It is horrible to watch a man being beaten to death. And, yet I forced myself to watch the video of Pehlu Khan’s lynching more than once. Not from cheap voyeurism but because I found it hard to understand why this was happening at all. The young men who kicked him and beat him with iron rods did not look like fanatics. They looked like modern young Indians. They wore tight jeans and fancy shirts that indicated an interest in fashion. They seemed educated and middle-class and, for me, this made their savagery more horrible. More disturbing. They took obvious pleasure in what they were doing and made it clear that their intention was not to harm Khan and his sons but to kill them. They videotaped the lynching and posted it on social media so the Prime Minister would have seen it and the Chief Minister of Rajasthan. Why did they say nothing to indicate that they were sickened by what they saw?
In Parliament, a senior minister first denied that anything had happened at all and then bizarrely added that the House must be careful not to give the impression that Parliament approved of cow slaughter. The Home Minister of Rajasthan went one awful step further and said in so many words that both sides were to blame for what happened. Both sides? Both sides? A man was beaten to death in a manner that reminded everyone of earlier barbaric times when there was no rule of law. And there is another side? That this comes from the man who has the responsibility to enforce the law in Rajasthan is not just worrying but terrifying.
This is not about cows and cow slaughter. It is not even about Hindus and Muslims even if the killers were Hindu and the victims Muslim. This is about whether India is a country in which there is the rule of law or not. If there is, then anyone who takes the law into his own hands becomes a criminal. Should this not be obvious? But not only is it not obvious to the government of Rajasthan, it seems not to be obvious to the Prime Minister.
When cow vigilantes killed Mohammad Akhlaq, they disrespected the law of the land and the Prime Minister said nothing. So now emboldened vigilante squads to roam our highways in search of more victims. When they spot a vehicle transporting cattle, they attack without checking if their victims are cattle smugglers or dairy farmers. Pehlu Khan was just a dairy farmer. But in this time of vigilante madness, these things do not matter. If these vigilantes were truly interested in the welfare of cows, it would be something, but they are not. Had they been, they would have noticed that hundreds of cows routinely die of neglect and starvation in government shelters.
If cow protection is their motive, why are they not rescuing cows abandoned in the streets of our cities? Why are they not teaching pious Hindus that it is more humane to kill a cow than abandon it when it is old and useless? Why do they not teach them that there is nothing crueller than leaving an aged animal to fend for itself? So is this movement really about saving cows or killing Muslims? Since nearly always it is Muslims who become the victims of cow vigilantes, it would be fair to say that these really hate crimes.
Meanwhile, India is in danger of falling off the map. Last week, the whole world was reeling from the horror of what happened in Syria. The images of small babies lying dead in heaps, of terrified children gasping for breath because of Bashar al-Assad’s latest chemical attack were so terrible that it forced the United States to attack Syria. Where was India’s voice? If it was raised at all, it went unheard. But forget the world, let’s just talk about us and the kind of country we want India to be. Do we want India to be a modern country in which the rule of law exists or do we want to go back to a time when outlaws ruled the land? Let there be no mistake about what is going on. The vigilantes that roam our highways are outlaws, and from official reactions to what happened in Alwar, there are signs that these lawless gangs have the patronage of powerful political leaders. Do these leaders understand that once ordinary people believe they can take the law into their hands, then the authority of the State no longer exists?
As someone who believes that a Hindu renaissance is necessary and possible, it saddens me that this very grand idea has been reduced to horrible violence in the name of the cow. No renaissance can ever come from this.