With the country in turmoil over cow vigilantism, the Supreme Court has been compelled to intervene underlining the need to keep in check overbearing ‘gau rakshaks’ taking law into their own hands. It is a clear message to those in power that they cannot remain silent while the vigilantes take law into their own hands in the name of cow protection.
The court raised the issue last week in the wake of emboldened vigilante mobs targetting minorities and the vulnerable in the name of cow protection. With states being primarily responsible for maintenance of law order, the court cannot remain silent when groups are challenging the government’s writ.
The court has asked the States and Union Territories to appoint nodal police officers in each district to crack down on such mobs. The order came after the counsel for Haryana, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Rajasthan offered to appoint such district nodal officers to check vigilante groups and act promptly whenever offences take place.
The court said the job of these nodal officers will be to ensure that vigilantes did not become a law unto themselves. For over a year now instances of groups beating up and even killing persons allegedly suspected of transporting cattle or bovine meat have become commonplace.
When Additional Solicitor General Tushar Mehta pointed out that the law is already there to take care of any kind of untoward incidents by cow vigilante groups, Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra observed “We know laws are there but what action has been taken? You can take planned action so that vigilantism does not grow,” he observed.
Since the court issued notices to some states and the Centre on a writ petition that demanded protection against such groups, more incidents of lynching have taken place. Villagers killed two persons transporting cattle in West Bengal. Three persons were killed in the same state after they were accused of cattle theft.
In more than one state, cow protectors have legal recognition as local laws provide immunity to them if they were acting in good faith. The court has asked state chief secretaries to file status reports on the action being taken to prevent such violence. The Centre, too, has to do the same.
The Apex court has made the higher echelons in the administration accountable for further incidents of lynching in the name of the cow. On his part the Prime Minister made a statement against cow vigilantism but the violence did not stop.
The question being raised now is whether the Centre ought to take recourse to Article 256 which empowers it to issue directions to the states, to put an end to the activities of vigilantes, instead of shirking its responsibility on the ground that this is essentially a law and order issue required to be tackled by the states.
It has also become necessary for the ruling dispensation to overcome its credibility deficit because of its ideological commitment to cow protection. Another aspect is whether the political leadership is keen on pushing animal slaughter rules which in turn is making life difficult for those engaged in the cattle trade for their livelihood. This has adversely affected the rural economy.
Legal experts are wondering if the court is resorting to tokenism having failed to address the multifaceted problems of the police force. It encompasses being overburdened at the lower levels, weaponry being obsolete, training methods outdated, human rights largely ignored in training modules, crime investigation not separated from maintenance of law and order as well as politicisation of the police force and lack of coordination between the Centre and the states among other issues.
The Centre needs to allay apprehensions that it is soft on vigilantism. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had declared recently that killing people in the name of cow worship is unacceptable. The law and order machinery must ensure these are not empty words.
The BJP’s bovine politics aimed against the minority community has created widespread sense of fear. Modi needs to ensure that his message against cow vigilantism is taken seriously and implemented both by the saffron brigade and his government.
The writer is a senior journalist and commentator.