A magisterial / judicial order directing the police to register a first information report and investigate a family that lost its provider in a mob lynching would seem impossible for anyone living in a rule of law system. But in the self-designated largest democracy of the world, this is what happened on 14 July 2016.
Here is a quick recap for the uninitiated. On the evening of 28 September 2015, a mob set out for the house of Mohammad Akhlaq, 52, after a public announcement from the local temple that the family had consumed beef in Bishahra Village in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh. The consumption of beef, read “cow or its progeny” is not banned in the Province – unlike some other provinces because of the majority Hindu community’s treatment of cow as sacred. This fact did not deter the fanatical mob in the least.
The mob reached Akhlaq’s house, dragged him out, and lynched him, while also grievously injuring his son, Danish. The police officers who reached the scene confiscated the meat remaining in the family fridge, and sent it for forensic investigation, confirming if it was really beef or not! Instead of arresting the culprits and providing security to the surviving members of the family, this was the first thing they did. A preliminary inquiry by the Uttar Pradesh Veterinary Department, three months later, in December 2015, found it to be meat of “goat progeny”, and not beef. No one knows when it changed/mutated, but then another 6 months later, in June 2016, University of Veterinary Science and Animal Husbandry, Mathura, found it to be beef, or meat of “cow or its progeny”.
And, lo and behold, the recovery memo prepared by the police had duly recorded that this meat was collected from the place where the mob allegedly gathered to attack Akhlaq, not from his fridge! The judge would not have any of this. That the fact of the public announcement of the family having consumed beef, followed by the attack, and the site of recovery of the aforesaid ‘beef’, reeks of outright conspiracy has not bothered him. He has nonchalantly ordered registration of an F.I.R and consequent investigation, against the still traumatized family, for cow slaughter.
It is not the fault of the judge alone. The case has exposed the rot that runs deep in the system as few cases have done before. Here is a state probing what ‘progeny’ the meat was from – cow or goat – instead of prosecuting the murderers. If that was not absurd enough, here are the police collecting the meat from a place where the lynch mob gathered, and not from the fridge of the family, for which the family members were lynched. Here is a judge who did not even blink over this huge sham and passed an order to investigate the family, instead of throwing the petition out of the window.
But wait a minute. Where was the public prosecutor to oppose such miscarriage of justice and argue against passing such an unjust order? Was he in the court in the first place? Did the government of Uttar Pradesh remember to ask him to be there in court? And if it did, and he was indeed in the court, whose brief was he carrying? Also, did the victim’s family have their lawyer present in the court to intervene against precisely this eventuality? Could the family afford to have one monetarily? Could it also find one ready to go and represent them in a court full of hostile relatives and friends of the accused without fear of bodily harm?
And what of the civil society? Where were the champions of justice, liberties, secularism, and other isms? One remembers them duly “outraging” after the lynching, after the meat was sent for “forensic investigation”. Where did they disappear after that? One cannot be naïve enough to think that they are ignorant of the labyrinth of injustice that is the Indian judicial system. How could they simply move on to ‘other cases’, of which there is no dearth due to this system that underpins it all.
And all this while similar lynch mobs kept committing such “beef murders” across India on mere suspicion. They happened in Jharkhand, in Haryana, in Himachal Pradesh, and elsewhere, with perpetrators hardly ever brought to book. The last of these beef murders occured in Una, Gujarat, wherein the perpetrators were brazen enough to beat up 4 Dalit youth right in front of a police station.
Blaming it all on the right wing Hindutva regime that has come to power in the country in 2014 is a mere easy way out. The regime, of course, wants to hammer in its beliefs and values on the body politic of the Republic, with utter disregard to pluralism. But, food habits are not the only thing it wants to alter. It has also attempted, and failed, in many other endeavors, toppling democratically elected opposition governments in the provinces for instance. It failed to have its way, first in Uttarakhand and then in Arunachal Pradesh, with the Supreme Court of India striking down the imposition of President’s rule and even the installation of a government later.
Why does the same Judiciary fail to do justice to the victims of criminal lynch mobs – that are often referred to as cow vigilante groups in the media – by taking the criminal tag away? The answer to this question exposes the facade that the justice system of the country has successfully maintained despite its gigantic failures in delivering justice to the poor and the needy. It has failed the victims of mass violence repeatedly: remember sectarian carnages from Nellie in Assam, Delhi, or Gujarat. It has also repeatedly failed to deliver justice to victims of other mob crimes, more so if they are poor and needy.
Why does it fail to deliver justice to those who need it the most, like Akhlaq’s family in this case? It fails, because it is just as much, if not more corrupt than any other organ of the state. It fails because it is biased against the poor and the marginalized and is infested with the vested interests organized around the hundreds of fault lines, like those of caste, religion, ethnicity, and gender that define the country.
It was not for nothing that the prosecutor, public or otherwise, did not point out to the judge that meat was not from the victim’s home in the first place. It is not for nothing that the victim’s family, likely, had no lawyer to defend it from such travesty.
The justice system of the country has already been chewed up virtually entirely. Cow defenders are now grazing on the last clumps of grass left.
Samar is Programme Coordinator – Right to Food Programme Asian Legal Resource Centre / Asian Human Rights Commission, Hong Kong