Print edition : August 02, 2019

Pehlu Khan at a private hospital immediately after the incident.

Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot. Photo: Shahbaz Khan/PTI

Irshad Khan (left), Pehlu Khan’s son who is named in the charge sheet, with his brothers at their residence at Jaisinghpur village, in Nuh, Haryana in June 2017. Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma

A magisterial court in Rajasthan takes cognisance of the State police’s charge sheet of December 2018 that names the Haryana dairy farmer Pehlu Khan, who was lynched in 2017 by cow vigilantes at Behror in Alwar district, as an accused in the case.

IN April 2017, five dairy farmers from Mewat in Haryana were set upon by cattle vigilantes on the Jaipur-Delhi highway at Behror in Alwar district on the pretext that they were transporting cattle for slaughter. The assault was videographed by someone in the crowd. One of the farmers, Pehlu Khan, died following the assault ( “Vigilante on the prowl, Frontline, May 12, 2017). This was the second case of lynch-mob justice after the 2015 incident involving a 52-year-old Mohammed Akhlaq, who was beaten to death in Dadri district in Uttar Pradesh on suspicion of cow slaughter. National outrage erupted, laying the blame on the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government at the Centre for creating the polarised atmosphere and for giving vigilantism in the name of protecting the cow a free rein. Many such incidents involving assault and murder by self-styled gau rakshaks, or cow vigilantes, have occurred since then, mostly in BJP-ruled States.

As news of the lynching of Pehlu Khan spread, the police filed cases against the accused, some of whom they nabbed with the help of the videos available. They also slapped cases against Pehlu Khan and his sons of illegally transporting cattle for sale outside the State, a charge that the family has denied.

Pehlu Khan was a resident of Jaisinghpur village in Nuh district in Haryana, and like any other farmer and dairy owner, he bred livestock for milch purposes. Pehlu Khan succumbed to his injuries in hospital. In his dying declaration to the police, he named six persons as having taken part in the attack. The State police did not find any evidence of this, and all of them were given a “clean chit”. Another dairy farmer, Azmat Khan, suffered injuries to his head and limbs, treatment for which continued long after the incident. The police filed cases against Pehlu Khan and his sons on the basis of allegations made by the attackers.

Pehlu Khan’s sons had explained to the police, just as they had explained to their attackers, that they had legitimate papers for the purchase of the four animals from a cattle fair in Jaipur. Livestock owners in States where agriculture and animal husbandry are predominant occupations make frequent visits to such cattle fairs where the sale and purchase of livestock is freely transacted.

A community under stress

His murder drew the ire of farmer organisations such as the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), which raised the issue of the lynching vociferously as it felt that the agrarian community was already under severe stress and such incidents had the potential to divide people. As the family lost its breadwinner, the AIKS also helped the family monetarily.

In the December 2018 Rajasthan Assembly elections, the Congress unseated the BJP and formed the government. Ashok Gehlot, who took charge as Chief Minister, did not order a fresh investigation into the case, neither did he do anything about the charge sheet filed in December 2018 that named Pehlu Khan and three others as accused under Sections 5, 8 and 9 of the Rajasthan Bovine Animal (Prohibition of Slaughter and Regulation of Temporary Migration or Export) Act, 1995.

While Section 5 prohibits “the export of bovine animal for the purpose of slaughter” and regulates the “temporary migration or export for other purposes”, Section 8 pertains to penalties for violating provisions of Section 5, and Section 9 pertains to punishment for causing hurt to the animals. The stringent regulations involving the transportation of animals, especially the cow and its progeny, and the various permits associated with them were introduced by BJP-led governments.

The Act was enacted in 1995 by the BJP stalwart Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, who was well into his third term as Chief Minister. It was felt that the existing law, the Rajasthan Preservation of Certain Animals Act, 1950, was not adequate to prevent the intentional killing of the cow and its progeny. In 2018, the BJP government led by Vasundhara Raje made amendments to the Act that give the authorities more power to make arrests and seize vehicles used in the illegal transportation of the cow and its progeny.

The charge sheet against Pehlu Khan mentions that “the accused Pehlu Khan died on April 3, 2017”. The Behror magisterial court took cognisance of the charge sheet on May 29, 2019.

Asad Hyat Khan, an advocate who has been helping Pehlu Khan’s family in the cases, said two applications were filed in the Alwar Sessions Court demanding that the extrajudicial confession made by the prime accused to a television channel be considered as evidence and that the investigation against the six persons named by Pehlu Khan be reopened. “All six persons were given a clean chit by the CB-CID [Crime Branch-Crime Investigation Department]. Pehlu Khan’s dying declaration was the basis for the first information report [FIR],” he told Frontline. Four others persons, including two sons of Pehlu Khan, had also named the six persons as having led the assault and instigated others. The two applications were expected to come up on July 10 in the Sessions Court in Alwar.

In March 2019, the Ashok Gehlot government organised a gau raksha sammelan, or cow protection convention, where he assured the owners of cow shelters that he would increase the amount of grant given to them. The grant rates were hiked the same month. The Congress government initiated new measures for cow protection and preservation under the Gopalan department, a department created by the previous BJP government.

The initiatives introduced under the Gopalan department early this year were seen as steps taken with an eye on the Lok Sabha election in May. It is another matter that despite the soft Hindutva policies of the Congress government, the BJP won all 25 Lok Sabha seats.

‘Motivated case’

Faced with a barrage of criticism regarding the inclusion of Pehlu Khan’s name in the charge sheet, Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot gave an assurance that the government would reinvestigate the case if discrepancies were found. But it is not a question of discrepancies alone. In a strongly worded statement, the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) said the case was a “motivated one” from the beginning and that the gau rakshaks and the police authorities had a pattern in these murders where the victims and the survivors of the violence were “criminalised and defamed by the killers as cow smugglers”.

The PUCL statement pointed out that on the day of the incident “the two vehicles had three dairy farmers and two of Pehlu’s sons. They were carrying the ‘Ravanna’, the acknowledgement receipt, of the Jaipur Nagar Nigam [the municipal body].” Pehlu Khan had bought two cows for Rs.45,000 and Azmat Khan had purchased another two for Rs.75,000, mainly milch cattle. The PUCL had insisted that the police should have taken cognisance of their past milk sale records before booking them.

It said that there were seven lynching-related deaths between 2015 and 2018 and five of them took place in 2017. “The present government did not bother to inquire into these false cases or present a strong prosecution in the FIR number 255/2019 or in any of the lynchings that took place since 2015,” the PUCL statement said. The State government “must get the prosecution to move an application and withdraw the charge sheet under Sections 5, 8 and 9 of the Rajasthan Bovine law for alleged smuggling and cruelty against the cows”, it said. It pointed out that 11 other dairy farmers from Mewat had also been harassed by cow vigilantes, sent to jail and had their cattle seized.

Cow politics

Ever since the BJP assumed power at the Centre in 2014, protection of the cow emerged as a major thrust of the politico-cultural discourse. Around the same time, several bovine protection laws were amended and made so stringent that even the sale of a camel outside the State was proscribed in Rajasthan. The camel was made the State animal in 2014, and in 2015, the government enacted the Rajasthan Camel (Prohibition of Slaughter and Regulation of Temporary Migration or Export) Bill, 2015, which virtually clamped down on the sale of the animal outside the State.

The sale and transport of cattle became a regular nightmare for dairy owners and farmers, who are caught between the restrictions imposed by law and the terror of vigilante groups. Mob rule and lynching became regular features, with an escalation in the incidents where members of the minority community were the victims. In July 2018, Rakbar Khan, also from Mewat, was lynched by cow vigilantes in Alwar, where he had purchased a few milch cows (“Lynch mob again”, Frontline, August 31, 2018). Alwar became a district synonymous with lynching incidents though the rule of the mob was not confined to Rajasthan.

The latest lynching episode was on June 17 this year when a 24-year-old man, Tabrez Ansari, who was returning home in Saraikela Kharsawan district in Jharkhand, was forced to utter Jai Shri Ram and Jai Hanuman by a mob, who beat him up after accusing him of stealing a bike. Ansari succumbed to his injuries on June 21. This was the 14th such incident in Jharkhand, reports, a website that tracks incidents of hate crime.

In July 2018, horrified by a spate of such incidents, the Supreme Court issued a set of guidelines, holding that “horrendous acts of mobocracy” cannot be allowed to overrun the law of the land. It asked the Centre to come up with a law directing State governments and Union Territories to put measures in place to deal with cow vigilantism and mob lynching. Such incidents continue to occur with impunity despite the highest court of the land taking serious cognisance of them. The Jharkhand Food Minister called it a stray incident, but statistics show that more than a dozen such incidents have taken place in the State. What the political class, especially the BJP and its allies, does not realise is that given the reach of social media, such incidents are no longer “stray incidents” but have the potential to sow suspicion and drive deep social wedges between communities.