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Caught in a Quagmire

Despite the Congress government introducing a bill to punish those perpetrating violence in the name of cow protection, it has made no headway as the panel formed in this regard has met just once. By Rakesh Dixit

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The credit of becoming the first state to punish cow vigilantes with jail terms continues to elude the Kamal Nath government. Nearly eight mont­hs after the Congress government introduced a bill providing for a jail term ranging from six months to five years for those engaging in violence in the name of cow protection, a stalemate over the legislation persists.

The Congress party, in the run-up to the state elections in November 2018, had promised a law against mob lynching in the name of cow protection. This fructified when the state government introduced amendments in the Madhya Pradesh Cow Progeny Slaughter Prev­ention Act, 2004, in July 2019. It was aimed at criminalising the violence seen in some incidents of cow vigilantism in the state.

The Bill, however, had to be referred to a select committee after the BJP members opposed it on the ground that it would encourage cow slaughter. There was heated debate in the assembly on the provisions of the Bill. Former chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan said the amendments would ensure smooth transport of cows by smugglers to slaughter-houses. “Gaushalas won’t be required then as no cows would be left,” he added. Chouhan urged the Congress government not to target gau rakshaks (cow protectors) and include all kinds of lynching incidents in the proposed Bill.

Responding to the debate, Chief Minister Kamal Nath said the Bill was proposed with good intent and the state government didn’t have any politics in mind. “Hearing the suspicions and fears of MLAs, I propose that the bill be sent to a select committee,” he said. The 10-member select committee that was constituted on August 26 to study the Bill and recommend changes met on February 23 this year for the first time but did not even discuss the contentious issues arising over its introduction.

Laxman Singh, a Congress legislator and younger brother of former CM Digvijaya Singh, is the chairman of the committee. He is known to be a rebel Congress lawmaker as he has embarrassed the party many times by openly supporting the BJP on issues such as the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and scrapping of Article 370 in Kashmir. He had switched to the BJP and was elected to the Lok Sabha on the saffron party’s ticket from Rajgarh twice in the past.

Laxman Singh later returned to the Congress and was elected to the state assembly in 2018. However, he continues to nurture a grouse for not being inducted in the Kamal Nath ministry, whereas Digvijaya Singh’s son, Jaivardhan Singh, is a cabinet minister. His apparent disinterest in proactively taking up the issue of cow vigilantism is believed to be a major hurdle in the select committee clearing the bill, according to Congress sources.

Besides Laxman Singh, Animal Husbandry Minister Lakhan Singh Yadav and Law Minister PC Sharma are also in the committee comprising five Congress and three BJP MLAs. However, when the committee met for the first time in Indore on February 23, only three members turned up. Besides Laxman Singh, only BJP MLA Rame­shwar Sharma and Congress MLA Jhuma Solanki were present for the select committee’s meeting with NGOs that run cowsheds.

After the meeting, Laxman Singh reportedly said that strengthening cowsheds financially was the only way forward because “then no cows will be left on the streets and consequently, gau rakshaks will vanish on their own”.

Rameshwar Sharma was unwilling to buy even this seemingly soft approach to handling cow vigilantism. He said the root of the problem was cow slaughter and beef consumption and strict enforcement of the anti-cow slaughter act was the key to solving law and order problems arising out of the transport of cows. “People are not mad to attack others. Cow slaughter is an emotional issue for them,” he reportedly said. Sharma was opposed to the Bill seeking a curb on cow vigilantism as it could be misused against people engaged in cow protection. He even went so far as to allege that the committee was formed to victimise cow vigilantes who want to check cow slaughter and transportation of cows. He has echoed the party’s firm stand on the Bill from the day it was introduced in the assembly.

BJP state spokesman Rajneesh Agrawal said there were provisions against mob lynching and violence under the IPC and CrPC and there was no need to add such provisions in the cow protection Act.

As there is no deadline to submit its report, the select committee has decided to travel to other areas and meet more people. No plan has been chalked out as yet though. Lakhan Singh Yadav, however, said that he had spoken to Kamal Nath on this matter. “A meeting of the committee will be held soon.” Sharma said that the state government was committed to enacting a law to check all kinds of mob lynching. The BJP, on the other hand, maintained that the amendment was aimed at targeting the cow protectors and shield those involved in cow slaughter and transportation.

The central government on July 23, 2018, had directed all states to introduce steps to check mob lynching, including by cow vigilantes following an order by the Supreme Court. Later, the Madhya Pradesh police issued similar guidelines on July 25, 2018, to all districts recommending the appointment of nodal officers to ensure implementation of the central guidelines.

In pursuance of the guidelines, the Madhya Pradesh Assembly passed the Anti-cow Slaughter Amendment Act, 2019, providing for a jail term of six months to three years and a fine of Rs 25,000-50,000 for those who are convicted for committing violence in the name of cows. The state cabinet had cleared the amendment to the Anti-cow Slaughter Act of 2004 that was passed by the previous Shivraj Singh Chouhan government, in June 2019.

According to the anti-cow slaughter Act 2004, no one was allowed to transport cattle through Madhya Pradesh and a special permission from a competent authority was required for this. The new Bill amended this provision, facilitating cattle transport from Madhya Pradesh to outside the state with permission from a competent authority. Explaining the need for the amendment, Yadav, who introduced the Bill in the assembly, said the buyers of bovines, especially farmers in MP, could approach the area sub-divisional magistrate of the district and seek a no-objection certificate with details like the number of cows and transportation route.

The Bill was introduced in the back­drop of an incident reported from Seoni district where three people, including a couple, were thra­shed by cow vigilantes on suspicion of carrying beef. In another case, Kha­ndwa cattle traders were tied to a rope and paraded in the city before being handed over to the police in June last year.

When the Bill was introduced, the government had claimed that, if enacted, it could be the first law in the country specifically against cow vigilantism. Sharma had said that the amendments to the cow protection law (MP Cow Pro­geny Slaughter Prevention Act, 2004) would add stricter norms against violence in the name of cow vigilantism.

The previous BJP government had enacted the Madhya Pradesh Prohib­i­tion of Slaughter of Cow-Progeny (Ame­ndment) Bill in January 2012, to ban cow slaughter. It received presidential nod later.

The Act provided that anyone found guilty of cow slaughter was liable to be jailed for seven years instead of three years and fined a minimum of Rs 5,000. But, it was silent on violence in the name of vigilantism.

Government sources said the Bill seeking punishment for cow vigilantism was necessary to check misuse of strict acts against cow slaughters passed by the previous government. They said that it is the protection and sanctity provided by laws against cow slaughter that have resulted in a close nexus between the local police and cow vigilantes, resulting in most of the lynchings in the country.

States with the strictest laws reported a higher incidence of lynching. Cases in Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Jharkhand and Gujarat together accounted for almost 54 percent of the total reported cases of mob lynchings by cow vigilantes. By deviously making a legitimate economic activity, i.e., transportation, sale and possession of beef, a serious offence, these laws have effectively criminalised the consumption of beef on the pretext of banning cow slaughter.

In many states, including Madhya Pradesh, the onus of proving one’s innocence is on the accused. The offence has been made non-bailable. Provisions regarding slaughter tend to be even stricter and more draconian.

In states such as Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Kerala and Sikkim, where there is no specific legislation prohibiting cow slaughter, no incidents of lynching have been reported.

Lead picture: Viral Video

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