wave of attacks on trucks carrying cattle by Hindu vigilante groups has scared away traders, most of whom are Muslims, bringing to a halt the trade even in bullocks, which are not considered sacred. Rising sales of tractors and increasing mechanisation mean that more animals are redundant for use in farming.
The farmers Reuters spoke to said they revered cows as most devout Hindus would, but a sudden halt in the trade of cattle had hit the rural economy. In their view, the government should come up with more cow shelters and let cattle traders deal in other animals without fear of attack.
"The government has only enforced the laws by closing down unlicensed abattoirs and cracking down on cattle smuggling," said BJP spokesman Gopal Krishna Agarwal, who added that he runs a cow shelter of 1,300 cattle. "We're not trying to hurt either any community or the rural economy."