There are marked similarities between the nature of the Salwa Judum operation in Chhattisgarh and that of the cow-protection movement around the country.

Literally meaning “peace march” or “hunt for purification” in Gondi language, Salwa Judum was a civil militia group mobilised and deployed ostensibly to counter Maoist violence in Chhattisgarh, with the tacit support of the Indian State.

But then Salwa Judum became a law unto itself, harassing and killing people on mere suspicion, ultimately leading to the displacement of over 100,000 people.

Salwa Judum was declared unconstitutional and disbanded on the orders of the Supreme Court in 2011 but not before it had extracted a high price – far heavier than the cow-protectionists have till now. But the latter will likely become deadlier in the future unless steps are undertaken to curb them.

The philosophical terrain

Salwa Judum was spawned because of the philosophical terrain created in Chhattisgarh, not least by the Indian state’s role in it. It is as true of the increasingly belligerent cow-protectionist movement, evident from fresh victims it claims every passing week.

Initially, the Salwa Judum was billed as a spontaneous response of tribals against the depredations of Maoists. Whether or not its beginnings were indeed an expression of popular anger, its degeneration was inevitable.

This is because civil militia and vigilante groups, by their very nature, recognise no limits, as they operate outside the ambit of law. They tend to become an extra-legal coercive entity once the state is willing to accede to their acquisition, and exercise, of illegitimate power.

The defenders of the Salwa Judum argued that police force was inadequate to deal with the Maoists, so the state sought to arm and back civilians who were willing to take on the Maoists and tribals who supported them.

The state did not want to address the claim that Maoists found support among tribals because of the legal architecture that has been created to enable industrialists to appropriate the land and forests rich in mineral.

This legal architecture legitimises the depriving of the tribals of their resources. It is said the Maoists have popular support because they are the only deterrent to the state insistent upon executing anti-people policies.

But the state dismisses the proposition, saying the Maoists want to capture state power to achieve their ideological goal, and argues instead that the appropriation of resources is justified because India urgently needs development. Maoists are, therefore, it argues, not revolutionaries but anti-development.

The philosophical terrain in which vigilante cow-protection groups are embedded is not particularly different from that which gave rise to the Salwa Judum – and its subsequent incarnations.

It is just that they invoke the argument of religion instead of that of development.

The protectionists say Hindus consider the cow as holy. To slaughter it is to hurt their religious sentiments. Those who argue for the culling of the cow past a certain age, and economic use, are portrayed as heartless opponents of Hindus, just the way the Indian state describes the critics of its model of development in Chhattisgarh as Maoist sympathisers.

The Indian state has rarely ever answered the question its critics ask: Development for whom? In much the same manner, the protectionists have turned Hinduism into a monolith, refusing to recognise its rich diversity of beliefs and practices.

Strong arm tactics

Until the tragic outbreak of violence against Dalits in Una, for most of the deracinated Hindu middle class living in cities, the culling of the cow was blamed on Muslims.

The outrage at Una acts as a reminder as it raises the question: Dalits are Hindus, aren’t they?

Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh members, who inspire, support, and also constitute the Gau Raksha Dals, are quick to lay claim to the Hindu-ness of Dalits. Unlike the caste-Hindus though, not only do Dalits skin and debone the dead cow, but they also consume its meat. The Dalits of Chikamagalur, Karnataka, said they slaughtered the cow for consuming it and were therefore mercilessly beaten last week.

False philosophical propositions are mooted to justify illegitimate actions. The cow-protectionists patrol the highways, are often armed, and waylay vehicles ferrying cattle. Those ferrying them are beaten and their cattle are confiscated on the assumption that they were to be slaughtered for their meat. Nobody asks who sold the cattle in the first instance: Were they Hindus? Why did they sell them?

Obviously, cattle traders can go to the court for relief, but given the speed at which the judiciary works, they sustain unbearable losses. This has been the story of tribals as well, often thrown behind bars on the mere suspicion – or allegation – of aiding Maoists. It takes years for lawyer-activists to secure their release.

Cow vigilantism entails usurping the state’s coercive power – as did the Salwa Judum – by exploiting the law enacted to protect cattle. It allows for shifting the blame on those accused or suspected of violating the law on cattle-slaughter.

For instance, the two Muslim women who were beaten at Mandsaur Railway Station, Madhya Pradesh, were suspected of transporting beef. The meat in their possession was subsequently proved to have been buffalo meat.

But had it turned out to be beef, the Hindutva votaries would have said, “The women violated the law and deserved the beating.” Their possession of buff-meat reduces the gravity of the crime of assailants. After all, those inclined to slaughtering the buffalo are capable of sacrificing the cow, so the argument goes. And, it was the two women who were first arrested on charges of animal cruelty and for carrying meat for sale without a licence.

Violent spiral

This was how the Salwa Judum footsoldiers, too, used to operate. They brutalised anyone suspected of cooperating with the Maoists, or even those who didn’t support the civil militia because they feared Maoist reprisal, or who weren’t willing to endorse the killing of their brethren.

If you were not supporting the Salwa Judum, you were deemed to be supporting the Maoists. If you ferry cattle or consume buff meat or tan the cow hide, you are defying the cow protectionists.

The Salwa Judum fighters could wreak havoc because neither the local police nor the security forces would take cognisance of their crimes. These were considered violent actions in support of the state trying to wipe out the Maoists.

Likewise, the cow-protectionists can’t be patrolling the highways without the tacit support of police. Perhaps their vigilantism enables the men in uniform to extract money from cattle-traders. Or they believe it is injudicious to invite the ire of Hindutva governments in states and at the Centre.

But it is also possible they belong to the class of Hindus – that is, higher caste Hindus in whose food culture beef is a taboo – from which the cow-protectionists too come. They perhaps believe instant justice is deserved by cow-slaughterers, traders, hide workers, et al.

Ideological affinity between the state and vigilantes is a necessary precondition for vigilantism to flower in all its horrendous brutality. Salwa Judum, too, had this feature, albeit with a difference. Salwa Judum fighters were lured to the civil militia through monetary incentives. Their patrons were politicians, senior security officers, local traders, big business – all ardent supporters of the idea of development the state espouses.

Cow-protections laws exist in most States and Union Territories. But these laws have started to pose a gargantuan challenge ever since Narendra Modi became prime minister. Since the state is now increasingly demonstrating Hindutva tendencies, it has emboldened officials to show their religious prejudices which they secretly harboured. Or they are simply supine or hope to endear themselves to their political masters.

But vigilantism will sooner rather than later invite a pushback, just the way Maoists changed their tactics to take on Salwa Judum fighters, many of whom were hunted down and killed.

As such, Una has opened up the possibility of Dalits and Muslims aligning against the cow-protectionists. There are lakhs of people who depend on cattle for their livelihood and also as a cheap source of protein. There are industries which are dependent on cattle.

The growing threat of vigilantism will compel them to organise themselves, to retaliate against the cow-protection vigilante groups. In Haryana, those ferrying cattle fired upon Gau Raksha Dal activists in one incident. Are these portents of dark times ahead?

We all know the state’s reluctance to act in a just manner tends to trigger reaction, which is either expressed democratically or violently. Should it take a violent route, as is likely unless Hindutva changes tack or is vanquished through the Electronic Voting Machine, armed clashes will compel the state to intervene.

Given the state’s current ideological inclination, it won’t be wrong to assume that it will set upon the groups opposing the vigilante groups. The victims of today will be victimised in the future as well – but not before the nation has paid an exorbitant price for it.

Vigilantism is bad news for India, not least because those engaged in it begin to vie with the state to acquire coercive power. Vigilantism is a monster which needs to be bridled, for history testifies that when it isn’t, it consumes those who nurtured it.

Think Indira Gandhi and Bhindranwale. Think Pakistan’s sponsorship of terror groups which have given that country million cuts. But given the Centre’s inaction, with not even a word from Modi, perhaps rights groups should petition the Supreme Court on the vigilantism of cow-protectionists. It might, hopefully, prod the state into taking corrective action, as it did in 2011 by ordering to disband the Salwa Judum.

(Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid. It is available in bookstores.)