Modi Government Must Combat Growing Cow Vigilante Problem

“Cow vigilantism” – where mobs of young Hindu men rob, beat and sometimes kill those suspected of slaughtering cows – has been a greatly frightening trend in Indian society. Last week, a Muslim teenager named Junaid Khan was killed by a mob of 20 young men in the north Indian state of Haryana, supposedly for eating beef. Disappointingly, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the ruling Bhatariya Janata Party (BJP), and local police forces have largely ignored attacks like these. In fact, the excuses Haryana police forces made for failing to save Khan were pathetic and offensive, saying, “such things happen and people say some communal things but we can’t do anything.”

Unfortunately, Junaid Khan’s death is indicative of a larger pattern of vigilante attacks perpetrated by Hindu citizens ostensibly to protect cows, which are considered sacred in Hinduism. However, the objective the vigilante violence is the thinly veiled normalization of anti-Muslim bigotry. As Human Rights Watch reported, at least ten Muslims have been killed in the last two years by cow vigilantes for supposedly supporting the slaughter of cows.

The attack in Haryana comes on the heels of last month’s declaration by the Indian national government that cattle cannot be sold in markets with the intention of being slaughtered. This law would disproportionately impact Muslims, Dalits, and other minorities, as they work in low-wage beef and leather industries, and beef is a staple of their diet.

Recent restrictions on cow slaughter are unsurprising; PM Modi has consistently pushed to make it more difficult for Indians to slaughter cattle since coming to power in 2014. Before his victory, Modi campaigned against what he called the “Pink Revolution,” a boost in beef production that allowed India to become the world’s largest exporter of the product by 2015. Under Modi’s guidance, the right-wing BJP has worked closely with Hindu nationalists, and pandered to their needs in exchange for political support. The alliance between the BJP and Hindu nationalists is indicative of a troubling trend, where aggressive Hindutva nationalism has trumped secular ideology as the strongest unifying force in Indian politics.

Unsurprisingly, the BJP government has stayed quiet regarding violence perpetrated by Hindu extremists against purported “cow-killers;” in fact, harsh government rhetoric has enabled these radical mobs, and provided an environment where their deeds are likely to go unpunished. The BJP-led government in Gujarat made cow slaughter punishable by life in prison, and BJP Chief Minister of Chhattisgarh Raman Singh said, “we will hang those who kill cows.” Even more disturbingly, BJP politician Gyan Dev Ahuja expressed no remorse when vigilantes killed those suspected of slaughtering cows, saying, “sinners like them have met this demise and will continue to do so.” Such attitudes being expressed by government representatives are absolutely unacceptable, and have fostered a culture of impunity for those who attack consumers of cattle.

Similar actions and views have been expressed by law enforcement sworn to protect all members of society. After a mob viciously attacked three men this past April for transporting buffaloes, members of the mob were not immediately charged with any crimes. In fact, the victims were initially charged with animal cruelty while in their hospital beds.

 Further complicating issues is the fact that many mob participants were members of the People for Animals animal rights group, which is chaired by Maneka Gandhi, a scion of the immensely powerful Gandhi-Nehru political family and the current Minister of Women and Child Development in PM Modi’s government. The Hindu political establishment – from the very top to the very bottom – has been at best ignorant and at worst complicit and supportive of brutal attacks against innocent Muslims and Dalits.

There have been some causes for optimism in recent days, as nation-wide protests emerged condemning Junaid Khan’s death, and PM Modi said, “killing people in the name of [cow worship] is not acceptable.” Unfortunately, Modi’s words run in contrast with other BJP officials and policies, which have both tacitly and explicitly encouraged the vigilantes, thereby normalizing anti-Muslim sentiments in India. Instead, as Pratap Bhanu Mehta wrote, “each expression of outrage loses its power simply by being made to be repeated over and over.”  

Therefore, the BJP’s apathetic stance toward vigilante violence will remain unacceptable until PM Modi’s lip service is met with tangible consequences for the criminals and significant policy changes. Not only should the BJP proclaim their opposition to attacks perpetrated by cow vigilantes in even stronger terms, but also immediately revoke all state and federal laws banning the slaughter of cows. While it is well within the right of Hindus to abstain from eating beef for religious reasons, targeting minorities for the consuming and selling the beef they need to survive is harshly unfair and fundamentally opposed to the spirit of democracy. With the outrage expressed by large segments of Indian civil society over Junaid Khan’s death, now is the perfect time for the Modi government to reverse its stance on cow vigilantism, and prevent a rapidly escalating problem from growing into an unmanageable social phenomenon.