They thrash a man to death and we call them ‘vigilantes’, a rather shameful and disingenuous euphemism for murderers. Pehlu Khan of Haryana is this year’s Mohammad Akhlaq, lynched to death by a death squad of goons for transporting cattle that his family says he had all the requisite legal documents for. Yet these men—whom you can purportedly see on the Alwar highway in Rajasthan, in a widely circulated cellphone video, gleefully pulling and pushing a hapless, pleading man to the ground and thrashing him as he lies slumped and defeated on the road—get to call themselves ‘gau rakshaks’. And the media and ministers alike bestow respectability on them by repeating and thus normalising the compliment these murderous criminals use for themselves.
The choice of our words—vigilantes, ‘rakshaks’, ‘protectors’—matters; this language, consciously or subconsciously, accords a legitimacy and creates the illusion of a cause, as if to suggest that the intentions of these men who killed in cold blood were noble, but perhaps the execution was poor. This is a shameful, if unintended, rationalisation and what is scary is that we have come to treat it as the new normal.
It is because we frame the public discourse in this manner that politicians feel emboldened to indulge in whataboutism of the worst kind. No surprise then that the Rajasthan home minister, Gulab Chand Kataria, saw blame on ‘both sides’, as if there is any other ‘side’ that makes it permissible for citizens to stand on highways, lathis and bricks in hands, to wave down vehicles and deliver some twisted, instant version of medieval punishment. For the record, Rajasthan’s laws ban the export of cows for slaughter but do permit it, with a go-ahead from the district administration, for agricultural or dairy purposes. Else, why does one of the biggest cattle-fairs in the country take place in Rajasthan, in Pushkar?
But let’s even assume for a moment that the law was being violated; how is it permissible, sentiments notwithstanding, for anyone who is not a police officer, to mete out pronouncements of guilt and innocence, leave alone penalty and penance. How does the home minister of a state actually validate the fact that men who are not law officers have a right to stand along the wayside to keep a check on cow smuggling? Whether Dadri, Udhampur or Alwar, we are allowing lynch mobs to rise—men who are brazen and unafraid and mask their prejudices against Muslims, yes, all the attacks have been on Muslims thus far—behind the veil of ‘protection’.
The political discourse has also been replete with hypocrisies. Because the law—both on slaughter and beef consumption—varies from state to state, national parties are left fumbling on the absence of consistency in their ideological positions. The BJP, which just made cow slaughter punishable with life imprisonment in Gujarat, has admitted that it won’t be pushing a beef ban in poll-bound northeastern states where it is looking to expand its presence and where many among the local community eat beef. The Congress can’t decide whether to oppose or support the BJP on tough new laws; leaders like Digvijaya Singh, in fact, rushed to take credit for the party being first to ban cow slaughter in 24 states and said the party may even support a nationwide beef ban. And, Nitish Kumar hurt the liberal argument against state overreach decisively with his state-mandated prohibition.
Meanwhile, we should consider what sort of country thinks manslaughter is less of an issue than cow slaughter. What sort of sacred vegetarianism allows us to take a man’s life and call ourselves ‘vigilantes’?