Neo-Khalistanis, Cow Vigilantes Challenge India's Security Establishment

The recently held panchayat in Haryana that strongly defended the role of gau rakshaks), and the emergence of neo-Khalistani activists under the leadership of Amritpal Singh, pose challenges that the security establishment must address.

Narendra Modi has projected his leadership on a neo-nationalism canvas that redefines public security in a new, robust perspective. But is the security establishment ready to meet emerging challenges?

Let us look at two ― the recently held panchayat in Haryana that strongly defended the role of gau rakshaks (cow protectors), and the emergence of neo-Khalistani activists under the leadership of Amritpal Singh.

Vigilantism for cow protection

The clamour for a law against cow slaughter dates back to Independence. The concern was voiced in the Constituent Assembly, leading to the insertion of Article 48 in the Constitution, among the non-justiciable Directive Principles of State Policy. It said, “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.” Putting it in the context of agriculture and animal husbandry, the framers of the Constitution attempted to take it out of the religious context, making it look secular and in the spirit of the Constitution.

Though cow protection laws in India have become harsher in recent years, it’s not universal. The Northeastern states and Kerala permit cow slaughter. Other southern states also allow slaughter, transport of cows and bullocks across states, inflict less punishment for illegal slaughter, do not prohibit (Puducherry is the exception) the sale of beef, do not reverse the burden of proof from the state to the accused, and protect buffaloes by their laws.

In such a confusing state of affairs, the northern states of the cow belt have harsher laws and chaotic enforcement. Aside from the police and other enforcement agencies, which are gripped by sectarian feelings, there are groups of vigilantes, who act first and ask questions afterwards. The police step in later and in most cases charge the victims with the harshest laws available. The courts also put the blame on the victims, who are usually Muslims.

The recent case in which two alleged cow smugglers from Rajasthan, Junaid and Naseer, were abducted and brutally killed by Bajrang Dal workers in Haryana, is raising a storm. The name of Monu Manesar, a leading vigilante with wide connections with the Haryana Police and other officials, has emerged prominently. As public opinion built up against him, a ‘panchayat’, a gathering of 400 persons from various Hindu outfits and gau raksha units, was held in Haryana’s Hathin in his support. The gathering not only insisted that the Haryana government learned from UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath to use bulldozers against those involved in cow slaughter (read Muslims), it also warned the Rajasthan Police from taking any action against Monu Manesar and other gau rakshaks.

Such incidents strike at the principles of the rule of law and due process. A crowd protecting persons guilty of violence from the police and legal process is bad enough. The pressure it applied on the government to punish the victims without due process is worse. Further, the incident interfered with inter-state police cooperation in crime prevention. In an earlier incident some months ago, an avoidable spectacle was created involving the police of Delhi, Haryana and Punjab.

The neo-Khalistanis

The siege of a police station in Ajnala, Punjab, by Amritpal Singh and his supporters on February 23, 2023 indicates the beginning of a turbulent time in Punjab. Little-known till now, Amritpal Singh dresses like Jarnail Singh Bhinderanwale. The 29-year-old has dramatically emerged on the Punjab scene with his supporters calling themselves Waris Punjab De, and forcefully demanded an independent Khalistan. They besieged the police station, using the Guru Granth Sahib as a shield to keep police at bay. In this unusual use of force, several police personnel were injured.

Amritpal Singh with a photo of militant leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. Photo: Twitter

The reason for this show of strength is even more alarming. On February 18, a close associate of Amritpal Singh, Lovepreet Singh was arrested for allegedly kidnapping one Varinder Singh.  Describing the case as politically motivated, Amritpal Singh warned the police of dire consequences unless his aide was released. His armed supporters mobilised on February 23 and police personnel were injured in the clash that followed.

Three aspects of this episode have serious implications for the law and order administration, as well as public security. First, the protesters used the Guru Granth Sahib as a shield, setting a precedent in protest politics for followers of other faiths. Second, the Punjab Police wilted in a couple of days and Lovepreet Singh was released on court orders a day later. Third, is the Khalistan movement reviving? Though a weakened Pakistan is unlikely to support any such movement, we must keep our fingers crossed.

Ajay K. Mehra is a political scientist, former principal of a Delhi college and Atal Bihari Vajpayee Senior Fellow, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, 2019-21.

This article was first published on The India Cable – a premium newsletter from The Wire & Galileo Ideas – and has been republished here. To subscribe to The India Cable, click here.