India should rein in cow vigilante groups - Hindustan Times
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India should rein in cow vigilante groups

ByYashovardhan Azad
Feb 28, 2023 08:45 AM IST

Disband such outfits, pursue cases against them, provide scientific tools to the police and provide IDs for cows. Inter-state cooperation will be vital in this effort

On February 22, a mahapanchayat blocked National Highway 48 at Manesar in Haryana, in support of Mohit Yadav or Monu Manesar, who was being investigated for his role in the abduction and killing of two Muslim men in Bhiwani last week. The victims, Mohammed Junaid and Mohammed Nasir, were residents of Rajasthan’s Bharatpur district. Their charred remains were found on February 16 in a burnt vehicle, two days after they left home. The Rajasthan Police named eight people with links to Right-wing outfits and said two gau rakshak (cow vigilante) groups from Haryana were behind the crime. But their action sparked protests and threats of violence from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal members, who dared the police to arrest Yadav and others. Though Yadav has now been dropped from the first information report, the links of the other accused to cow vigilante groups have been established.

In 2018, the Supreme Court issued guidelines to curb acts of violence in the name of cow protection. States governments should have paid heed (ANI Picture Service) PREMIUM
In 2018, the Supreme Court issued guidelines to curb acts of violence in the name of cow protection. States governments should have paid heed (ANI Picture Service)

Who provides muscle to these armed groups of cow vigilantes, proclaiming themselves to be protectors of cows and the Hindu religion? In 2016, several such groups sprung up in north India, and videos of cow torture were circulated to recruit vigilantes. A network of informers was built to track cases of cow smuggling, and social media was used to propagate their activities. According to Reuters, between 2010-17, 28 people were killed and 124 injured in cow-related violence; 63 attacks have been registered since 2010, including a few spine-chilling cases such as the 2017 lynching of Pehlu Khan in Alwar, the 2016 flogging of Dalit men in Una, the hanging of two men in Jharkhand by cow vigilantes the same year, and the 2015 lynching of Mohammed Akhlaq in Dadri over the alleged consumption or storage of beef.

Cow vigilantes believe they have the mandate from some state governments to carry out such activities. In 2005, the Supreme Court (SC), in a landmark judgment, upheld the constitutional validity of the anti-cow slaughter laws enacted by many states. Today, 20 states have such laws. The Haryana Gauvansh Sanrakshan and Gausamvardhan Act, 2015, mandates a punishment of a minimum of 10 years in prison for cow slaughter. In 2021, the state government bolstered its cow protection machinery by setting up a state-level Special Cow Protection Task Force (SCPTF) with senior officials to prevent the smuggling and slaughter of cows. The district branches of SCPTF include nominated gau sevaks and rakshaks. There was a move to issue identity cards to them, but wiser counsel prevailed, and the matter was dropped. Monu Manesar is a member of SCPTF, Gurugram, and therein lies his clout.

Riding on the popularity wave of cow saviours and justice seekers, using social media to hype their acts of misplaced heroism and displaying their proximity to district officials, these gau rakshaks acquire the audacity to bend the rules.

Three of the accused in the Bhiwani case are reportedly police informers, though handlers never leak the names of informers. For that matter, any person can give information about a crime to the police, but no informer has the right to engage in policing or enforce his version of justice. Kidnapping, beating up alleged smugglers and committing mayhem are unpardonable crimes. According to the superintendent of police, Nuh, Haryana, these gau sevaks have no affiliation with the government. Their association is limited to providing actionable intelligence. In practice, however, some even accompany the police on raids, and their photographs with police officials belie the claims of them being mere informers.

Votaries of a strong cow protection regime trace the veneration of cows to the Vedic period. The Holi riots of 1714 in Gujarat began with objections to a holika dahan (burning of Holika) by local Muslims, who allegedly slaughtered a cow. In the 1870s, once Punjab came under British rule, the cow protection movement called the Kuka revolution was pioneered by Namdhari Sikhs, and in 1892, the first gau rakshini sabha (cow protection force) was formed. Dayanand Saraswati and the Arya Samaj popularised the movement. 1893 saw the largest riots after the 1857 revolt, in Lahore, United Provinces, Ambala, Delhi and Bihar. The 20th century also witnessed riots in Calcutta in 1909, Muzaffarpur in 1911 and Faizabad in 1912 — all connected to cow protection.

In July 2018, the SC issued guidelines to the states to curb acts of violence in the name of cow protection. One of the members of that bench is the current chief justice. Condemning lynching and mob violence, the SC drew up a list of guidelines — monitoring, regular reviews and effective action against culprits — for states to stop this menace. In 2017, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, too, called killing in the name of cows unacceptable and stated that no one had the right to take the law into his own hands. States should have taken the cue and acted firmly against the self-styled cow protectors.

Lynching and mob violence do not behove a nation aspiring to be a superpower. These are crimes against humanity. Gau raksha vahinis associated with violence should be disbanded immediately and must face prosecution. Cases against perpetrators of violence must be pursued zealously — prosecutors and judges need to pay closer attention. Unfortunately, investigations into such cases are often lax. More scientific tools are needed to crack these cases. Beef identification kits must be provided to the police, and specific identification numbers for cows may be considered. Importantly, inter-state cooperation is essential. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done because some states pander to local sentiments and do not pursue cases of cow smuggling and slaughter seriously.

If cow protection is a governance goal, it needs unified action by the Centre and state governments. It can begin by disarming the gau rakshaks and disbanding the outfits. They can assist with rehabilitation, but not in apprehending and prosecuting alleged cow smugglers. The largest democracy in the world cannot afford to outsource policing to lumpen elements, acting as self-styled protectors of cows and the Hindu religion.

Yashovardhan Azad is chairman, Deepstrat, a former CIC and a retired IPS officer who has served as secretary, security, and special director, Intelligence BureauThe views expressed are personal

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