Vigilante on the prowl

Print edition : May 12, 2017

In a video that has gone viral, cow vigilantes are seen assaulting the man in Rajasthan’s Alwar district. One of the five men who were attacked succumbed to injuries.

Pehlu Khan’s son Arif, who was among those attacked by the vigilantes. Photo: T.K. Rajalakshmi

Ankuri Beegam (second from right), mother of Pehlu Khan who was killed by vigilantes, receiving a cheque of Rs.3 lakh donated by the Bhoomi Adhikar Andolan, the Farmers’ Action Committee for Justice and the Left parties, from Hannan Mollah, AIKS general secretary, at a dharna held at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi on April 19. Photo: Shanker Chakravarty

The killing of a Haryana dairy farmer who transported cattle from Jaipur makes it clear that the politics around the cow and right-wing vigilantism are assuming alarming proportions.

IN yet another case of brutal vigilantism in the name of cow protection, motorcycle-borne men armed with hockey sticks mercilessly beat up Pehlu Khan, a 55-year-old dairy farmer from Mewat district in Haryana, on April 1. The farmer succumbed to his injuries. Pehlu Khan and his two sons were returning to Jaisingpur in Nuh tehsil from a cattle fair in Jaipur after purchasing two milch cows and two newborn calves for Rs.45,000. They were accompanied by two young men from the village, who had also purchased milch cattle from the fair. At around 7 p.m., the vigilantes, owing allegiance to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Bajrang Dal, stopped the vehicle in which Pehlu Khan and a fellow villager, Azmat, were travelling, on the Delhi-Jaipur National Highway in Alwar district of Rajasthan.

The men were pulled out and beaten with belts, sticks and hockey sticks in the presence of a big crowd. Some of the standers-by joined in the lynching. The entire incident was videographed. The assaulters were seen pushing Pehlu Khan to the ground. The driver, who belonged to the majority community, was let off with a few slaps after he revealed his caste identity.

The vigilantes waited for the second vehicle, which carried three milch cows and calves, and Pehlu Khan’s two sons and another farmer. The men were dragged out and beaten; however, the worst treatment was reserved for Pehlu Khan. “Unlike us, he had a distinct beard,” his 19-year-old son, Arif, said. He said they had been stopped at police posts and allowed to pass when they showed the papers. “If what we were doing was illegal, the Rajasthan Police would have stopped us. We had milch cows. No one kills milch cows. We are dairy farmers. We sell milk for a living,” he said.

Arif said while they were lying in a heap after the assault, he heard someone order to set them on fire. He told Frontline that there were only 10 men in the beginning but soon hundreds of people joined them. “My brother Irshad showed the assaulters the receipts issued by the municipal authority in Jaipur. They tore them up saying they did not care for any receipts. They would have killed us had not someone called the police,” he said. In fact, a video taken by someone and released on social media showed some policemen laughing as they got down from their vehicle.

Arif said: “They did not even spare our clothes. The police gave us clothes. They took away our cash and our mobile phones. They took away the cows and calves we had purchased. The vehicles that we hired have been impounded by the police.” He has a blood clot in his eye.

The first information report (FIR) registered by the investigating officer, Ramesh Chand Sinsiwar, on the basis of the complaint made by Pehlu Khan said that the men repeatedly identified themselves as VHP and Bajrang Dal activists and declared that whoever transported cattle on the Behror route would meet with the same fate. The FIR named six persons and said that the assailants included 200 other unidentified persons.

None of the attackers named in the dying declaration by Pehlu Khan and in the statements of the survivors has been apprehended. In fact, cases were registered against 16 persons, all dairy farmers and small agriculturists from the Meo community, including Pehlu Khan’s two sons and the two villagers who accompanied them.

Not a coincidence

The accosting of the vehicles on April 1 was not a coincidence. A high-level delegation of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) comprising Members of Parliament from West Bengal and Tripura, along with Polit Bureau member and former MP Subhashini Ali, was told by the Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) that four vans with several cattle were impounded at the Behror police station that day. Ironically, the police filed a case against Pehlu Khan under the Rajasthan Bovine Animals (Prohibition of Slaughter and Regulation of Temporary Migration or Export) Act, 1995. In 2015, the Act was made more stringent with amendments that allowed for the seizure of vehicles and the arrest of persons found illegally transporting cows inter-State.

According to the DSP, 11 men, all farmers from Mewat, were booked under the Bovine Act under sections relating to inter-State transportation of cattle. He told the delegation that two vans were intercepted on the road and the occupants beaten up. The crowd dispersed when the police arrived. The official said the transporters did not have the relevant permission from the District Magistrate to transport the cattle. The delegation found out that the Jaipur Municipal Corporation had levied extra charges for inter-State transport of cattle. It demanded an investigation into “Hindu chaukis” (illegal check points) set up by cow vigilantes.

“We stayed at the site of the cattle fair. The Municipal Corporation provided us with cots. It was a regular arrangement, but this was the first time for us. Id was approaching and our buffalo was not yielding much milk so we had to buy milch cattle. Milch cows were cheaper than buffaloes,” said Pehlu Khan’s sons. Jaisingpur village is dominated by Meo Muslims but has Hindu households as well, and the two communities have lived in harmony. The majority of the Meos are landless daily wage workers or tenant farmers. The few who own land have small holdings. Livestock rearing and dairy farming are the only source of income for the people of the region.

Government in denial mode

When the matter came up in Parliament, Minister of State for Minority Affairs and Parliamentary Affairs Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi denied it was a case of cow vigilantism. Subsequently, he denied he had said that. Minister of State for Home Kiran Rijiju, while issuing a stern warning to cow vigilantes, described the incident as an altercation between “two groups”. This was perhaps just another routine warning issued since the lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq at Dadri in Uttar Pradesh in 2015 on suspicion of cow slaughter.

Mohan Bhagwat, sarsangchalak of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, while calling for a national law banning cow slaughter, was critical of cow protection vigilantism. Rajasthan Home Minister Gulab Chand Kataria told reporters in Jaipur that it was all right that a few people who were illegally transporting animals were caught, but he hastened to add that no one had the right to take the law into their own hands. This is the refrain that invariably follows every case of cow vigilantism.

Meanwhile, organisations such as the Bhoomi Adhikar Andolan, the Left and democratic platform with 300 independent organisations representing peasants, agriculture workers, tribal people and Dalits, organised a massive protest in New Delhi on April 19. Victims and their family members participated in the protest. Amra Ram, a four-time legislator of the CPI(M) from Rajasthan, staged a 24-hour hunger strike demanding the arrest of the accused. Amra Ram, who is also the president of the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), told Frontline that such vigilantism was harming the peasant economy as 25 per cent of the gross domestic product of the region was from animal husbandry. Amra Ram said the RSS demanded that the cattle fair in Jaipur be closed permanently.

“If it was illegal, then why did the Jaipur municipality allow the sale or issue the licence? This is a psychopathic crime. What kind of a law is this? Protect cows and kill human beings?” asked Hannan Mollah, general secretary of the AIKS. He pointed out that the Rajasthan government had presided over the death of thousands of cows at the State-run Hingonia Gaushala. The AIKS, he said, would launch conventions to protest against the attack on the peasant community and livestock owners.

Just as in the rest of Mewat, the state of schools, sanitation and public health in Jaisingpur is very poor. There is no high school in the village, despite the much-touted “Beti padhao Beti bachao” scheme of the Centre and Haryana governments. Barring the CPI(M) and the Aam Aadmi Party, no ruling party functionary or government official from Rajasthan or Haryana—both Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-ruled States—had visited Jaisingpur to commiserate with the distraught family of Pehlu Khan, which consists of his visually challenged mother, wife and eight children, the youngest of whom is just eight years old. The family has not been any given compensation. The systematic targeting of minorities in the name of cow protection has been on the rise ever since the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government came to power at the Centre in 2014, and senior BJP leaders and Ministers and MPs have been in denial mode. The murderous attack on Pehlu Khan took place against the background of a high-voltage campaign seeking a ban on slaughterhouses and the consumption of beef by self-styled cow protection groups.

In March 2016, two cattle herders, including a minor, were lynched in Latehar district in Jharkhand when they were on their way to a cattle fair. A truck driver was killed in Jammu and five Dalits were humiliated and beaten up in Una. In August 2016, there was a shocking incident of a double murder and gang rape, allegedly perpetrated by members of the Gau Rakshak Dal, at Dingerheri village in Tauru tehsil in Mewat district. Soon after the BJP came to power in Haryana, “biryani” vendors on the Sohna-Nuh Alwar road were harassed as food inspectors went about checking if beef was included in the food.

Cow politics

On April 6, the Vasundhara Raje government in Rajasthan decreed a 10 per cent surcharge on stamp duty on all instruments. The order said: “In exercise of the powers conferred of the Rajasthan Stamp Act, 1998, and in supersession of this department’s notification, State government hereby orders surcharge at the rate of 10 per cent on stamp duty payable on all instruments for the purposes of conservation and propagation of cow and its progeny.”

On April 17, the VHP declared that it could impose a ban on beef consumption in Goa without the help of the government. As per media reports, a senior functionary of the organisation claimed that he would do so with the help of Sangh Parivar affiliates such as the Durga Vahini and the Bajrang Dal. On March 31, Gujarat became the first State to award life imprisonment for anyone found guilty of cow slaughter. Earlier, the law provided for a maximum of 10 years’ imprisonment.

There is an uneasy calm in Mewat, a region known for putting up tough resistance to despotism since medieval times. “The Mughals couldn’t tame us. We have a distinct identity and culture. But there are elements that are out to spoil the harmony. We have never demanded anything from the government despite the region’s backwardness. Yet, our people are targeted. We are sitting on a powder keg that is ready to explode,” said a former sarpanch in Mewat.

The aggressive politics over the cow has not abated. While the Centre has issued statements warning the vigilantes, the tightening of cow protection laws in BJP-ruled States and the creation of an atmosphere around the cow and its progeny by way of belligerent statements aimed at the minorities do not inspire confidence. It is for the same reason that the BJP’s apparent concern for Muslim women with regard to triple talaq seems unconvincing.

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