On the eve of India’s 73rd Independence Day, slogans — “Bharat Mata ki jai”, “Jai Shri Ram” and “Modi hai toh mumkin hai” — were raised in the corridors of the additional district judge court in Alwar. Two groups of men had waited in sweltering heat the whole day for the court to announce its verdict in the case involving the lynching of dairy farmer Pehlu Khan on April 1, 2017. One was of the men accused of the killing and their associates. The other comprised supporters of the dead man, elders from the village and human rights workers who had helped them fight for justice.
Close to sundown, word emerged from the courtroom that the judge, Sarita Swami, had acquitted all the adult men accused of killing Pehlu Khan. The burst of triumphalist sloganeering of the accused men and their supporters was matched only by the despair of the family and neighbours of Pehlu Khan. Jaibuna Begum, Khan’s widow, said she was “heartbroken”. Irshad Khan, his older son, reportedly said: “We have lost faith in the law. For two-and-a-half years, we have been waiting. We thought that justice would be delivered and it would give peace to my father’s soul. Our hopes were shattered.”
Independence Day was a sombre one across Nuh. The news of the acquittal had travelled across the district. For Meo Muslim dairy farmers, terrorised by the lynching of Pehlu Khan and other dairy farmers after him, the judgment signalled not only the wanton denial of justice for the family of Pehlu Khan. It was about them, gesturing whether they could hope to live as equal citizens, and work their ancestral livelihood of dairying without fear. People everywhere in the district were shrouded in a sense of profound betrayal, of loss, of uncertainty about their futures, and of a kind of settled hopelessness.
Yet this was an acquittal foretold. From the day of the attack, the police did everything they could to subvert the possibility of any punishment of the men, who planned or executed before video cameras, the public lynching of Pehlu Khan.
Gulab Chand Kataria, the then home minister of Rajasthan, indicated very early where his government stood. Defending the cow vigilantes, he said, “The problem is from both the sides. People know cow-trafficking is illegal but they do it. Gau Bhakts [sic] try to stop those who indulge in such crimes.” Alwar SP, Rahul Prakash, declared that was “100 per cent” certain that the lynched man and his associates were “cow smugglers”.
Pehlu Khan had listed six men in his statement in hospital before he died. The police did not follow the legal requirement of obtaining a certificate from a doctor that he was fit to give the statement, enabling the court to discount it. Under the law, a dying declaration is sufficient to convict a person even if there is no collaborative evidence. In this case, five months later, police removed the names of all these six men from the list of the accused, claiming that they were not even present at the site of the lynching. Instead, nine more people, including two minors, were charged with the crime, based partly on two videos that had been taken of the crime. But the police did not send the video for forensic verification of its authenticity, nor did they locate the mobile phone from which it was recorded. So, once again the court rejected this crucial evidence.
Months after the lynching, NDTV reporters captured on secret camera the main accused, Vipin Yadav, bragging. “We kept beating him (Pehlu Khan) up for one and a half hours,” he told the undercover reporters. “First there were 10 people, then the crowd swelled”. But this video was neither authenticated, nor presented before the court. The victims were not even made to identify the accused.
It is undisputed that many men were already present at the crime scene when Khan and his companions reached the spot, suggesting prior knowledge and planning; and that the mob attack was clearly a hate-crime targeting the dairy farmers on account of their religion. Still, the police did not include sections on criminal conspiracy and promoting enmity between groups on the grounds of religion in its charges, thereby eliminating any chance of evidence that this was an organised crime by Hindutva outfits. Additionally, because the victims claimed that the mob tore up their permit, they should have been charged under Section 204 for destruction of evidence.
The case, therefore, fell apart so comprehensively because it was designed to do so. What made the sting of this acquittal even more agonising was that less than a month before this, and that too under a Congress government, Pehlu Khan’s sons and nephews were charge-sheeted under the Rajasthan Bovine Animal Act 1995 for transporting milch animals across state borders without required documents. The fact is they had not crossed any state border when they were attacked. That they were transporting dairy cows and calves makes it evident that they could not possibly have been taking them for slaughter. You don’t pay Rs 50,000 for a milking cow, and then sell her for slaughter, which would at best get you one-tenth of the price. Third, they claimed to have the required documents. Even if not, at most they were guilty of a technical transgression, not of any intent to harm any cow.
But none of this matters. It is evident that the rules of crime and punishment are rewritten in an India rapidly being remoulded as a Hindu nation. By these new rules, if anyone is lynched for causing harm to the cow, the persons who have been lynched are considered the original sinners. After all, they sought to injure or kill the cow sacred to Hindus. The lynch mob is the true victim in all cases of cow lynching: They are understandably provoked by the malfeasance of cow-killers; therefore, their violence is righteous and heroic. The cow-killing communities are the enemies, whereas the lynch mob are the soldiers of the Hindu nation.
In this new India, the desolation of the Meo Muslim people of Nuh on Independence Day is not hard to understand. Do we have any solace to offer to them?
Mander is a human rights worker and writer