It’s scary, definitely Orwellian in the grim possibilities it entails.
Imagine a situation where the state outsources its responsibility to hooligans and treats them as its ‘eyes’ while implementing a law or several of them. The case of Barun Kashyap, the youth in Mumbai who was harassed by an auto rickshaw driver for allegedly carrying a bag made of cowhide, should make it amply clear that no one is safe if thugs, particularly the ideologically-driven ones, get a free hand. That makes the Maharashtra government’s move to engage ‘volunteers’ as ‘welfare officers’ to monitor the ban on beef a troubling one.
According to a report in The Indian Express, such welfare officers, who won’t receive any salary, would be provided official identity cards. Their job would be to monitor and report acts of cruelty against animals. It’s the card, according to the report, which has got fringe elements in the Hindutva Parivar — many of the applicants are self-proclaimed gau rakshaks — excited. The reason is not hard to surmise. It virtually legitimises their activities and the card offers a sense of immunity, and power.
Some days ago Prime Minister Narendra Modi was harsh while denouncing the hooliganism going on in the name of cow protection. He said 70-80 percent of these of gau rakshaks were anti-social elements. The states needed to come down heavily on them, he emphasised. Many media investigations later revealed that cow protection had become a flourishing illegal business. The primary job of the people involved was not ensuring the well-being of the cow per se, but extortion of money from people involved with businesses related to cows one way or the other.
The advertisement of the Animal Husbandry Department of the Maharashtra government came before all this. However, now that the prime minister himself has advocated strong action against fake cow protectors from the state governments, the Devendra Fadnavis government in Maharashtra can review its move. In fact, this will serve as a case study about whether states are serious about following up on the prime minister’s call or whether they would prefer to pander to the Hindutva crowd threatening social harmony with their brazen acts of lawlessness.
While we wait and watch how Fadnavis acts, we need to give a thought to the potential threat from such card-holding volunteers to the society at large. Come back to Barun Kashyap’s case. According to his account, the autorickshaw driver touched his bag and concluded it was made of cow leather. He was lucky that he was not thrashed; with vigilantes on the loose that’s always a possibility.
But what if he had the card that the government promises to ‘volunteers’? The auto driver could have physically harmed him and dragged him to the police. Since he is a card-holder — a person recognised by the government, the police would have let him go. Barun, meanwhile, would be doing all the explaining on how the hide involved was not that of a cow but of a camel, and perhaps ending up in lock-up.
Imagine such government-approved vigilantes all over the city, pulling up and harassing people on suspicion alone. Forget anything to do with cattle, what’s the guarantee that such people won’t get into other activities too? For example, with a card in hand they can expand their role to moral-policing. In simple words, the government’s idea is in some ways an invitation for hooligans to take control of the lives of the citizenry. How much more ridiculous can it get?
One fails to understand why any government would invest so much energy in matters of cattle? It could be a matter of religious ideology pervading politics, hence the undue interest, but can it work by antagonising the common citizen? Why can the government not just go slow on the beef ban? This ban has started threatening to hurt it politically too. Will the Maharashtra government pay heed to the words of Modi? The prime minister has said 80 percent of cow vigilantes are criminals.
And the reality is that an identity card from the Maharashtra government will legitimise the activities of these criminals and arm them with the authority, even if unintended, to take the law into their hands. If it has no resources to bring the full force of the law to bear upon its beef ban, the state government has only two options: It should either lift the ban — because it is both impractical and regressive — or allow it to be followed in breach, rather than in practice. There's no third option, that of outsourcing law enforcement to goons blinded by religious extremism.