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Pehlu Khan killed by Rajasthan gau rakshaks: Govts need to condemn vigilante groups in unambiguous terms

Vigilantism in any form and under any pretext is unacceptable. Period. Condoning it means extending tacit or explicit support to people or groups indulging in criminal activity camouflaged as cause. It also means the state is ceding space to actors who have little respect for its authority or for niceties of the law.

So when the Centre and the Rajasthan state government offer a confusing response to an incident that involves the killing of a man by cow vigilantes, it becomes worrisome.

Pehlu Khan had purchased cows from a cattle fair in Jaipur. Image courtesy: YouTube

Pehlu Khan's killing was captured on video, and went viral on social media. Image courtesy: YouTube

"No such incident, as being reported, has taken place on the ground," Union minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi said in the Rajya Sabha, replying to the Opposition's charge on the killing of Pehlu Khan, a dairy owner, by vigilantes in Rajasthan's Alwar district. He said media reports on the incident had been denied by the state government. The latter, meanwhile, has said that facts of the case are different from what is being reported.

Here's a brief account of the incident as reported in the media. Pehlu and four companions bought cows at a Jaipur fair and were on their way back to Haryana on Saturday when a gang of cow protectors intercepted them near Behror in Alwar. They were thrashed despite producing documents that the cows were for milk. Pehlu, 55, died from injuries sustained in the attack. A video of the incident went viral on social media, prompting an outcry in several circles.

Now what appeared to be a straightforward case of manslaughter has two versions: One from the media and that of the two sets of government. Rajasthan Home Minister Gulab Chand Kataria has pinned the blame on both sides. His government, in what appears to be a balancing act, he said has filed cases against both sides — against Pehlu and others for smuggling cows, and against the attackers for manhandling cow transporters.

Rajya Sabha Deputy Chairperson PJ Kurien said there were two versions to the story and asked the government to investigate the matter and inform the House.

Notice closely and you find two separate issues are getting conflated in the Rajasthan government's approach. One is manslaughter, and the other is cattle smuggling, of which no proof is available so far. By reducing the case from manslaughter to manhandling, the message that is being sent out is if it's a case of cow smuggling, then killing a man for it is not such a big offence.

If the police investigation manages to find that Pehlu and those accompanying him were indeed smuggling cattle, then the assault would be deemed morally justified.

This, in a way, means giving vigilante groups the licence to kill. So long as they have a reason to attack people, they can do so freely. If it involves killing and maiming too, it is fine; the government would look at the perpetrators kindly. The best response in this case from the state government would have been to treat the killing and smuggling aspects separately.

By being ambivalent on such matters, the powers-that-be are sending out a dangerous message: The government has outsourced law enforcement to vigilante groups, who become instant judges and executioners. The police come in as an afterthought, just to complete official formalities. Surely, it is a mockery of a democracy where institutions are supposed to intervene impartially to protect the individual.

But those being sympathetic to such vigilantism should be careful. Many members of these groups are criminals. After easy targets such as Muslims are taken care of, they would eventually turn against those who are secretly backing them. It won't be easy to find a cause. It could be protection of Indian culture or anything else.

The government must be unambiguous about criticism of such groups. Guarded statements mean it is scared.

Updated Date: Apr 06, 2017 21:17 PM

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