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Above: Ex-Congress President Rahul Gandhi flanked by Rajasthan CM Ashok Gehlot and Deputy CM Sachin Pilot at a rally in Jaipur/Photo: UNI

The Gehlot government’s decision to opt for an appeal against the acquittal of all six accused in the Pehlu Khan lynching is an admission of the failure of its soft-Hindutva stance

By Asif Ullah Khan in Jaipur

As the organisational general secretary of the All India Congress Committee in 2017, Ashok Gehlot, currently chief minister of Rajasthan, held charge of Gujarat and spearheaded the assembly poll campaign, even getting then party president Rahul Gandhi to make whistle-stop temple tours where he openly flaunted his janeu (sacred thread).

The Gujarat experiment was followed by the Congress during the Lok Sabha elections earlier this year. Rahul did the rounds of temples, did a special puja at one in Pushkar where he declared himself a Kashmiri Brahmin whose gotra was “Duttatreya”.

This in turn prompted Shashi Tharoor, Congress MP from Thiruvananthapuram, to state in no uncertain terms that the party has a duty to defend the secular space and that the answer to its woes in the Hindi heartland does not lie in “majority appeasement” or offering some sort of a “Hindutva Lite” like a “Coke Lite”. Such pursuits, he said, will only end up in converting the Congress into a “Congress Zero”.

That is what happened in the last Lok Sabha polls as the Congress’s soft-Hindutva policy failed and it lost all 25 seats, including Jodhpur where Gehlot’s son, Vaibhav, was contesting.

Vaibhav lost to the BJP’s Gajendra Singh Shekhawat by more than two lakh votes and even lost in his father’s assembly segment of Sardarpura.

It is in this context that the Gehlot government’s decision to file an appeal in the Rajasthan High Court against the acquittal of all the six accused in the Pehlu Khan lynching ought to be seen. Political analysts in the state see it as a clear ideological shift from the soft-Hindutva stance which the Congress had adopted, which now seems to have been jettisoned.

Senior political analyst Anil Sharma says that the filing of the appeal against the acquittals in the Pehlu Khan case shows that finally, the Congress is heeding Tharoor’s advice that the soft-Hindutva approach will not take the party anywhere. Sharma told India Legal that the two main reasons behind it are: “First, there was pressure on the Congress to show that it does not support mob lynching and would not tolerate cow vigilantism. Second, the policy of soft-Hindutva is a thing of the past, as it proved to be counter-productive. It failed to attract the majority vote and at the same time alienated the Muslim votes.”

This is the reason why the Rajasthan government brought in the anti-lynching law in the assembly. The law stipulates life imprisonment and a fine up to Rs 5 lakh for convicts in cases of mob lynching involving the victim’s death.

A state Congress leader, on condition of anonymity, said that given the national outcry the Pehlu Khan case had created, there was pressure from the party’s central leadership and the state government in no way could soft-pedal the issue.

He said that this could be the defining moment for the Congress as the BJP’s hardline Hindutva has steamrolled the party’s ambiguous stand on sensitive issues, which is evident from the Lok Sabha election results.

He said there was a time when the absence of ideology was the Congress’s USP. But now the Congress has to make its ideological stand clear. It can no more afford to run with the hare and hunt with the hound.

Sharma, who agrees with this view, says there was a time when the minority votes used to go en masse to the Congress in the Hindi heartland. “Now, there is a clear split. In Uttar Pradesh, the Congress has even lost the Dalit votes.”

Senior journalist Om Saini differs and says that visits to temples and dargahs have been a part of the party policy since the time of the late Indira Gandhi. On the Pehlu Khan issue, he told India Legal: “There is no policy shift. It is an assertion of the Congress’s secular character. A grave injustice had been done to the victim and his family. By filing the appeal, the Congress wanted to assure the victim’s family and send a clear message to the Muslims that it would not tolerate such things.”

However, a local Congress Muslim leader says that although there were lapses and irregularities in the initial investigation of the Pehlu Khan case, the party has to come out more forcefully in public on such issues because this ambiguity or “state of confusion” has hurt its Muslim vote base.

“Of late, it is seen that the party has been taking Muslim leaders and voters for granted as it thinks they have nowhere to go. Even in the Lok Sabha election, the Muslim leaders were asked to keep a low profile. For example, the Congress candidate from Jaipur, Jyoti Khandelwal, hailed from the bania community. So, the entire focus of the campaign was to woo the Hindu or bania vote,” he said.

This move has seriously eroded the Congress’s Muslim vote base. The rise of Asaduddin Owaisi’s All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen and other Muslim outfits can be attributed to this fact. “The Congress leaders fail to understand that this narrative of soft-Hindutva is helping the BJP. With Muslims feeling abandoned by the Congress, the rhetoric of people like Owaisi sounds very appealing to Muslims because they feel that at least there is someone who is standing up for their rights,” he said.

Owaisi’s MIM had dealt a serious dent to the Congress when it won the Muslim and Dalit-dominated Aurangabad Central and Byculla assembly seats in Maharashtra. According to this leader, these assembly wins emboldened Owaisi to contest 100 assembly seats in Uttar Pradesh in 2017 where his aim was to grab the Muslim and Dalit votes, which were once the traditional votes of the Congress. He said that though Owaisi has no presence in Rajasthan, the Socialist Democratic Party of India (SDPI), which is active in Kerala and parts of coastal Karnataka, is fast spreading its network in Rajasthan. “The party’s membership is predominantly Muslim. It contested three seats in the last assembly election. Although it drew a blank, its candidate played the role of a spoiler in the Bundi seat, where the Congress candidate lost to the BJP member by just 700 votes, with the SDPI man, Anis Ansari, polling more than 3,000 votes in Muslim-dominated areas. “They were Congress votes but were swayed by the SDPI rhetoric,” he said.

The Pehlu Khan lynching case has become an albatross of sorts for Gehlot since he assumed the office of chief minister. The first embarrassment he faced was the naming of Pehlu Khan in the charge sheet submitted before the additional chief judicial magistrate in Behror, Alwar district, in May. Although Pehlu Khan was not charged since he was dead, his two sons were charged.

The charge sheet was prepared on December 30 last year, 13 days after Gehlot took over as chief minister. Although Gehlot tried to shift the blame on the previous BJP government by saying that the charge sheet was prepared during its tenure, what created further controversy was the subsequent acquittal of all the six accused on the basis of “benefit of doubt” and shoddy investigation by the police. Citing serious shortcomings, the additional district judge observed that the names of the accused were not in the statements given by the complainants.

Second, the accused were not identified by the complainants, which is needed to be done under Section 161 of the CrPC. Regarding the video based on which the accused were charged, the court said the then investigating officer and Behror SHO, Ramesh Sinsiwar, failed to seize the device used for filming the incident. The defence also claimed that the video that purportedly showed the lynching was not sent to a forensic lab by the prosecution.

Immediately after the judgment, Gehlot had tweeted: “Our State Government has enacted a law against mob lynching in the first week of August 2019. We are committed to ensuring justice for family of late Sh Pehlu Khan. State Government will file appeal against order of ADJ.”

After the lower court verdict, the state government had constituted a special investigation team (SIT) to identify errors and irregularities in the investigation and fix the responsibility for botching up the investigation on individual officers. The SIT submitted its report to the DGP last month.

On October 18, Additional Advocate General RP Singh spoke about the appeal under Section 378 of the CrPC. He told mediapersons that they will be highlighting lapses and irregularities at different stages of investigation in the case, including the video of the lynching not being presented as evidence in a professional manner.

The appeal is yet to be listed for hearing by the Jaipur bench of the Rajasthan High Court. Khan’s family has also filed an appeal in the High Court. Congress leaders would rather not speak on the issue. When India Legal called Congress spokesperson Suresh Choudhary to seek his opinion, his reply was: “Only the PCC chief and chief minister are authorised to speak on this issue.”

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