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Opinion – India’s cow vigilantes are preying on minorities

(Trigger warning: The following article contains details about physical assault)

On 24th May, a video showing a group of men attacking a Muslim meat trader went viral.

These attackers called themselves ‘gau rakshaks’ (cow protectors) and suspected that the trader was involved in the butchering of cows. The police have filed a case against the mob for physical assault, have arrested four suspects, and are on the look-out for the rest of the group.

This is an example of cow vigilantism, which is the extrajudicial attacks by vigilantes on persons for the consumption or slaughter of cows. And, in recent times, extremists in India have taken this too far.

Under Hinduism, cows are considered to be sacred; several states in India have even brought in widespread laws. For instance, in Gujarat, the slaughtering of cows, calves, bulls, and bullocks is banned, and a fine of Rs. 50,000 (£ 486) is levied along with life imprisonment.

Between 2010 and 2018, there were 123 incidents of cow-related violence– the victims of which were mostly Muslims (56%), followed by Dalits- a lower caste community (10%), and Hindus (9%).

A majority of cow vigilantes set out not to protect cows, but to target and persecute Muslims under the façade of cow protection.

There are ‘cow protection brigades’ in North India which patrol the highways to catch alleged cow slaughterers at night and are even occasionally accompanied by police officers. These groups of 10-15 ‘cow protectors’ specifically keep an eye out for Muslim transporters, and either physically assault them before handing them to the police or kill them on the spot.

The case of Mohammed Akhlaq

In September 2016, rumours spread in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh, that a farm worker and his family had consumed beef at the festival of Eid and were storing it for later.

It wasn’t long before a mob barged into the house of this farm worker, Mohammed Akhlaq, and lynched him after brutally thrashing his son. Authorities immediately sent the meat from Akhlaq’s house to a lab for forensic analysis. To their surprise, the family wasn’t even consuming beef – it was mutton.

The fact that Akhlaq died on the basis of mere suspicion is not only tragic, but also an indication of the extent to which cow vigilantes are willing to go in order to further their agenda.

In addition, the trial didn’t begin until five years later; the accused were out on bail the whole time.

Many-a-time the police have been found speaking out in support of the vigilantes, and some have even stood by silently watching as mobs assault persons on suspicion of killing cows. When cases are reported against these extremists, the police often file complaints of cow slaughter against the victims and try to pin the blame on them instead of examining the accused for cattle violence.

Only law, no order

The National Security Act 1980 (NSA) empowers the State and Central government of India to exercise their power in detaining an individual without trial for 12 months in order to prevent any threat to national security, the maintenance of public order, and the maintenance of the supply of essential commodities.

In recent times, the government has come under scrutiny for misusing the provisions of this law.

120 cases were filed in Uttar Pradesh (State in North India) under NSA between 2018 and 2020. At forty-one, the maximum number of these cases were filed for cow slaughter, and all the accused were Muslims.

The High Court quashed multiple NSA orders, and in eleven detentions, stated ‘non-application of mind’, which means ‘prejudiced’ in simple terms.

In thirteen detentions, the court said that the accused was not given the opportunity to represent themselves effectively when charged with NSA.

In seven detentions, the court stated that the cases were concerned with law & order, and it was unnecessary to invoke NSA.

In June 2015, Vivek Premi, an extremist, publicly flogged a Muslim man on suspicion of butchering cows; soon, Premi was jailed under the same law.

While this was a perfectly acceptable and justifiable arrest, the Union Ministry revoked these charges before setting him free in December that year. Today, he is a part of Bajrang Dal, a right-wing extremist organisation that is infamous for spreading Islamophobia in North India.

He continues to give hate speeches along with advocating for cattle violence.

Why is it that people accused of butchering cows rot in prison without trial for 12 months, but extremists like Vivek Premi get to walk away Scott-free whilst being a clear threat to the minorities of India?

The answer lies in the politics that gave rise to this discriminatory culture.

Politics and propaganda

The Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath, is a part of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a right-wing nationalist political party which has been accused by several rights groups of communal bias.

When the mob responsible for Mohammed Akhlaq’s death was initially jailed, Yogi Adityanath called for their release.

In 2019, the same group of men were seen cheering at the front row of the Chief Minister’s rally. In another rally he said that both Muslims and Hindus have ‘different cultures’ and are bound to clash as a result.

In July, 2018, Jayant Sinha- a BJP politician, was seen garlanding eight men who were convicted of lynching a meat trader. In an interview, Sakshi Maharaj, a BJP politician, was quoted saying, ‘We shall die, but we shan’t tolerate anyone disrespecting our mother (cows) – we shall die, we shall kill.’

How many politicians is it going to take before the majority falls prey to communal propaganda?

How many Vivek Premis is it going to take to create a population of chauvinists? How many more innocent lives will they take before we realise that everything India once stood for is at stake?

It’s going to be difficult to undo the damage that politicians and vigilantes have caused to the harmony of the nation.

However, penalizing politicians for creating religious tensions, strictly enforcing anti-hate speech laws, imprisoning vigilantes, and providing due compensation to victims are only first steps in taking down the new normal – cow vigilantism.


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