The Gujarat Assembly election is eight months away, and Chief Minister Vijay Rupani has announced a plan that might please a sizeable chunk of his party’s upper-caste Hindu vote bank. At a rally in Junagadh on Sunday, he announced the Bharatiya Janata Party government’s intention to introduce harsher punishment for cow slaughter – life imprisonment, according to some media reports – and the transportation of beef, through a stricter law.

Gujarat is one of 21 Indian states where killing cattle, particularly cows, is a criminal offence. Under the current Gujarat Animal Preservation Act, cow slaughter and the act of transporting its meat can invite either a penalty of Rs 50,000 or jail time for a minimum of three years that can go up to seven years.

Under the amended law, which the state government plans to propose in the Assembly next week, Rupani hopes to double the monetary penalty and increase the jail sentence to a minimum of seven years and a maximum of 10 years – though several reports quoted Rupani as saying the punishment for cow slaughter would be life imprisonment.

Since the BJP’s ascension to power at the Centre in 2014, crimes related to cow slaughter have repeatedly been in the news – but not the kind covered by laws like the Gujarat Animal Preservation Act. In September 2015, for instance, a mob of self-styled gau rakshaks (cow protection vigilantes) in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh, lynched villager Mohammed Akhlaq after accusing him of stealing and slaughtering a calf and consuming its meat.

The following year, in July, cow vigilantes in Gujarat’s Una town stripped, tied and brutally assaulted four Dalit leather tanners based on similar accusations. In the storm of protests that followed, Gujarat’s Dalits claimed they were being frequently attacked by gau rakshaks for following their traditional occupation of skinning dead cattle.

With little done to assure justice to the victims of these atrocities or to prevent cow vigilantes from running amok, Gujarat’s Dalits have slammed the government’s plans to introduce a harsher cow slaughter law.

The age of perpetrators

For Dalit rights activists like Natubhai Parmar, who was at the forefront of the protests against the Una attack, the chief minister’s silence on cow vigilante groups is as worrisome as the proposed law itself.

“When he made announcements about this new law, did he mention gau rakshaks at all?” asked Parmar, a former leather tanner from the state’s Surendranagar district. “Did he say anything about the need to keep them in control, or the fact that they have no authority to take the law into their own hands?”

While some of the accused in the Una case have already been granted bail, Parmar pointed out that the state government was yet to issue the identity cards it had promised all Dalit leather tanners after the incident. The identity cards were meant to serve as proof that the tanners were merely skinning dead cattle, not slaughtering them. “We have not even received the land we were promised to be able to do skinning work,” Parmar added.

Jayantibhai Makadia, president of the Gujarat Dalit Sangathan, said Dalit families in the villages of Una block had been living in fear since August, when mobs of upper-caste villagers had attacked people returning from a massive Dalit pride rally on Independence Day. “Just 20 days ago, two Dalit youth were beaten up on the highway near Una,” he said. “A complaint has been lodged, but Dalits are still afraid to step out of their homes. Nothing has been done to make them feel secure. It is the age of the perpetrators.”

After all this, said Parmar, the government cannot think of a stricter law that does not put curbs on gau rakshaks.

Move to polarise

To Jignesh Mevani, who became the face of Gujarat’s growing Dalit movement last year, the plan for a new cow slaughter law is an obvious attempt to polarise Hindus and Muslims before the elections that are expected to take place in November.

“The role of the state should ideally be to instil a scientific temper in the masses, to create awareness and dismantle this myth of the cow being holy,” he said. “Instead, this new law will make our environment even more polarised, and will lead to more incidents of Muslims and Dalits being tortured and abused. And those who speak out against such acts will be dubbed anti-national.”

Makadia, meanwhile, has a simple demand to make of the government before it tables the new bill in the Assembly. “If the government wants life imprisonment for cow slaughter, fine,” he said. “But then, introduce an even stricter law to punish atrocities against Dalits. Will they do it?”