ISSN 2330-717X

India: Vigilante ‘Cow Protection’ Groups Attack Minorities

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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 new report.

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.

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.”

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