“I have faith in the constitution of India”, said Mohammed Akhlaq’s son, Sartaj, when I asked him if he was scared after an FIR was filed against his family based on a petition by their neighbour in their village, Bisada. Akhlaq was lynched by a mob of over 100 people over rumours of having butchered a calf and consumed beef in September 2015, exactly one year ago. Akhlaq’s family continues to be haunted by the questions of whether or not the meat consumed was beef, though the Uttar Pradesh police has now concluded that there was no evidence the family had slaughtered a cow.
RTI activist Saleem Baig told me how the Qureshis of UP continue to be haunted by cow protection squads with documented evidence on how those transporting cattle from one state to another with their papers in place are regularly beaten up and harassed by these groups and reprimanded for money.
“I have personally followed cases where all animals transported are caught and kept in gaushala’s and when release orders are made by police, a number of cattle are either declared dead or missing and the rest are returned. The average Muslim cattle trader does not have the gumption to fight back these squads and hence takes back whatever he gets. It is no secret what really happens to the cattle declared missing or dead.” He narrated a case filed in the Moradabad district of how a marriage of a Muslim girl belonging to a very humble economic means had to be postponed because the accused, the brother of the bride, was caught by the police on suspicion that the meat he was carrying to be served at his sister’s wedding was beef.
Cow vigilantism and the increasing number of violent incidents in the name of protecting the ‘cow and its progeny’, despite the ghastly lynching of Akhlaq, led Baig to file RTIs. His intention was to investigate the role of institutions, such as the human rights commissions, set up to protect the rights of the marginalised. More importantly, he wanted to investigate their role in playing an active part to ensure that incidents like these do not recur.
He sent applications seeking information under the RTI, with nine questions, ranging from complaint letters received by the various offices on the Dadri lynching and the follow up on these. He sought the reports of investigative teams sent to the place where the incident took place and the details of efforts at peace-building along with details of compensation by the Centre, state government and any other governmental or non governmental entity, in addition to details of proceedings against the district officer, the superintendent of police and intelligence agencies.
Filed on October 19, 2015, the replies on most of these important queries, as received from the various departments and commissions were extremely disappointing. Where the state human rights commission of UP stated that no complaints were received by the commission post the incident in Dadri and information about any investigative team sent to the place of the incident is ‘zero’, it went to the extent of answering the other seven very crucial queries by merely stating that “the answers to the rest of your questions are contained in the above mentioned information”.
The one page response by the National Human Rights Commission’s law division was also less than satisfactory. A look at the reply from the National Commission for Minorities (NCM) also makes one question why it would take an organisation like the NCM, situated merely an hour and a half away from Dadri, over half a month to send its first team to prepare a report, five-and-a-half pages long, on an incident which was being discussed internationally.
What caught my attention was the reply from the chief ministers office (which came only after the first appeal was filed) stating that as per the new rules of the RTI, passed on December 3, 2015, under Section 4 (2) (v), the information sought should not “be so vast that the collection thereof involves disproportionate diversion of resources affecting efficient operation of the public authority concerned” and thus they did not reply. Sadly, the office missed seeing the very beginning of these rules which state that any information sought before this date ‘will be proceeded with as before and shall not abate or be rejected for infirmity therein’. The office refused to reply to any of the nine crucial questions on Akhlaq’s lynching, the communal atmosphere and the compensation and punishments, basing its refusal on an invalid and incorrect argument.
The replies leave one wondering whether information sought under RTI was taken lightly by the various commissions and offices ranging from those of the district magistrate to the chief minister, or was the matter not important enough for these commissions to have taken cognisance of and acted upon in a timely manner.
Article 48 of the constitution, part of the directive principles of state policy, reads as: “Organisation of agriculture and animal husbandry: The state shall endeavour to organise agriculture and animal husbandry on modern and scientific lines and shall, in particular, take steps for preserving and improving the breeds, and prohibiting the slaughter, of cows and calves and other milch and draught cattle”.
It is no secret that most of the politico-legal discourse around cow slaughter in India is in the language of the agrarian contribution of the cow, stemming from the place the bovine finds in the directives mentioned above. However, time and again it is religious sentiments that are used to arouse popular public opinion to protect the ‘mother’, specially as elections draw close. Media reports on the ‘biryani checks’ as well as the increasing incidents of women and men beaten up in public for allegedly either having consumed beef or carrying it are worrying, to say the least. The incident in Una and the resulting revolt is revolutionary and a replication of such non-violent protests coupled with demands based on constitutional rights and non-negotiable fundamental freedoms will perhaps lead the way forward for the most marginalised, who are affected most by these violent acts by mobs and vigilante groups.
This week will mark the first anniversary of Akhlaq’s lynching, which was followed by many violent acts against those allegedly ‘breaking the laws’ and disrespecting the cow. One is left wondering whether mere sporadic statements against cow vigilantism from those in positions of power are enough, or is it time to hold those in positions of power at various levels responsible for their complacency before more people are killed.
With inputs from Saleem Baig.