I sometimes feel that what is categorically unacceptable is becoming, more and more, par for the course in our Republic. When it first happened, cattle lynching made news. Now, it seems to happen with such a frequency that the initial shock has dissipated. The event is reported, commented upon, mostly perfunctorily, and life goes on. If we believe that India, apart from being the world’s largest democracy, is also one of the oldest and most refined civilisations, such a level of insensitivity questions our credentials on both counts. Last week, in Godda district of Jharkhand, two men were beaten to death with sticks and stones over alleged cattle theft. Their half-naked bodies were strung out on bamboo poles and paraded through the village by a cheering mob. Both were Muslims. The father of one of the victims said that his son was a bona fide cattle trader. Such incidents have not happened for the first time in Jharkhand. In March 2016, two cattle traders were killed on suspicion and their bodies hung from a tree. In June 2017, Muslims were again the target of cow vigilante violence, and beaten
to death. There have been many other shameful incidents.
In UP, in September 2015, Akhlaq Khan was lynched to death by a mob on the suspicion of eating beef. His son was also attacked and beaten to near pulp. In Rajasthan, in April 2017, Pehlu Khan, a dairy farmer, was attacked on the road as he was transporting cattle for sale by a mob of over 200 cow vigilantes. He was lynched to death, even as he kept making the plea that he was innocent. Six others with him were also brutally beaten. Shockingly, in the first instance, the state government charged the victims for “cruelty to animals”! The targets of such attacks are not only Muslims. The nation can never forget the visual footage of four Dalits being stripped, tied to a car, flogged and beaten with rods, in Una district of Gujarat in July 2016. They were attacked in this inhuman and vicious manner only on the suspicion that they were peddling beef. The truth is that it is people from this community who are expected to dispose cattle carcasses and skins when cows die. Such an “unclean” task is assumed to be their responsibility; but it is precisely for doing what their tormentors would consider below their social status to do, that they were so ruthlessly beaten up, and that too on the unfounded suspicion that they were eating or selling beef.
Why have such incidents continued to proliferate? In August 2016, following the uproar over the Una incident, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, said that cow vigilantism made him angry; he condemned such actions. That was a welcome indictment. But, subsequent incidents, beg the question whether the ultra-right Hindutva followers of the BJP listen to the PM. Statistics reveal that there has been a 97 per cent upsurge in cases of cattle lynching since the BJP came to power in 2014. Surely, this cannot be a coincidence. Studies also reveal that 86 per cent of those attacked are Muslims, but as Una so dramatically revealed, Dalits too are fair game. What is even more shocking is that 52 per cent of such attacks take place on the basis or rumours. The perpetrators of this dastardly behavior seem to believe that they have the silent support of the authorities, and can get away by taking the law in their own hands. In fact, Christian Jaffrelot, the noted sociologist argues, that the state has in a certain way “outsourced” its own bias to such vigilantes, thereby both achieving what it desires and yet claiming to be uninvolved in what is happening.
The question is, what can be done to erase this blot on our civilisational values, and — for those who believe that such gruesome violence is justified in the name of Hinduism — the great legacy of Hinduism itself? In April 2017, the Supreme Court (SC) asked six states — Rajasthan, Gujarat, Jharkhand, Maharashtra, UP and Karnataka — to respond to what they propose to do to prevent cow vigilantism. Significantly, five of these six states are ruled by the BJP governments. It would be interesting to know what these states have promised to do in response to the SC directive, and even more significantly, why is what they have promised to do not having the desired effect on the ground. In September 2017, the SC instructed that each state should appoint a nodal police officer in each district to take strict action against cow vigilantism. Again, it should be put in the public domain how many states have acted upon this directive: if not, why not, and if so, with what efficacy? In the spirit of the SC directive, it must be revealed too how many culprits have been caught, proceeded against under the law, and awarded exemplary punishment.
It is time also to know how many organised vigilante groups are currently in existence. Has the Central government attempted to identify such groups? Have state governments done likewise? According to some estimates, the National Capital Region (NCR) alone has around 200 such groups. Surely, given the impunity with which many members of such groups flaunt their intentions, it will not be difficult for a committed police force, backed by the requisite political will, to identify the leaders among such criminals, bring them within the ambit of the law, and take preventive action before the next incident of lynching takes place.
The fact of the matter is the requisite political will is lacking. Too many of these perpetrators believe that — somewhere they have the indulgence of their political masters. Far more damagingly, many believe that they are acting in this barbaric manner to “protect” Hinduism. There can be no bigger disservice to the grandeur of Hinduism than this kind of illiterate claim. Many states have legitimate laws against cow slaughter and they need to be respected. But no country can have another set of rules for those who believe that they are a law unto themselves, in the belief that they have the benign indulgence of those elected to uphold the law.