Amitabh Bachchan immortalised the “angry young man” of Hindi movies in the 1970s. At odds with a corrupt, unjust system, his ubiquitous “Vijay” persona would single-handedly beat up baddies and bullies, reducing them to whimpering repentance. His fans – in the millions – would whistle and cheer with satisfaction.

Punishing wrongs is attractive, though every so often, the Bachchan character would be warned against taking kanoon, the law, into his own hands. It was a homily that Prime Minister Narendra Modi echoed on June 29 when he criticised a spate of deadly attacks on Muslims by would-be cow protectors, who did not even spare children and minors. A nine-year-old girl was among five members of a livestock-rearing nomadic family attacked by cow protectors in Jammu and Kashmir in April while Mohammaed Imteyaz Khan, 12, was killed in Jharkhand in March and Junaid Khan, 15, in Uttar Pradesh in June. Later, on July 20, responding to a Parliament debate on atrocities against religious minorities and Dalits, Union minister Arun Jaitley said, “There is no rationalisation, no arguments of sentiments being hurt can be an explanation for this.”

Yet, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party-led government has become a victim of its own political rhetoric. Too many of its members, supporters and affiliates are engaged in triumphantly enforcing their views of Hindu supremacy or abrasive nationalism. Indeed, these so-called cow protectors feel enabled and protected by Modi himself, whom they view as the embodiment of their beliefs, given his earlier public call denouncing the “pink revolution” – the expansion of the beef industry – while failing to distinguish between cows and buffaloes. While the slaughter of cows, considered holy by many Hindus, is illegal in a number of states, many states permit the killing of bulls and water buffaloes.

Then in May, the government adopted new rules banning the sale of cows and buffaloes for slaughter through animal markets, a move that would mostly hurt Muslims and Dalits engaged in the meat and leather industries, but would also undermine the government’s economic development claims.

Last week, the BJP’s sibling organisations under its ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, announced plans to recruit 5,000 “religious soldiers” from the ranks of the Bajrang Dal. An official of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad told the Hindustan Times that these recruits will “control cow smuggling and love jihad. They will also protect Hindu boys and girls, maths, temples, sant samaj and the country”. Love jihad, according to Hindu groups, is a conspiracy by Muslim men to marry Hindu women and convert them to Islam.

On June 30, a leader of cow protectors in Haryana was reported to have justified mob violence in defiance of Modi’s strictures, claiming, “When the ruler fails to do his duty, people have to step in.” His remarks came a day after a Muslim man in Jharkhand was lynched on suspicion of carrying beef.

The family of dairy farmer Pehlu Khan, killed by a mob in Rajasthan in April on suspicion of smuggling cows, protests in Delhi. (Credit: IANS)
The family of dairy farmer Pehlu Khan, killed by a mob in Rajasthan in April on suspicion of smuggling cows, protests in Delhi. (Credit: IANS)

Mob action is spreading

So, even if violence connected to cow protection were to go down, the government must recognise that this open declaration of vigilantism by BJP affiliates or supporters is a sad and terrifying prospect for an India that wants to appeal to foreign investors as a safe society that adheres to the rule of law. Already, the rot is spreading. There have been reports of vigilante action by a self-styled “anti-Romeo” squad seeking to protect women from sexual harassment in Uttar Pradesh – in March, they detained hundreds of young men, some of them reportedly just for loitering outside women’s colleges, until they were ordered to back down. The same month, mobs attacked African students in Noida on suspicion of drug trafficking and cannibalism, after a teenager died of a suspected drug overdose. In June, a police officer was beaten to death by a mob in Kashmir after an altercation.

There is also the emergence of certain interest groups that hide behind mobs to crack down on free expression, movies, books and art, and to express their discontent and offended sentiments (usually religious). Academics or activists whose views they find disagreeable or “anti-national” are routinely targeted. Then there are angry anti-state protestors attacking public property and security personnel, be it in troubled Kashmir or in Darjeeling, which is in the midst of an often violent statehood movement.

Bachchan’s angry young man raged at a system that failed to deliver. But it was, after all, fiction. Populist rhetoric to score political points, on the other hand, is enabling the angry these days to abuse basic rights to life and liberty. A government cannot allow a drift too far from human rights principles in the name of security or nationalism. A stern political response from the BJP is needed to discourage its followers from engaging in this collective punishment as so-called protectors of the nation and of religion.

Meenakshi Ganguly is South Asia Director at Human Rights Watch. Her Twitter handle is @mg2411