Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Lives at stake: On recurring instances of attack by ‘self-styled’ cow vigilantes

The scourge of murders, where cattle traders or transporters have been attacked by self-styled “cow vigilantes”, has surfaced again in Karnataka — on Saturday, a 39-year-old assistant driver of a van transporting cattle was allegedly tortured and killed by a right-wing activist and his associates. The incident must be seen as one among recurring murderous acts across States, but predominantly in the north of India. From the murder of Pehlu Khan in Rajasthan, who was transporting cattle, to Mohammad Akhlaq in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh, on the suspicion of storing cow meat — it was proven to be false — to two tribal men lynched by alleged activists of the Bajrang Dal in Seoni, Madhya Pradesh, and scores of such incidents, the venality of those committing the murders has been matched by the acuity by law enforcement agencies in implementing cattle slaughter laws to find a pretext for these acts while not bringing those responsible to book. That the murderers of Pehlu Khan were acquitted for the lack of prompt police action is emblematic of this trend. The recurrence of these acts is also a consequence of the emboldening of these right-wing activists, who show little regard for human lives as opposed to their perceived religious beliefs on cow slaughter. Another common factor that is more often the case is that these acts recur in States ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and are generally condoned by its fellow travellers in the Sangh Parivar.

The Opposition in Karnataka has rightly sought to put the government in the dock and to highlight how this could foster communal disharmony. Any dilly-dallying by the Karnataka police in bringing the guilty to book will be a signal that this is a repetition of the injustices that were committed against Pehlu Khan and others. More so, the repeated nature of these acts calls into question the outcome of recent jurisprudence on cattle slaughter, the 2005 judgment by the Supreme Court in particular which banned cattle slaughter based on an expansive interpretation of the Directive Principles of state policy, besides Articles 48, 48A, and 51(A) of the Constitution. This judgment had overturned an earlier ruling in 1958, which had limited the ban only to “useful” cattle engaged in agriculture and husbandry. The judgment’s interpretation resulted in States, mostly led by the BJP, to come up with stringent laws on cow slaughter, and the stigmatisation of Dalits, Muslims and tribals for their dietary habits and dependence on cattle products for a livelihood, besides allowing for impudent behaviour by so-called “vigilantes”. It is not enough to condemn these acts; it is time, yet again, for a judicial rethink on legislation over cow slaughter.

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