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Above: Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot at an Iftar party in Jaipur/Photo: twitter

In a surprising volte-face, the Congress government in Rajasthan has filed a charge sheet against the lynched man, Pehlu Khan. Will this reckless gamble pay dividends in two crucial byelections?

By Asif Ullah Khan

The naming of Pehlu Khan, a dairy farmer who was lynched by gau rakshaks two years ago in Alwar, in a charge sheet for cow smuggling has raised questions about the policy direction of the Cong­ress and the governance of Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot.

Political observers say the complete reversal of approach to cow vigilantism by the Gehlot government stems from the rout the Congress suffered in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. In Rajasthan, the BJP swept all 25 seats and the chief minister could not even save his son, Vaibhav Gehlot’s seat in his own bastion of Jodhpur. Vaibhav lost to Gajendra Singh Shekhawat (BJP) by 2.75 lakh votes and even lost in his father’s assembly segment of Sardarpura.

Despite his popularity, Gehlot’s image has taken a big hit. His troubles don’t end there as he now faces two crucial byelections which will decide his fate as chief minister. These byelections are because Narendra Kumar Khichar, the sitting BJP MLA from Mandawa assembly constituency, was elected to the Lok Sabha from Jhunjhunu parliamentary seat and Khinvsar MLA Hanuman Beniwal of the Rashtriya Loktantrik Party, who joined the BJP before the Lok Sabha election, won the Nagaur parliamentary seat.

A senior Congress leader, who did not want to be named, told India Legal: “With Congress state chief and Deputy Chief Minister Sachin Pilot breathing down his neck, Gehlot can’t afford to lose these two byelections. It’s a sort of make and break situation for him.” The Congress with 93 seats in the 200-member assembly does not even have a simple majority and has taken the support of independents and BSP MLAs to form the government.

It is in the light of this scenario that Pehlu Khan being named in the charge sheet should be seen. The Congress leader said this was not an administrative lapse as Gehlot also holds the home minister’s portfolio. The charge sheet was prepared on December 30 last year, 13 days after Gehlot took over as chief minister for the third time. Although Gehlot tried to shift the blame on the previous BJP government by saying that the charge sheet was prepared during its tenure, what has surprised human rights activists is the complete silence on the Congress’s part. The party had vowed to reinvestigate the case, especially of the six alleged culprits who were given a clean chit by the police.

Senior journalist and political analyst Anil Sharma told India Legal: “This entire episode shows that the Congress is still continuing with a soft Hindutva approach which started during the Gujarat assembly elections in 2017.” The same approach was seen during the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections in Rajasthan when the Congress organised Rahul Gandhi’s temple run and promised the setting up of cow shelters in its manifesto. “The reason behind this approach is that Gehlot is facing two crucial byelections and the forthcoming panchayat and local body elections,” added Sharma.

Human rights activist Professor Mohammed Hasan concurs with this view. He said that the Congress government had also announced that it would set up a Vedic Shiksha and Sanskar Board in the state to preserve and revive the study of ancient Sanskrit scriptures in order to ensure that the youth have knowledge of the country’s glorious past. “This is their (Congress’s) old tactic. They think that by using this issue, they can win two byelections,” Hasan said.

It is pertinent to mention here that the Modi government had been mulling the establishment of a Vedic Education Board for a while after initially rejecting it. In 2015, Baba Ramdev had requested the government to establish a school board for Vedic education, but the government had rejected the suggestion. In 2016, he made another bid but it was rejected again.

Hasan said the infamous Gopalgarh police firing case in 2011 also happened during Gehlot’s previous tenure in which 10 Muslims were killed and many injured. “That time also, Gehlot, instead of taking action against the police, tried to hoodwink Muslims by raking up the Salman Rushdie issue during the Jaipur Literature Festival,” added Hasan.

He said that instead of filing a charge sheet against a dead man, the Congress government should reinvestigate the entire case as Pehlu Khan had papers for the purchase of the animals. These were snatched from him and torn up by the gau rakshaks. This has been reported in the media.

Calling the FIRs filed against Pehlu Khan and other dairy farmers “motivated” and done with “predetermined intentions”, People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) has demanded their withdrawal. PUCL’s Rajasthan unit president, Kavita Srivastava, said: “They were genuine dairy farmers and were carrying ravanna (acknowledgement receipt) of the Jaipur Nagar Nigam for the cows they were transporting. They bought the milch cows with the intent of selling milk. The PUCL has also insisted that the police take cognisance of their past milk sales records. It is clear that the deadly attack on them was because they were Muslims.”

There were seven deaths due to lynching in Rajasthan between 2015 and 2018, with five taking place in 2017, said Anant Bhatnagar, Rajasthan general secretary of PUCL. “It is shameful that dairy farmers have to face trial for false cases, when in reality, they are struggling to make ends meet.”

Only time will tell whether the filing of a charge sheet against Pehlu Khan and others will pay political dividends or not. But the unease Muslim leaders are feeling because of this approach is getting louder in the party. Shafia Zubair Khan, a Congress MLA, has written to the chief minister asking him to reinvestigate the case. In a letter which she shared on her Facebook wall, Shafia says: “The entire world knows that Pehlu Khan was not involved in any illegal activity. It was the previous BJP government which had framed him on trumped-up charges of cow smuggling and named him in the charge sheet. I request to reinvestigate all the charges filed during the BJP regime.”

Many Muslim leaders told India Legal that the party’s complete reversal of policy on the issue stems from the soft Hindutva approach it has adopted. It feels that Muslims have nowhere to go and has started taking this community for granted. They say when the Congress was in the opposition, the top party leadership from Gehlot to Pilot called Pehlu Khan’s lynching a murder and vowed to give justice to him and his family. Now, instead of giving any relief to the victims, they have charged them with the offence of cow smuggling.

A senior Muslim leader said: “Today, the chief minister is completely silent on the issue of punishment to the culprits who were given a clean chit by the previous BJP government. We have raised these issues at the party forum but not much attention is given to our grievances. Due to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s hardline and aggressive Hindutva policies, the party feels that by default, the Muslims will vote for the Congress and thinks that through a soft Hindutva approach, it can woo Hindu voters. But this policy is not working as is evident from the rout in the Lok Sabha elections.”

Another Muslim leader said: “Today, the party has no qualms in admitting dissident BJP and RSS leaders. Pratap Singh Khachariyawas, transport minister in the Gehlot cabinet, was once the blue-eyed boy of Vasundhara Raje and head of the youth wing of the BJP. Known BJP and RSS leader Ghanshyam Tiwari was taken into the party in the presence of Congress President Rahul Gandhi before the Lok Sabha elections. Not only Muslims, but many other senior leaders have questioned the party’s policy of competitive Hindutva because they feel it is flawed.” A Muslim leader of the Congress asked: “If we also follow the same policy, how can we say that we are secular and different from the BJP?”

What worries Congress Muslim leaders about the party’s competitive Hindutva is that Muslim fundamentalist and religious organisations are making inroads into the community. They say they are bound by party discipline and cannot express their grievances publicly.

“As in Pehlu Khan’s case, Asaduddin Owaisi’s call to Muslims in Rajasthan to stop supporting the Congress, alleging that the party has betrayed them, has great resonance in the community. People like Owaisi are eating into the Congress’s Muslim vote bank,” said another Muslim leader.

Another senior journalist said that after the rout in the Lok Sabha elections, the Gehlot government has been in total disarray. “Surprisingly, in his third term, the Gehlot government looks incoherent and clueless, which is evident from the lack of floor management and coordination in the state assembly.” He was referring to heated arguments between Rajasthan Assembly Speaker CP Joshi and state parliamentary affairs minister Shanti Dhariwal. The argument broke out after Dhariwal was not allowed by the Speaker to reply to allegations levelled by the BJP. When the minister continued arguing on why the government was not being allowed to reply, the Speaker left his chair and adjourned the House for half an hour.

It looks like Gehlot has more than enough on his plate.

—The writer is a former deputy managing editor of  The Brunei Times

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