Another day, another lynching: cow vigilantism in India’s culture of impunity

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July 20 was a rather strange day for India’s democracy. On the one hand, the Lok Sabha, lower house of the federal parliament, in a long and unusually eventful session, debated a no-confidence motion brought by the opposition parties against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government with much gusto.

It was a high-voltage session – peppered with plenty of loud speeches, pointed accusations, fierce rebuttals, and even a hug between the president of the opposition Indian National Congress (INC), Rahul Gandhi, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

On the other hand, almost at the same time as Modi’s speech in Parliament, a mob of cow vigilantes lynched one Rakbar (alias Akbar) Khan to death on suspicions of cow smuggling around 166 kilometers away in Rajasthan’s Alwar district. This is the same place where another Muslim man, dairy farmer Pehlu Khan, was beaten to death last year by a Hindu mob on similar suspicions.

The mismatch between the day’s events is, at the very least, jarring. By virtue of a full-house federal legislature tackling opposing persuasions through open dialogue, we are led to believe that India’s democracy remains as vibrant and inclusive as it always was.

But then, as dusk falls, we end up with the bloodied corpse of an innocent man, murdered for his religious affiliation. No dialogue, no debates, no hugs – only an irate mob of fanatics and a lifeless body. The contradiction is painful, confusing, even macabre. It almost makes a mockery of the Indian republic and its ostensible democratic ethos.

Justifying lynchings

Rakbar’s murder isn’t a one-off. Notwithstanding the absence of a full data set on cow lynchings, at least 15 major incidents of attacks by cow vigilantes against Muslims and Dalits (“untouchables”), mostly on suspicions of cow smuggling or consumption, have been reported since the lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq in Dadri, northern Uttar Pradesh, in September 2015.

What, however, is steadily becoming as frequent and pathological as these lynchings is the ruling regime’s tepid response to them.

Not only have BJP-led governments (federal and state) failed to take targeted action against cow vigilantism, several senior and lower-level BJP figures have also spoken or acted in favor of lynching perpetrators, either blaming the victims or straight out supporting the perpetrators.

Hours after frequenting the live broadcast of Friday’s session in the Lok Sabha from two rows behind the prime minister, the minister of state for water resources, river development and Ganga rejuvenation and parliamentary affairs, and former chief whip for the BJP, Arjun Meghwal, appeared on TV and indicated, in not-so-subtle words, that these lynchings were the outcome of a conspiracy to malign the PM.

“The number of lynchings would rise as the popularity of Narendra Modi grew,” he claimed.

On Monday, Raja Singh, a BJP member of the Telangana Legislative Assembly from Hyderabad, released a video in which he attempted to justify Rakbar’s killing by accusing the deceased victim of cow smuggling. He also termed cow vigilantism as a “war” and urged the prime minister to pay special attention to protection of cows.

In another shocking revelation, it turned out that the local police in Alwar had deliberately delayed the transport of the injured Rakbar to the nearest medical facility, instead focusing on arranging transport for the cows found with him and stopping on the way for tea. The institutional laxity here is glaring, and the message to the perpetrators less than vague.

Earlier this month, Jayant Sinha, the minister of state for civil aviation, garlanded eight men who were convicted of lynching one Alimuddin Ansari in Ramgarh, Madhya Pradesh, last year and were later given bail by the Jharkhand High Court.

Days after the lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq by a mob in Uttar Pradesh in September 2015 on suspicions of storing and consuming beef, a local BJP lawmaker, Sangeet Som, suggested that the lynching was a show of anger against the state government then led by the Samajwadi Party, which he accused of “favoring Muslims.”

Last October, 15 men accused of killing Akhlaq, who had secured bail only a month earlier, landed government jobs in the state-owned thermal-power company. According to news reports, Tejpal Nagar, the local BJP member of the legislative assembly, facilitated the mass recruitment.

Even Modi addressed the issue in public for the first time in June 2017, 21 months after Akhlaq’s lynching (the first major case). The Home Ministry has so far refused to flag it proactively as a priority issue, either shifting responsibility to state governments in the face of constant criticism, confining the targeted killings within the broader ambit of “mob lynchings,” or deflecting attention to past incidents of collective violence under INC-led governments.

Building impunity

All of the above acts and statements represent a certain institutional frame of reference in the ruling dispensation, which views cow vigilantism as a legitimate activity.

The key intent here appears to be the collective preservation of this frame by tacitly or directly justifying acts of violence against minorities and standing behind alleged perpetrators in the face of imminent justice. By means of inaction, the practice is allowed to operate as a popular instrument of exerting cultural and demographic dominance over minority communities, especially Muslims.

The repeated use of this justificatory framing has had an inevitable outcome: impunity. The high frequency with which these brutal lynchings have taken place since 2015 reflects this creeping culture of impunity that the ruling regime has fostered, unwittingly or by design.

Like accountability, impunity is built on relatively mundane structures and practices. These could include not acting against perpetrators in the face of visible crimes, acting nominally, shifting the onus of crimes to the victims, or even rewarding accused perpetrators (as in the case of Akhlaq). Together, they create an open field where violent perpetrators can flourish without fear of law.

Back in April 2017, Mohammad Rizwan, a trucker, played dead to escape the wrath of a group of cow vigilantes who accosted him near New Delhi. Rizwan escaped unhurt. This small, and rather odd, incident mirrors the full destructive force of cow vigilantism in India. Like a ferocious and hungry grizzly bear, in the face of which playing possum is the only way to survive, it promises to create unimaginable terror in the minds of a deeply vulnerable community.

For Indian democracy, this could be the end game if the government does not wake up soon.

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