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Above: Self-styled cow vigilantes have claimed nearly 30 lives in the past four years of BJP rule/Photo: UNI

Though the apex court has issued contempt notices to Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh for failing to stop these aggressive groups, will the lynchings and police apathy come to an end?

~By Puneet Nicholas Yadav

The Supreme Court recently issued contempt notices to the state governments of Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh for failing to stop violence by self-styled cow vigilante groups or gau rakshaks.

The contempt notices issued by a bench of Chief Justice Dipak Misra and Justices AM Khanwilkar and DY Chandrachud came during proceedings in a PIL filed by Tushar Gandhi, great grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, through senior advocate Indira Jaising.

In September, the Supreme Court had asked all states to appoint officers of the rank of deputy superintendent of police (DSP) as nodal officers to prevent gau rakshaks from “taking the law into their hands or becoming the law unto themselves”.

In subsequent hearings, Rajasthan, UP and Haryana had filed affidavits with the Court submitting that they had complied with these orders and appointed the nodal officers.

Yet, in the months that followed, incidents of gau rakshaks going on the rampage, lynching and assaulting people—mostly Muslims or Dalits—were reported from Rajasthan, Haryana and UP. This forced Gandhi and Jaising to move the Court again in December, urging contempt notices to be issued to these three states on grounds of filing an “insincere affidavit”.

Rajasthan, Haryana and UP have been asked to reply to the contempt notices by April 3. That’s when the Supreme Court will hear the main petition filed by Gandhi to ascertain whether the centre can exercise its executive powers under Article 256 of the Constitution to give provincial governments directions on issues of law and order, a state subject.

The Supreme Court’s tough stance on the need to check cow vigilantism comes at a time when gau rakshaks have claimed nearly 30 lives in the past four years of the saffron upsurge under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah.

It is not surprising that a majority of these cases of mob-lynching, assaults and killings have been reported from BJP-ruled states. The police has almost always been conveniently absent from the scenes of crime, or worse, been a mute spectator. Often, despite eye-witness accounts, the law enforcement agencies have failed to apprehend the culprits. In some cases, like that of Pehlu Khan—the cattle farmer who was assaulted by gau rakshaks in Rajasthan’s Alwar district on April 1 last year and later succumbed to his injuries—the victims of cow vigilantes have been dubbed as “cow smugglers” by the cops in an attempt to almost justify the brutal killings and assaults.

Days before the Supreme Court issued the contempt notices, the Rajasthan police had filed a chargesheet in the case of Pehlu Khan’s lynching. The state police had earlier given a clean chit to the six assaulters identified by Khan in his dying declaration and claimed that these men were not present at the site in Alwar where the attack took place. In the chargesheet filed on January 24, the police chose to dub  Khan as a cow smuggler. Khan’s companions, Azmat and Rafeeq, who were with him on that fateful day and were also assaulted by the cow vigilantes but managed to escape have also been accused of smuggling cows and will now stand trial for the offence while those who attacked him will continue to roam freely.

The killing spree

There were numerous incidents of people being attacked, lynched and killed by cow vigilantes over the past three years. An indiaspend.com analysis shows that Muslims were the targets of 51 percent of violent incidents concerning cattle from 2010-2017. Almost 97 percent happened in the last three years under the watch of the present NDA government. Over 50 percent of the incidents took place in BJP-ruled Rajasthan, Gujarat, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh

June 22, 2017: Hafiz Junaid, 15, his brother Hasim and two cousins were stabbed multiple times by a group of men on a Ballabhgarh-bound passenger train. The boys were returning from Delhi after shopping for Eid and the attackers suspected that they were carrying beef. Junaid died while being taken to a civil hospital in Palwal, near Delhi.

June 2017: Staff and officials of the Tamil Nadu government’s Animal Husbandry Department were assaulted in Barmer, Rajasthan, on suspicion of cattle smuggling.

June 2017: Usman Ansari was assaulted by a mob in Jharkhand when a dead cow was found outside his house. Another Muslim man in the state, Alimuddin, was beaten to death on suspicion of carrying beef.

May 2017: Two meat traders were thrashed in Malegaon in Nashik district of Maharashtra.

April 2017: A mob of gau rakshaks beat up Pehlu Khan in Alwar district of Rajasthan while he was transporting cows for his dairy farm. He later succumbed to his injuries.

August 2016: Two boys were stripped, tied to a tree and assaulted after being seen skinning a cow in Mangalagiri, Andhra Pradesh

September 2015: Probably the most famous case was that of 60-year-old Mohammad Akhlaq who was lynched in Dadri, UP, over rumours that he was storing and eating beef at his home. This was one of the first incidents of mob-lynching by gau rakshaks.

This state of affairs raises a key concern—will the appointment of nodal officers to check cow vigilantism be a strong enough deterrent against these incidents of mob-lynchings, especially amid reports of police apathy towards victims of such crimes in the past?

Though the appointment of nodal officers was a suggestion submitted by Gandhi and Jaising, both agree that while this could be a positive first step towards checking such incidents, there’s still “much more” that needs to be done by the states and the centre.

Gandhi told India Legal: “The very fact that these three states filed affidavits saying that they had appointed the nodal officers but failed to check incidents of hate crimes and lynching shows that there is no political or administrative will. These states lied to the Supreme Court in their affidavits. In all probability, the nodal officers hadn’t been appointed at all because of which cases of cow vigilantism and killings continued in these states.”

The lack of seriousness shown by the states towards an obviously serious threat to law and order was evident in Rajasthan home minister Gulab Chand Kataria’s response. Asked why his state’s police had failed to check incidents of hate crimes and whether the affidavit filed by the Rajasthan government on appointment of nodal officers in every district was misleading, Kataria told India Legal : “I will need to check with the concerned officials if there was an actual lapse on our part. I don’t exactly remember the steps that we have taken.” Coming from a state’s home minister who is the head of the police department, this was strange. “Some nodal officers have been appointed, I think,” Kataria said, adding the customary assertion: “Maintaining law and order is a serious issue and the Rajasthan government and state police are doing everything possible to ensure that such cases (of cow vigilantism and hate crimes) do not recur.”

(L-R) Tushar Gandhi, great grandson of M K Gandhi; Indira Jaising, Senior Advocate; Gulab Chand kataria, Rajasthan's home ministerKataria’s claim sounds hollow when confronted with details of the killing of Pehlu Khan or the more recent, cold-blooded murder of Afrazul Khan, a native of Bengal. He was hacked and burnt by one Shambhu Lal Regar in the state’s Rajsamand district—a gruesome killing that Regar even made a video recording of and posted on social media. Though not linked to cow vigilantism—Regar claimed his was a war against “love jihad”—Afrazul’s murder only reinforced the perception of deteriorating law and order in Rajasthan.

Using the killing of Afrazul to argue that probe agencies were often compromised when it came to investigating hate crimes—be it by gau rakshaks or those carried out by the likes of Regar—Jaising told India Legal : “The sad truth is that victims of such crimes lack confidence in investigation. Afrazul’s wife has recently filed a case demanding transfer of the murder trial out of Rajasthan. This shows lack of faith in the state police and administration.” She said that “for any measure against the cow vigilantes to become a stern deterrent, the application of laws governing such crimes has to be firmly enforced”. “States are reluctant to crack down against cow vigilante groups due to the political patronage that gau rakshaks enjoy. The centre too is shirking its duty for the same reason. It is a shame,” she said.

An analysis of all reported cases of violence and killings by cow vigilante groups that rocked the country between 2010 to June 2017 was done by portal indiaspend.com. The findings show that “as many as 97 per cent of these attacks were reported after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government came to power in May 2014 and half the cow-related violence—30 of 60 cases—were from states government by the BJP”.

The killings and assault aside, there is also a severe economic price that the country has paid for this unbridled rise in cow vigilantism since May 2014. This has been made worse by the centre’s faulty law—though now diluted—that banned the sale of cattle in animal markets for the purpose of slaughter. The fear of cow vigilantes going on a killing spree has forced many Muslim and Dalit families who were engaged in dairy farming, the leather industry or agriculture to abandon their cows and in some cases, even buffaloes. The dip in the country’s total milk production over the past three years, economic experts have repeatedly said, is directly linked to this atmosphere of fear and intimidation caused by
gau rakshaks.

According to a Reuters report, the supply of local hides has declined precipitously, leading to a decrease in India’s sale of leather and leather products. From April 2016 to March 2017, total leather exports dropped 3.23 percent from the previous year—from $5.9 billion $5.67 billion. In UP alone, attacks on cow related-businesses triggered losses of up to $601 million, largely due to shutting of slaughterhouses, units manufacturing leather products and tanneries, especially in Kanpur.

While the cow’s status as a sacred animal for Hindus is understandable, the killing spree in its name raises doubts about whether governments—at the centre or in states—are trying to protect the bovine or the hooligans who assault and kill people in its name.

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