It is heartening that a Chief Justice of India-led bench of the Supreme Court has said, unequivocally, that cow vigilantism “must stop”. It is reassuring that the apex court has raised the issue of responsibility, not just for taking action after the crime has been committed but also for its prevention. From J&K to Maharashtra, Rajasthan to Assam, vigilante mobs have been emboldened by the abdications of those in power and authority, and the general climate of impunity, to target minorities and the vulnerable in the name of the cow. The SC’s firm intervention serves as a much-needed call for accountability for a crime that shames us all. Yet, having said that, the SC’s specific prescription — it has directed all state governments to appoint a senior police officer as the nodal officer in each district to deal with these cases, and asked chief secretaries and DGPs to file status reports on action taken to prevent them — raises questions.
It is evident that states, primarily responsible for law and order, need to be spurred to take action against groups that are challenging government’s writ. The case of Mohammad Akhlaq, whose lynching in Dadri, UP, in September 2015, triggered by suspicions that he was storing beef, drew the nation’s attention to the new, brutal phenomenon that has been chillingly mimicked in different states since, is illustrative: Two years later, charges are yet to be framed against the accused in the local fast track court. But is the appointing of a nodal officer in every district, only for dealing with cow vigilantism, the most effective way forward? How and on what basis will cases of violence in the name of the cow be separated and prioritised from those that involve, say, communal violence? The question is, essentially: Is the judiciary, once again, going beyond enunciating the high judicial principle and treading into matters of implementation, a domain it is ill-equipped for? While the SC bench refused to accede to the petitioners’ plea to ask the Centre to direct the states under Article 256 of the Constitution, which could have invited accusations of encroachment of states’ rights, it could itself be veering into the administrator’s turf against the spirit of the separation of powers. The court could also be accused of tokenism. Its directive does not address the systemic problems of a grossly under-resourced police force, subject to political control. Its own historic judgement on police reform in the famous Prakash Singh case, more than a decade ago, still awaits implementation.
The fact also is that the recurring violence in the name of the cow is not just a law and order problem. It draws upon a politics of brute majoritarianism, of minority-baiting, bigotry and hate. Such violence is also being emboldened on the ground because its perpetrators invoke the ideology of the ruling Sangh Parivar. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has spoken against cow vigilantism, but until he can ensure that his message is heeded by his own party and government, cow vigilantism will continue to take its terrible toll.