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India: Vigilante ‘Cow Protection’ Groups Attack Minorities

Authorities Should End Communal Rhetoric, Prosecute Assailants

Members of a cow protection group patrol the streets of Ramgarh, Rajasthan, and confiscate cattle being transported by traders, November 2015.  © 2015 Allison Joyce/Getty Images

(New York) – The Indian government should prevent and prosecute mob violence by vigilante groups targeting minorities in the name of so-called cow protection, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 104-page report, “Violent Cow Protection in India: Vigilante Groups Attack Minorities,” describes the use of communal rhetoric by members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to spur a violent vigilante campaign against consumption of beef and those engaged in the cattle trade. Between May 2015 and December 2018, at least 44 people – including 36 Muslims – were killed in such attacks. Police often stalled prosecutions of the attackers, while several BJP politicians publicly justified the attacks.

“Calls for cow protection may have started out as a way to attract Hindu votes, but it has transformed into a free pass for mobs to violently attack and kill minority group members,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Indian authorities should stop egging on or justifying these attacks, blaming victims, or protecting the culprits.”

The report details 11 cases that resulted in the deaths of 14 people, and the government response, in four Indian states – Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Jharkhand – selected because of their large numbers of reported mob attacks.

In one case in 2016, a vigilante group beat to death a Muslim cattle trader and a 12-year-old boy traveling to an animal fair in Jharkhand. Their badly bruised bodies were found hanging from a tree with their hands tied behind them. The boy’s father witnessed the attack, hiding in some bushes: “If I stepped out, they would have killed me, too. My son was screaming for help, but I was so scared that I hid.”

Many Hindus consider cows sacred and most Indian states ban slaughtering cows. But in recent years, several BJP-ruled states have adopted stricter laws and policies that disproportionately harm minority communities. In February 2019, the government announced a national commission for cow protection.

These policies and the vigilante attacks have disrupted India’s cattle trade and the rural agricultural economy, as well as leather and meat export industries that are linked to farming and dairy sectors, Human Rights Watch said. The attacks, often by groups claiming links to militant outfits linked to the BJP, largely target Muslim, Dalit (formerly known as “untouchables”), or Adivasi (indigenous) communities. The inadequate response from the authorities to these attacks is hurting communities, including Hindus, whose livelihoods are linked to livestock, including farmers, herders, cattle transporters, meat traders, and leather workers, Human Rights Watch said.

Cattle seized by cow vigilantes in a cow shelter in Barsana, Uttar Pradesh, June 2017.

Vigilante groups in India are beating up and sometimes killing people they suspect of slaughtering cows. Research consultant Jayshree Bajoria speaks to Philippa Stewart about the violence blighting the country.

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In almost all of the cases documented, the police initially stalled investigations, ignored procedures, or were even complicit in the killings and cover-ups. “Police face political pressure to sympathize with cow protectors and do a weak investigation and let them go free,” said a retired senior police officer in Rajasthan. “These vigilantes get political shelter and help.”

In several cases, political leaders of Hindu nationalist groups, including elected BJP officials, defended the assaults. In December, an angry mob set fire to a police station and burned several vehicles in Bulandshahr in Uttar Pradesh after villagers found some animal carcasses that they said came from slaughtered cows. Two people, including a police officer who confronted the mob, were killed. Instead of condemning the violence, the chief minister described the incident as an “accident,” and then warned that, “Illegal slaughtering, and not just cow slaughter, is banned in the entire state.” A senior police official said investigators were determined to prosecute those involved in slaughtering cows. “The cow-killers are our top priority,” he said. “The murder and rioting case is on the back burner for now.”

In a number of cases, police have filed complaints against victims’ family members and associates under laws banning cow slaughter, leaving witnesses and families afraid to pursue justice. In some cases, witnesses turned hostile because of intimidation both by the authorities and the accused. The authorities have even used the National Security Act – a repressive law that permits detention without charge for up to a year – against those suspected of illegally slaughtering cows.

In July 2018, India’s Supreme Court issued a series of directives for “preventive, remedial, and punitive” measures to address “lynching” – the term used in India for killing by a mob. The court ordered all state governments to designate a senior police officer in every district to prevent mob violence and ensure that the police act promptly against the attackers and safeguard victims and witnesses.

The court recommended creating a victim compensation system and said all such cases should be tried in fast-track courts. The court also said action should be taken against any police or government officials who fail to comply with these directives. While several states have designated officers and issued circulars to police officials on addressing mob violence, they have yet to comply with most of the court’s other directives.

India is party to core international human rights law treaties that prohibit discrimination based on race, ethnicity, or religion, and require the governments to provide residents with equal protection of the law. The Indian government is obligated to protect religious and other minority populations and to fully and fairly prosecute those responsible for discrimination and violence against them.

India’s national and state governments should take immediate steps to enforce the Supreme Court directives, Human Rights Watch said. The authorities should ensure proper investigations to identify and prosecute attackers regardless of their political connections and initiate a public campaign to end communal attacks on Muslims, Dalits, and other minorities. The authorities also should reverse policies that harm livestock-linked livelihoods, particularly in rural communities, and hold to account police and other institutions that fail to uphold rights because of caste or religious prejudice.

“Indian police investigations into mob attacks are almost as likely to accuse the minority victims of a crime as they are to pursue vigilantes with government connections,” Ganguly said. “State and national officials should be following the Supreme Court’s directives against mob killings instead of disregarding their human rights obligations.”

Illustrative Cases

Mohammed Qasim, Uttar Pradesh

Mohammad Qasim, 45, was beaten to death on June 18, 2018 by a mob that accused him of attempting to slaughter cows near the village of Pilkhuwa in the Hapur district. Qasim traded cattle, mostly bulls, and goats. When Samaydeen, 64, who was nearby tried to intervene, he was brutally beaten, too.

The police allegedly filed a false report attributing the death to a motorbike accident. Samaydeen’s brother, Yaseen, told Human Rights Watch he put his signature on the police First Information Report despite the false claim of a motorbike accident because of police threats:

The police would not tell us the hospital they had taken Qasim and Samaydeen. They also threatened us with arrest under cattle protection laws, saying they would put our whole family in jail. The police said, “Don’t you know whose government it is? What can happen? It’s better for you all to say nothing.”

After protests, police eventually arrested nine men on charges of murder, attempted murder, and rioting.

Akbar Khan, Rajasthan

Akbar Khan, 28, was killed by a mob in Alwar district on July 21, 2018. Akbar Khan and his colleague Aslam Khan, residents of Nuh district in Haryana, were returning from buying two cows when they were attacked. Aslam Khan managed to flee but saw the men brutally beating, Akbar.

The police took three hours to take the seriously injured man to the hospital, which was only 20 minutes away. He was declared dead on arrival. Following widespread condemnation, a senior police official confirmed the delay and said that one policeman had been suspended and four others transferred.

After three people were arrested for the attack, a local BJP lawmaker, Gyan Dev Ahuja, demanded their release and called for the arrest of Aslam instead, who is a witness in this case.

Mustain Abbas, Haryana

In March 2016, Mustain Abbas, 27, a resident of Saharanpur district in Uttar Pradesh, was killed in Kurukshetra district in Haryana, where he had travelled to purchase cows. The police attempted to cover up the killing by filing a cow smuggling case. Abbas’s father, Tahir Hasan, filed a habeas corpus petition in the High Court of Punjab and Haryana on March 16. The police told the court that people inside a vehicle carrying cattle had fired on the police and members of a local committee to protect cows, and when chased, abandoned the vehicle and escaped. The police said that Abbas may have been one of the people who escaped.

On March 18, the High Court issued an interim order saying the police and the district administration did not appear to be doing their duty and that an assumption of animal cruelty against those who may be simply transporting animals violated the constitutional right to pursue a legitimate occupation. The court said the Haryana police had allowed cow vigilante groups to operate in the state and “unleash terror” with impunity.

The police filed a murder case against four people, but in its final order in May 2016, the court again found that the local administration appeared to be backing the vigilante groups and that “there is every likelihood that local police to save its officers and on account of political overtones is not likely to investigate this ugly incident in its entirety.” The court ordered an investigation by the Central Bureau of Investigation, which filed a new incident report that month. However, more than two and a half years later, the investigation was still pending, and charges had yet to be filed.

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