In reverse gear
Lynching is pushing our society back in the ages when superstition superseded rationality
In 2015, a year after the current government assumed power, Mohammad Akhlaq was lynched to death by a mob at Dadri over rumours that his family was storing beef. Later, forensic reports confirmed that the meat wasn't beef. Although his precious life cannot be revived, the government could have at least ensured that such incidents remained stalled. Unfortunately, the bigots were emboldened and we have witnessed a steady rise in attacks on Muslims and Dalits across the country. Their animalism is driving society in reverse gear into the medieval times of witch-hunting and jungle-raj.
In one single month, October 2015, a young man, Noman, was killed by a mob in Himachal Pradesh on the suspicion of smuggling cattle, and two men, Rafeek and Habib, were beaten in UP on the allegation of slaughtering and skinning a cow. In another two months, a couple was assaulted in MP on the suspicion of carrying beef. After a couple of months, in Jharkhand, a young man and a boy were inhumanly beaten, strangulated and their bodies were hanged from a tree as they were taking their cattle to a fair. Then, in July 2016, the infamous incident of Una in Gujarat, where four Dalits were brutally beaten for skinning a dead cow that was their family profession; and, in the same month, a Dalit family, including a differently-abled man, was attacked in Karnataka, seriously injuring three of them suspecting that they had consumed beef. Elsewhere, two women were assaulted on the suspicion that they were carrying beef, while the lab tests later proved the meat was a buffalo's. At the same time, strangely, the UP police booked Zeeshan's wife and cousins under the UP Prevention of Cow Protection Act for cow-slaughter and deliberately turned a Nelson's eye on the mob that attacked their house. More such incidents; more thrashings and killings – the orgy turned into a serial, and in Alwar, Pehlu Khan was lynched in April 2017, when he was transporting cows to his small dairy farm, where he ultimately died of injuries. In another incident in Rajasthan at Balmar, even the government officials of the Animal Husbandry Department were thrashed and their truck was set on fire on suspicion of cattle-smuggling. More witch-huntings, thrashings, and more deaths; the list goes on as we lose count.
And, now, another incident at Ramgarh, in which, to save their skins, the government of Rajasthan and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad are trying to deflect the attention of the country, saying that Rakbar Khan died of beatings by their own police. But, first, who are the zealots who hauled him and beat him up? The government and the VHP need to answer. As for the police, whether the cause is inadequate briefing or their skewed loyalty to the government's supporters like Gau Rakshaks, their conduct in the episode is abominable, absurd and unprofessional – when the injured man was with them, they took their sweet time in making enquiries, leisurely had their cup of tea, before taking him to the hospital where he was declared dead. Whatever is the truth – beating the man, by the Gau Rakshaks or by the police, or by both, in a petty matter of suspicion of cow-slaughter/smuggling that resulted in his death, is unpardonable.
Amidst the euphoria of supposed economic progress, prosperity and modernisation, isn't the mob-lynching of innocent people, on the mere allegation of cow-slaughtering or beef-eating outright disgusting? Isn't it reducing the value of human life to lower than that of an animal, and making a mockery of the idea of 'modern democracy'? It appears that these bigots are neither modern nor democratic since, for them, it seems that the word 'modern' is limited to enjoying a lifestyle, and the word 'democratic' to the manoeuvring of elections for their leaders to reach the corridors of power while 'secular' is non-existent in our Constitution. They don't realise that their contemptuous actions are causing great harm to the image of the party/government in spite of the bold and progressive initiatives taken by it in steering the country forward in economic development. It is intriguing that even the party and the concerned governments in BJP-ruled states have done precious little to rein in these bigots; and, the police controlled by these governments have resorted to actions/inactions that are outrageously shameful. Indian society is being driven in reverse gear in socio-religious matters into the abyss of the medieval period.
In those dark days, witches were believed to be causing deaths with their magical powers and were persecuted by floggings, tortures, immersion in water or boiling oil, or summary decapitations. Increase of general literacy with the advent of the printing press only fuelled more imagined witch-fears. Through the stories printed, gripping fear enveloped the society. As a result, the Protestants and Catholics alike continued witch-trials with varying numbers of executions; the infamous 'Three Witches' in William Shakespeare's Macbeth being a revelation about the ruthless persecution of witchcraft during the reign of James I. Yet, in contrast to what is being done by the vigilantes now, witch-hunting was done only by the governments of those days.
Further, with time, things changed. With enlightenment, the punishments were altered. But now, in spite of all the enlightenment from modern education; in spite of having all the modern gadgets at their command, the cow-protection bigots are hunting innocent human beings who are professional cow-slaughterers and those who eat beef as a past habit, as if they are dangerous witches. Who will teach them that modernisation of lifestyle is not what is important; and it is modernisation of the mindset – broad thinking, respect for each other's customs and practices; and more than anything else it is respecting the value of human life that is the essence of progress? Who will educate them that the ethos of Hinduism is tolerance and not bigotry; and that the essence of all religions is humanism, which is also the bottom-line of our Constitution that provides the raison d'être for the coexistence of all faiths in India? Unfortunately, no one is concerned.
An assertive action of banning Gau Rakshaks would have prevented further occurrence. Didn't the government's failure to do so cost Rakbar Khan his life? Even the knee-jerk reaction of the rattled central government in ordering an enquiry and asking for a report in three months, smacks of their political overtone, since they do not want to antagonise the bigots who are their vote-gatherers in this election year. They are also speaking about amending the laws. But people are aware that if laws and the ritualistic legal process can bring about social change, crimes of prostitution, rapes, thefts etc would have stopped long ago. Instead, rapes occur so often in spite of all the laws in place. Trial, conviction, and appeals take decades, and the loopholes are exploited extensively. All this while the victims suffer a living-death as they pass through the legal process, and the accused is at large enjoying his life all these long years. Obviously, there is no fear of the law. It is only quick justice that there can be effectiveness of law, which is not the case to be.
The sincerity of the governments would have been manifested had they conducted a quick enquiry and also disbanded outfits like Gau Rakshaks who are taking the law into their hands. Alternatively, social and religious leaders and families should step in to alter the mindset of the zealots. Otherwise, we will have to live in this pervasive jungle-raj. Police leaders have also not acquitted themselves well, since being in the field, they were not adequately prepared to prevent the lynching and loss of life. Is not protecting the cow over the lives of humans a skewed priority?
Rakbar Khan's demise at the hands of the Ramgarh PS is only representative of such ethos prevailing across the country. It is, perhaps, the most searing moment for all police and ex-policemen of India. It signals the slavish depths the police will wallow to "please" the political master who, for the time being, is their administrative superior. That it is law, humanity and order that alone must always be the lodestar of any police action is lost. Superior police, our vaunted services IPS/SPS, lie in doldrums. Behind all that polish, shine, medals and badges now lie cringe and corruption. Emulation has always been the leadership's skilled way to impart lessons in disciplined services. Who have the Ramgarh PS personnel emulated?
What is the way out? The mindset of the police needs urgent change. Police leaders and their men should, at least now, forget the colonial past and realise that modern, humane police is what our democracy needs. On the practical side, the much-needed and much-talked-about complete division of the task of Prevention of Crime and Law and Order with local police, and investigation by specialised officers needs to be done forthwith, the split being up to the DGP level. And, more importantly, the Supreme Court-mandated Police Complaints Authorities should be activated and empowered to ensure neutrality, impartiality and legal-correctness of police actions, a task that is being grossly mishandled by those in power.
Cow-protection laws also need revisiting, since most of the victims in the attacks by the rabid mobs are innocent. Even otherwise, what if they consume beef or slaughter the cow or skin it for their livelihood? Have they committed such a gruesome crime that they should be lynched to death? What wrong have the Muslims and Dalits done in continuing with their food habits and professions and customs? Everything reeks of a politics of religion, religious practices, and caste.
A final word, since India is an icon of ancient wisdom for the world, the series of lynching incidents have left an indelible blot on our country and on our culture. If the lumpen outfits are not banned immediately, people of this country will remember the incumbent government for ages – not for its achievements, but, for the indelible blot its supporting zealots of religion have caused by their barbaric acts, and for the way the police machinery has been abused. It is high time the reverse gear is realigned.
(The author is a retired IPS officer, a former Member, Public Grievances Commission, Delhi, and former DIG, CBI. The views expressed are strictly personal)
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