Cow vigilantes and socio-legal protection – a detestable saga of country

Photo: Sahid Faris/Maktoob

Repeat a lie so often and it becomes the truth of the day, and the truth is not debatable. The overarching narrative of ‘narrative-making’ is facilitated with an unending collaboration of State institutions with its people, people who have a say and are listened to and are replied back with sincerity – with no power structure breaking their backs. Their degree of contribution can vary but the very fact of their involvement in the making of this narrative is undeniable.

For instance, the nomenclature for a violent attack on any particular group is called a pogrom. February 2020 in North-east Delhi, Muslim community majorly bore the brunt in a series of killings, looting, arson, and assaults, initiated from Kapil Mishra’s incendiary speech given in front of the Delhi Police. Even the official reports mention the numbers of Muslims killed and assaulted to be distinctly higher, positing the nature of the targeted violence. But the popular usage for this gut-wrenching chain of events is a ‘communal riot’ and not an ‘anti-Muslim pogrom’. From alternative media to fact-finding reports of the leftist organization, all have collectively chosen to call it a riot or communal violence.

Similarly, mob lynching of Muslims by Hindu cow vigilantes has eventually turned into an action carried out in ‘good faith’ for preventing cow-related crimes. That is why, the first response to any such attack of violence at large is, if the victim of the perpetuated assault was innocent of the charges those alleged by the ‘glorified’ lynchers. If it was not this contemptible case, Alamgir’s mother would not be clarifying that his son was not stealing a cow. Last week, in Patna’s Phulwari Sharif, Mohammad Alamgir was beaten for hours to death after he was allegedly caught stealing a buffalo in the early morning.

Repeating the history of laws about cow-related crimes, the category of cow vigilantes cum lynchers are potential candidates to be protected by regional laws of the states. The Deputy Chief Minister of Karnataka stated that under Karnataka Prevention of Slaughter and Preservation of Cattle Bill, 2020, “Vigilantes or anyone who is working for a cause and the law of the land should definitely have a scope to work in this provision”. Under this bill, ‘persons acting in good faith’ or intending to act in good faith to prevent cow slaughter would be shielded from legal action, as is the provision in more than ten national and State Cow Protection Laws.

Congress staged a walkout opposing the ‘anti-democratic’ nature of the proceedings in the Karnataka Assembly, a symbolic representation of their opposition. Ironically, Congress is the same party whose history is filled with proposing and supporting similar bills from the time when BJP was unborn. In Young India, 20 October 1921, Gandhi while extending his support for Khilafat Movement wrote, “…in laying down my life for Khilafat, I ensure the safety of the cow, that is my religion, from the Mussalaman knife”. His statement overshadowed the atrocities committed on Muslims on the subject of cow slaughter under the banner of the larger struggle for ‘both’ communities. The Swaraj movement was popularized by the Hindu Right on the primary of banning cow slaughter.

Apart from the moral betrayal pressed upon the Muslims, the other problem which one often undermines here is the glorification of national figures/ goals and the forced lack of room for posing questions to it. This line of thought officially pins the ‘wrong’ associated with cow slaughter in the Indian Constitution. It is not surprising to find bias in the text of the Constitution. Instead, surprising is the sanctity attached with the text in its entirety. Indian Constitution was not a completely new document to be written after the Partition, Anand Teltumbde in his book Republic of Caste writes, “Three-quarters of the resultant Constitution was simply the last colonial constitution, the India Act of 1935, poured into a new vessel.”

When the subject of cow slaughter was being decided for inclusion in the Indian Constitution, the Hindu Right was pitching in for making it a part of the Fundamental Rights. A façade of economic aspect masquerading it to be an economically advantageous argument. But the religious factor to the entire discourse was not a hidden agenda, it was an open secret. After the Constitutional discussions, the subject matter was categorized under Article 48 titled ‘Organisation of Agriculture and Animal Husbandry’ of the Directive Principles of the State Policy. The exceptional advantage linked with the Fundamental Rights (or at least as it was thought to be) was its enforcement in the Court. This was a major point dictating the position of cattle slaughter in general as part of the Directive Principles of the State Policy, and thereby allocating a breathable avenue for the minorities to not be dragged in the legal proceedings. Article 48 was posited as a middle ground, a concession for the Muslim community with a layer of scientific progression covering the fulfilment of the Hindu majority’s faith. It was deliberately made to look like a favour upon the Muslim community, a sacrifice on part of the leading Hindu leaders – an oxymoron all together.

Initially, in cases of cow slaughter, the Court wrapped up the verdict in words of economical pursuits, eclipsing the religious hierarchy inclusive in the cases, as was done in the articulation of Article 48. But the layers of rational choices and secularism have been shedding with time. Over the years, cow vigilantism developed as a State-sanctioned violence endeavour. With impunity from State institutions, particularly, Law & Order, and all but six states having legislation on cow slaughter, the cow vigilantes have been protected both legally and extra-legally. The impunity offered by the institutions of the State does not have to be ‘official’, not filing an FIR on time, filing parallel cross cases against the victims and their family members, dismissing the plausibility of punishment because it was a ‘mob’ in action and not any individual(s), or straight-up dismissing the source of the committed crime, all of these obstruct the quest of justice for the victim and their family. Along with it, the absence of a clear law for lynching has worsened the situation for the Muslims.

Banning cow slaughter is not just a socio-economic disadvantage for the minorities and marginalized communities who practice agriculture, it is a threat to their lives because of the clear approbation and free pass it endows upon the Hindu community. When Alamgir was lynched, the rumour was that he was stealing a buffalo from a cattle shed in the early morning. A slight rumour is enough for a Muslim to be lynched to death. Let alone the specifications of the law (and the lack of it), and the legal proceedings to take after, the authority to punish is in the hands of a Hindu mob. Besides, the unsupervised circulation of fake news regarding cattle theft/ slaughter sets the ground for ‘punishing’ Muslims. Even after the act of violence has been committed, the uploaded videos of the hate crime are flooded with anti-Muslim comments, most of the time, justifying the nature of the crime committed. This dreading normalcy has found its refuge in the legal ambit itself.

It is a behavioural manipulation in action – with no guilt of blood-shedding being ascribed to the responsible parties. The first response to these cold-blooded crimes should not be if the victim was innocent or not. The response should be even if the victim was involved in the alleged crime, why was the mob allowed to impart this extrajudicial punishment? The question should be why do Hindu cow vigilantes get a free pass after lynching Muslims to death? Ironically, no law of the land writes off death for a person who is found to be guilty of cow slaughter/ theft but the charges for murder are life imprisonment/ death.

On the likelihood of being compared to the far-right, a customary ploy of the liberals to sabotage any attempt of the minorities to question the systemic and subtle progression of the status quo, I will add, the law of this country needs to be honest of what it is about and who it is for, only then the resistance from the end of the minorities would be rightly assessed. Opposing the status quo with a forcefully burdened responsibility of saving the ‘values’ has dragged the minorities to a point where their life settles on the bare minimum of saving themselves to survive. Let the veils fall, let the burden be brought on the backs of those who claim the existence of this non-existent values, let the countrymen openly choose their sides, if the resistance has to come, let it be seen in a fair light.

Zeenia Parveen is a student of M.A. Politics (with specialization in International Studies), School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.