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Is the Life of a Cow More Important
than the Life of Five Dalits?

The grisly murder of five Dalits in a Haryana village arising reportedly from police action and mob violence needs to condemned in the strongest terms. Added to it is the statement of the VHP leader, Giriraj Kishore, to suggest the play of sentiments behind the lynching — the important place accorded to the cow in the shastras — which is reflective of a mindset that has dangerous implications.

It remains to be established whether the killers were in any sense associated with the VHP or any other outfit of the Sangh Parivar. But then, the prompt reaction by the VHP chief and the statement that his men have been sent to Jhajhar to ascertain whether a cow was skinned alive is clearly an attempt to prepare a brief for those who stand guilty of murder. The VHP leader's observation, as has been reported, that the life of a cow is very important, according to the shastras, is only a premise to suggest that the lives of the five Dalits who were killed were not as important. There cannot be a place for men with such ideas in a modern society and the civil administration at this stage cannot gloss over such remarks as merely another instance of raving and ranting by someone constituting the lunatic fringe of society. The danger in seeking to establish such abhorrent notions as the "national sentiment" is all too apparent.

Mr. Kishore's observations in the wake of the brutal display of mob violence, ostensibly caused by hearsay that a group of Dalit villagers were skinning a live cow, falls in the same genre as the activities carried out by the various Sangh Parivar outfits across Gujarat, the tribal districts of Madhya Pradesh and at Manoharpur in Orissa. The killings and other forms of violence in all these places were carried out by mobs consisting of men whose "passions" were whipped up by the sectarian campaign carried out by the fundamentalist outfits. It is in this context that the incident in Jhajhar village too needs to be seen.

In this sense, it is difficult to reduce the killing of five Dalits to merely a law and order problem. All this, however, does not mean that the law enforcing agencies stand absolved of their failures. The fact that the incident is reported to have taken place right in front of a police station and that some from the civil administration too were present when the murderous mob went about lynching the hapless victims clearly shows that the personnel from the law enforcing agencies too were accomplices in the crime. Add to this the fact that the police had registered cases against the victims under the Cow Slaughter (Prevention) Act. This certainly is no way to instil a sense of confidence — that justice will be done — among the Dalits. The reaction of the police at all stages of the incident betrays a gross insensitivity to basic human values.

Be that as it may, the horrific incident in Jhajhar is not just an isolated case involving five young men and their right to life. Instead, the barbarism witnessed in this sleepy village on Tuesday night could be enacted in several other parts of the country given the prejudices inherent in the thought process of some sections, even now, against any form of egalitarianism and assertion of this right by the oppressed. The odious practice of untouchability, and the sanction accorded to it by religious tradition and sustained by the economic inequity that prevails are indeed the forces behind such incidents.

This is where the explanation by the VHP assumes a lot of importance. Hence, the need to deal with the Jhajhar incident as not merely an instance involving an unruly mob taking the law into its hands but as one having implications for the future of the democratic and pluralist set-up. This makes it imperative for the civil administration in Jhajhar and the political dispensation in Haryana to make sure that those behind the grisly act of murder do not escape punishment. A show of determination can have a demonstrative effect on all those who seek to impose their own abhorrent views on the hapless.

The Hindu Editorial 22.10.2002