Merajbanu Mew lost her home in the religious violence that engulfed Gujarat in 2002 and, 14 years later, she lost her son to cow vigilantism, The Indian Express reported today. On 12 September, her 29-year-old son Mohammad Ayyub was beaten so badly by at least seven so called gau rakshaks in Ahmedabad that he succumbed to his injuries four days later.
A month earlier, another 29-year-old was beaten to death by cow vigilantes in Karnataka's Udupi district. Praveen Poojari, a BJP worker, and his friend Akshay Devadiga, had been attacked with sharpened pieces of iron and grills by around 20 cow vigilantes.
These men are dead despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi calling on self-proclaimed gau rakshaks to stop the violence, and ordering state governments to crack down on them. Others have either been bullied or beaten up in the six weeks since Modi condemned the actions of "fake" gau rakshaks on 6-7 August.
While his words sparked swift action, especially in Punjab, elsewhere it came down to what this Times of India editorial recently called a spectacular lack of follow-up. Instead, startlingly, there have been instances of BJP-led state governments encouraging cow vigilantes, and the local police collaborating with them, in effect granting them legitimacy.
The Hindu recently reported that following a raid in which several cow carcasses were recovered in a village in Rajasthan, the police returned with the cow vigilantes and, together, they ransacked the village. "The police along with the right-wing activists beat up the villagers, butchered their animals, broke the furniture and even misbehaved with the women. It all happened in the presence of the police," a village resident told the newspaper.
Last month, the Maharashtra government called for volunteers "engaged in animal welfare activities on religious grounds" to help monitor the beef ban in the state. The Indian Express reported that many among the 2000-plus applicants who responded were linked to Hindutva groups and 60 percent identified themselves as gau rakshaks. The selected volunteers will get official ID cards to monitor and report acts of cruelty against animals.
Strangely, in the process, authorities in Maharashtra have just created a parallel force. What stops one of these men from exploiting his ID card to bully and harass someone he just doesn't like.
While their 'job' profile requires them to only gather intelligence, what will prevent these 'volunteers' from demanding guns to be able to tackle cow smugglers more effectively. Cow vigilantes in Haryana are now requesting the government for licenses to buy arms as their encounters with cow smugglers are increasingly turning into violent affairs.
In part, this drive for legitimacy is a reaction to the distinction which Modi made between the 80 percent "fake" gau rakshaks, and the real cow protectors. But, as the Punjab Gau Sewa Commission Charirman Kimti Lal Bhagat recently pointed out, it is impossible to distinguish between the good guys and the bad guys. Rejecting a proposal by the Haryana Gau Sewa Ayog to issue ID cards, he said, "How can I say who is right or wrong. If we issue an ID card to someone and he does something wrong, then who will be responsible?"
There is only so much that law enforcement agencies can do to curb cow vigilantism. After all, it has surfaced as a problem only after the BJP came to power at the Centre. Instead of preparing dossiers of troublemakers posing as gau rakshaks, as Modi suggested, the real solution lies in toning down of the Hindutva ideology that has manifested itself in everything from changes in school textbooks to the policing of food.
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While the Haryana government wants to deploy civilians for crime patrolling, it is deploying the police to sniff for beef in biryani samples. Some, such as one Khemchand, a member of Vishwa Hindu Parishad's cow department, are openly defiant of Modi. "Beat them up but don't break their bones," was his advice to a group of young vigilantes recently.
In fact, gau rakshaks are no longer confined to the hinterlands. After all, Mohammad Akhlaq was lynched in Bisada village of Uttar Pradesh last year, just 60 kilometres from the national capital. Whether it is harassment over a leather bag in Mumbai, a brutal beating in Delhi, cow vigilantism has arrived in the cities as well.
It is instructive that the Prime Minister's words have carried such little weight, especially among his own legions.
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