In what could have been the stuff of satire, three men arrested for cow slaughter in Madhya Pradesh were slapped with charges under the National Security Act on February 5. According to the local police, the three were first booked under the state’s anti-cow slaughter law. The draconian preventive detention law was invoked later to “maintain peace in the communally sensitive area”. All three men belong to the minority community. Defending the police action, Congress spokesperson said Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Kamal Nath had directed district administration and the police to do whatever was necessary to maintain law and order, and that the freshly minted state government was particularly sensitive to “cow-related issues”.

It may be asked why men from one community must bear the burden of arrest in order to prevent communal clashes. It may also be asked why the National Security Act should be invoked at all in this case. The law, which was enacted in 1980, provides for sweeping powers of arrest and preventive detention. The potential offences are vaguely defined, from “acting in a manner prejudicial to the defence of India” to threatening public order. Detained persons need not be told they have been held for up to 10 days. Those arrested under the law may be detained without a charge for up to a year. The law violates basic tenets of natural justice such as the presumption of innocence and the accused person’s right to legal counsel.

While preventive detention laws were meant to tackle extraordinary circumstances, the Indian state has used it rather liberally, 14,57,779 times till 2001, and that excludes Jammu and Kashmir. The Act stipulates that the state or central government has to be intimated, giving rise to the suspicion that it has been used as a political tool to put down dissent or silence individuals unpalatable to the ruling dispensation. Over the last year, for instance, it has been used against Chandrashekhar of the Bhim Army, a Dalit mass organisation fighting for democratic rights, and against a journalist for criticising Bharatiya Janata Party-led governments in Manipur and at the Centre.

The Congress government’s use of the law in a cow slaughter case, just months before the Lok Sabha elections, also suggests political posturing. It came to power this December after a closely fought election in a state which had seen three terms of BJP rule and has long been a stronghold of Hindutva politics. The Congress campaign in the run up to the assembly elections had turned distinctly saffron, featuring temple visits, chariots and promises to build cow shelters. It seems to have carried on in the same vein after forming government, cheering on vigilantism and the persecution of minorities in the name of cow slaughter. As the country braces for the national campaign for general elections, such incidents of competitive Hindutva are troubling signs of what may come.