Updated: April 28, 2017 2:55:58 pm
A certain sanctity is afforded to “gau-rakshaks”, also called “cow vigilantes”, under the religious mantle of cow protection, when in fact the euphemism hides the truth in plain sight: that some of these rakshaks are bhakshaks or predators (of human beings) for whom the cows (or even buffaloes) — possessed legally or illegally — are serving as pegs to commit potentially murderous violence with impunity. There has been active, concerted effort from the state mouthpieces to transform this ugly truth and build narratives around it such that these gory crimes are sanitised as para-law, quasi-justified, spontaneous mob actions. Evidence and legality are only semi-relevant within this context.
Pehlu Khan, a 55-year-old dairy farmer, carrying cows bought in an Alwar fair in his truck was beaten ruthlessly on April 5 in front of a crowd with recording smartphones and he succumbed to injuries a couple of days later. Serious injuries were sustained by four others accompanying him. All of them were Muslims and the only one allowed to escape by the mob was the Hindu driver. This one detail refutes the claim that the violence was committed in the name of punishing all perceived to be smuggling the cows. The Muslims were exclusively targeted. Yet the narrative around it was officially sanitised. Gulab Chand Kataria, the Home Minister of Rajasthan and in charge of state law enforcement, went on national television a few hours after Khan was declared dead on April 7 to show the tilt he wanted to give to the narrative. He urged the public to show understanding to the mob’s motives by saying, “There are two sides to this”. On Monday in Rajasthan Assembly, he defended his stance by alleging that Khan was a criminal with three previous court cases of cow smuggling. What is left unsaid is that even if that allegation were to be true, it did not give anyone the right to assault Khan.
Also Read: Cow vigilantism — or minority hunting?
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Further, while speaking to reporters outside the Monday session of Rajasthan Assembly, BJP MLA from Alwar, Gyan Dev Ahuja, said, “Kanoon humko haath mein nahi lena chahiye. Lekin uski maut hui. Uske liye humko koi afsos nahi hai. Aur afsos karoonga bhi nahi kyunki jo gau taskar hain, gau hatyare hain, aise paapiyon ka yehi hashr hota raha hai, hota rahega”. Proof notwithstanding (Khan had cattle purchase documents when he was stopped by the mob), Ahuja claimed that there was no question that Khan was a smuggling sinner, who deserved death. His message was clear: definitely not sorry about murder. “The reason he was beaten up was because he tried to escape by running into the fields… and there was a mob… and a mob is a mob. It doesn’t reason. So this was not a planned assault”, he added. Within this political narrative, the mob’s “justice” is treated as sovereign and hands-off morally bigger than than the law and the life of a human — almost like an ‘agent of God’.
The crowd and complicity of paralysed law
The mob can provide a convenient and acceptable shroud of anonymity and dismissal — as though in its ‘spontaneous’ actions there is something morally just, which is apart from the ruthless violence it dispatches. In the first hours after Pehlu Khan was beaten, 11 people were rounded up and arrested — for cow smuggling — but not one for assault or attempt to murder. Three and eventually seven people were arrested in relation to Khan’s lynching, but only after he died in the hospital days later and pressure was put on the Vasundhara Raje government. On the night of April 22, 3 more men — Ashu, Rizwan and Kamil — reportedly transporting buffaloes from Haryana’s Pataudi to East Delhi’s Ghazipur slaughterhouse were beaten up by a group near Kalkaji metro station, with the suspects allegedly claiming affiliation to the People For Animals NGO. The assaulting group behaving like gau-rakshaks remained faceless in the police narrative; with the latter claiming that they were “passersby” or “locals” who happened to be there and presumably spontaneously angered — even though real-time reporting of senior journalists Hartosh Singh Bal and Radhika Bordia suggests that the several tilak-bearing assailants of the bleeding trio were present and applauding and yet not taken into custody by the police. Cross FIRs were reportedly filed in this case — one against the three assault victims for “animal cruelty” and one against “unknown persons” who committed the assault.
The bias is usually not limited to initial arrests and FIRs. For instance, according to an April 14 Times of India report, all the eight gau-rakshaks accused for murder of 29-year-old Mohammad Ayub Mev in Ahmedabad in September last year are out of police custody on regular bail. The culprits are emboldened with the realisation that the justice system will not target them and so they can keep on partaking in illegal, violent and murderous acts. MLA Ahuja’s words, which loudly condemned a murdered dairy farmer as a cow smuggler, exemplify the state actors’ complicity in legitimising the mob when politically convenient.
This manner in which mobs are unquestioningly couched as anonymous and unassailable is common to the history of Indian subcontinent. It is as if no explanation or inquiry or reasonability can be demanded from a faceless mob. One way or another, the police fails to prevent them or bring them to justice and the leaders fail to condemn it. The term “vigilante justice” serves to legitimise the travesty of justice itself by glorifying the cause and “hurt feelings” of the aggressors. Even the evidence of illegality or the lack thereof is marginal in this context. The term effectively renders assault victims of a minority community into established culprits and the perpetrators into a moral force, helplessly extreme in their action perhaps, but a righteous force nonetheless. It is all but sidelined that how can any “justice” – mob or otherwise – be dispensed when innocent people are caught and handled recklessly, even barbarically.
Only recently some of the hottest topics are cow sanctuary and a centre-proposed cow UID, in addition to the maximum race among some Chief Ministers to criminalise cow slaughter. It took Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje nearly three weeks to react to this incident. PM Narendra Modi has visibly kept mum on the Pehlu Khan case without a word of condolence and condemnation. It seems that it would be politically inexpedient of them to do so, with BJP overtly riding strong on the muscular Hindutva plank, especially since the Uttar Pradesh elections. Interestingly, the only time the Prime Minister condemned cow vigilantism as a domain of anti-social actors was in the wake of flogging of Dalits in Una for skinning a dead cow, which for once did not have an immediate anti-Muslim context.
“The active ingredient in a lynching case is silence. Like all forms of theatre, lynching depends on what is left unsaid”, writes Aatish Taseer in his recent New York Times editorial. The distorted and biased priorities of law and justice authorities, the polarising, political rhetoric of elected representatives and the loud silence of national leaders indicate a sleight-of-hand, quiet condoning. Once the atmosphere of hate has been established, such ghastly acts are unlikely to discontinue soon. They are zeitgeist – spirit of the day.
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