This is the story of Pehlu Khan who died after being assaulted by Gau Rakshaks on a national highway in Rajasthan in April 2017. Pehlu Khan fell prey to cow vigilantes or Gau Rakshaks and is therefore one of the most memorable faces of the Victims of Gautankwad or terrorism in the name of cow protection.
A brief history of India’s Bovine Fixation
Cow protection or ‘Gau Raksha’ is not a new concept in India. Way back in 1881, Arya Samaj founder, Dayanand Saraswati had proclaimed cow slaughter an anti-Hindu act in his book Gaukarunanidhi. Cow protection found the ardent endorsement from Gandhi himself!
Most Indian states have laws against cow slaughter. In fact, only Kerala, Poschim Bongo, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Tripura and Sikkim haven’t banned cow slaughter. And while the Directive Principles of State Policy say, “The State shall endeavor to organize agriculture and animal husbandry on modern and scientific lines and shall take steps for preserving and improving the breeds, and prohibiting the slaughter of cows and calves and other milch and draught cattle”, there is no Constitutional ban on the consumption of beef.
However, cow vigilantism, where groups of self-proclaimed “Gau-Rakshaks” or cow protection squads go about ambushing people who transport cows, is a more extreme take on the concept of protecting cows. Over the last few years, the frequency and intensity of such attacks has increased giving birth to a violent movement that has earned the moniker Gautankwad.
Pehlu Khan’s ordeal: What actually transpired
55 year old Pehlu Khan was a dairy farmer from Nuh village in Haryana. On March 31, 2017, he left for Jaipur with his sons Irshad and Arif and a few other dairy farmers, to purchase cows so that he could increase milk production. His purchase was legitimate and completely above board. He got receipts of sale and purchase. He even got a certificate from civic authorities stating that the purchase was for dairy production. However, all that paper work was in vain.
On April 1, as Pehlu Khan and his companions were returning to their village with their cows, they were ambushed by cow vigilantes at the Jaipur-Delhi National Highway in Alwar in Rajasthan. Nearly 200 Gau Rakshaks surrounded the group and violently attacked them. The men accused Khan of transporting the cows for slaughter. Though Khan showed them the documents of his purchase that clearly stated that the cows had been bought for dairy farming, the Gau Rakshaks disregarded the paperwork and physically assaulted Khan and his companions. The beatings, punches, blows and kicks were relentless and did not stop despite pitiful pleas from Khan. The incident took place at a spot that was only 2 kilo meters from the local police station.
Pehlu Khan, a heart patient, was severely injured in the attack and died in hospital after two days. But before dying, he named six of his assailants in a statement before the police. Pehlu Khan identified and named Om Yadav, Hukum Chand Yadav, Sudhir Yadav, Jagmal Yadav, Naveen Sharma and Rahul Saini as his attackers. These men had alleged links with right wing groups that in turn allegedly enjoy the support of the ruling dispensation. After his death, Pehlu Khan’s statement should have been treated as his dying declaration and accepted as the truth.
Instead, FIR was registered against Pehlu Khan under the Rajasthan Bovine Animals (Prohibition of Slaughter and Regulation of Temporary Migration) Act 1995. The charges filed against the vigilantes were milder. Despite the dying declaration, the case took a complete nosedive and in September 2017, all six got a clean chit in the case thanks to some dubious testimony by sympathisers of the cow protection cause.
Meet the Khans: What Pehlu Khan’s family says
Pehlu Khan’s family comes from a community traditionally associated with animal husbandry in Haryana. His village of Nuh, was previously called Mewat after the ethnic Meo people who live there. A majority of the residents are Muslim. Khan’s family sells milk to supplement their meager income from their farmland that’s barely an acre. The month of Ramazan is when people buy milk and milk products for ‘sehri’ and Khan’s family had hoped to use the extra cows to increase their milk production and improve the family’s income. Pehlu Khan’s 80 year old mother Ankuri Begum who is blind and his wife Jebuna Begum, were inconsolable after his horrific lynching.
According to Pehlu Khan’s son Arif who was also beaten up by the mob, they were assaulted with sticks, metal knuckle caps and belts. Pehlu was punched in the eye and stomach. Irshad also sustained injuries to his eye. The mob vandalized the vehicles and stole their cash, money that was taken on loan and was left over after purchasing the cows. Some people just stood and watched. Some others, recorded videos on their cell phones. Arif feared for his life and was convinced that had the police not intervened they would have all been killed. The family held a sit-in demonstration at New Delhi’s Jantar Mantar in April, demanding justice. But many of Khan’s fellow villagers and friends began reconsidering their involvement in the dairy business, given how just proximity to cows put a target on their backs.
The smear campaign against the victims
The incident sparked outrage among civil society groups that had been crying foul over the audacity with which similar incidents were taking place all over India. But the state had completely different priorities. Just like the Mohammed Akhlaq lynching case where instead of investigating who was involved in the attack the police was more interested in determining if the meat in Akhlaq’s fridge was beef or not, even in the Pehlu Khan case a smear campaign was launched to spin a narrative that Pehlu Khan, who belonged to a religious minority that consumed beef, was actually a cattle smuggler and intended to slaughter the cows for beef. The objective was to showcase Pehlu Khan as a man who ‘deserved’ what happened to him and ‘had it coming’.
Rajasthan Home Minister Gulab Chand Kataria made a statement in the State Assembly that Pehlu Khan belonged to a family of cattle smugglers, siting two cases filed against his son Irshad. However, it turns out that Irshad had been acquitted in both cases that had interestingly been filed by Gau Rakshaks.
Kamala Didi, a ‘sadhvi’ and an influential figure among cow vigilantes in the area, claimed that Pehlu Khan had falsely accused six men in his dying declaration. She alleged that he had done so upon being tutored by certain activists. She went on to compare the vigilantes to freedom fighters like Bhagat Singh. It was statements like these that painted a sympathetic picture for the accused and made it look like Pehlu Khan and a few activists were victimizing the accused for performing their religious duty to protect cows.
How the cops botched the case
Pehlu Khan’s statement was not recorded in the presence of a magistrate, but before the police in the Intensive Care Unit of Kailash Hospital in Behror area of Alwar. This statement should have been treated as Pehlu Khan’s dying declaration and this alone should have made this an open and shut case for the cops. But instead of focusing on the accused, the police filed an FIR against the victims.
An FIR was registered against Pehlu Khan under sections 5 and 9 of the Rajasthan Bovine Animals (Prohibition of Slaughter and Regulation of Temporary Migration) Act 1995. However, the police only charged the accused under section 147 (rioting), 143 (unlawful assembly), 323 (voluntarily causing hurt), 308 (culpable homicide) and 379 (theft). After Pehlu Khan’s death, section 308 was replaced with section 302 (murder). The big question is, why did the police not charge them under harsher sections like criminal conspiracy, when it is evident that the attack was planned?
Also, the names of the six accused named by Pehlu Khan in his dying declaration, were subsequently removed from the FIR when a CID probe found no evidence of the six ever having been at the crime scene. In fact, Pankaj Kumar Singh, Additional Director General, Crime, Rajasthan told media persons that investigation into the location of their mobile phones as well as videos of the lynching prove that the six prime accused were not at the spot when the lynching took place. The arrested accused were then released on bail.
This is only one of the cases of cow vigilantism where apparently complicit police inaction has ended up botching the case. Citizens for Justice and Peace has, in association with other civil society groups namely, Alliance for Justice and Accountability (AJA), New York, Human Rights Law Network (HRLN), New Delhi, Indian American Muslim Council (IAMC), Washington D.C., Jamia Teachers’ Solidarity Association, New Delhi and South Asian Solidarity Group (SASG), London and the South Asian Solidarity Initiative (SASI), New York, detailed these criminal lapses in a report titled How The Police Are Protecting the Murderers of Pehlu Khan, based on an independent investigation by Ajit Sahi. This report will be released in New Delhi on Oct 26, 2017. Watch this space for more.
Feature Image: Amir Rizvi