The murder of police station house officer, Subodh Kumar Singh, amidst an attack on his men, and the shooting of an innocent bystander, should not be dismissed as spontaneous mob violence. As the police have stated, the situation was precipitated by “anti-social elements” in a crowd inflamed by what they took to be evidence of cow slaughter in Bulandshahr district of Uttar Pradesh. It was these elements who started a fracas while the police in the Siyani chowki were taking down the statements of the crowd. While trying to face down the violence, Singh appears to have been targeted, and was killed by an attack with a blunt instrument, followed by a bullet. This was not arbitrary mob violence but impunity, an assault on the authority of the state that is no less repugnant than a Maoist attack.
Singh was the first investigating officer of the 2015 lynching of Mohammed Akhlaq in a Dadri village, on the suspicion of slaughtering a calf. He had collected the evidence in the case, which had challenged the status of secularism, triggered the deadly politics of dietary habits and caused protests across the country. The accused in the Dadri lynching case are all out on bail and Singh has now been killed while trying to deal with another public hysteria over cow slaughter. This time, it was not an attack on a citizen, but on a police officer and his force, and thereby on the state on whose behalf he kept the peace. The crowd felt it would get away with murder only on the strength of the belief that the state would not react in full measure. It is a conviction that could not have been cultivated without some assurance from the political majority. The Uttar Pradesh government has, on the one hand, shown its commitment to cow protection. On the other, its encouragement of encounter culture has shown its commitment to impunity. The message is clear: There is support for vigilantism if it serves the larger political goal.
Now that it has come to bite an arm of the state itself, one has to wait and watch how the government respond. The institution of a magisterial inquiry is the start of what should be due process. It will require visible support from the highest office for the guilty to be punished, for the message to be underlined that the state’s writ should run beyond deciding the quantum of ex gratia payment.