On Thursday, six months after coming to power in Madhya Pradesh, the state’s Congress government approved a proposal to punish cow protection vigilantes guilty of violence. Led by Chief Minister Kamal Nath, the government cleared an amendment to the state’s anti-cow slaughter law under which violent gau rakshaks could be jailed for six months to three years and fined between Rs 25,000 and Rs 50,000.

If implemented, this amendment will come as a relief to Muslim and Dalit communities usually targeted by self-proclaimed cow vigilante groups. As recently as May 24, two men and a woman in Madhya Pradesh’s Seoni district were beaten up by cow vigilantes for allegedly possessing beef.

As news of the amendment spread on Thursday, however, it brought particular joy to Nadeem Qureshi, a buffalo trader and former butcher from the town of Khandwa in southern Madhya Pradesh. In February, Qureshi was one of three men arrested for alleged cow slaughter and then charged under the stringent National Security Act.

The National Security Act allows for preventive detention of people who are perceived as a threat to national security or law and order, and it has been widely misused by governments over the years. When the Bharatiya Janata Party was in power in Madhya Pradesh, the NSA was invoked against at least 22 people accused of cow slaughter from 2007 to 2016.

After the Congress defeated the BJP in the December 2018 polls, those targeted by gau raksha groups expected this to change. But less than two months after Kamal Nath assumed office, the NSA was invoked against Nadeem Qureshi, his brother Shakeel Qureshi and a farmer named Azam Khan.

It took three months for all three men to be cleared of charges under the NSA. But they still face charges under the state’s anti-cow slaughter law, the Madhya Pradesh Gauvansh Vadh Pratishedh Adhiniyam, 2004. The men have pleaded innocence, but if found guilty, they could face up to seven years in prison.

“We never thought something like this could happen to us under a Congress government – we thought the atmosphere of fear would end,” Nadeem Qureshi had told Scroll.in in mid-June.

Now, with the new amendment cracking down on gau rakshak violence, Nadeem Qureshi is more hopeful about getting justice in his case.

Raids in Khandwa

Nadeem and Shakeel Qureshi, aged 28 and 38, belong to one of the many Qureshi families of traditional butchers from Khandwa’s Muslim-dominated Imlipura neighbourhood. Here, says Nadeem, the police has conducted several raids on licensed butcher shops and even people’s homes, looking for beef.

“These raids are scary and intimidating, because at least 500 police officers surround our basti and you can’t even ask them questions or talk to them,” said Nadeem Qureshi. “People from the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh] and Bajrang Dal also stand around when the raid is conducted,” he said, referring to the Hindutva organisations that many cow vigilantes are affiliated to.

Nadeem and Shakeel Qureshi used to work as butchers, but claim they gave up the profession after a police raid in 2015 when Nadeem was charged with cow slaughter. That case is still under trial.

“Licensed butchers only deal with buffalo meat, which is legal. But many of us have left that work because the police treats us as criminal even when we are doing legal work,” said Nadeem Qureshi, who claims he and Shakeel now take up any labour job they get, while also trading in buffaloes on the side – they buy buffaloes from villages nearby and sell them to butchers in Khandwa.

Nadeem Qureshi (left) with his family in Khandwa, Madhya Pradesh. Photo: Aarefa Johari

The arrests

Early morning on February 1, officials from Khandwa’s Moghat police station arrested Nadeem and Shakeel Qureshi after a cow carcass and a large knife were found in a field in the village of Kharkhali, 13 km from Khandwa. Nadeem claims he and his brother were both in Khandwa at the time, and believes they were targeted because Kharkhali is their native village where their family owns a small farm.

The third accused, Azam Khan, was arrested a day later. “We have no idea why Azam was targeted – he is just a farmer,” said Nadeem Qureshi. “To arrest him, the police first detained his wife and 13-year-old son, so that he would come to the police station to get them.”

The three men were first charged under several sections of the anti-cow slaughter law, and two days later, after an approval from the district collector, they were also booked under the National Security Act.

“The NSA does not have bail provisions, people can be detained for up to a year, and their family members are not allowed to meet them,” said Sheikh Altaf Qureshi, a lawyer representing Nadeem and Shakeel in the case. The brothers and Azam Khan were transferred out of Khandwa to Rewa central jail even as they struggled to understand what the NSA is.

According to SS Baghel, the station house officer at Moghat police station, the NSA was invoked in this case mainly to maintain law and order in the town. “Khandwa is communally sensitive. We have had five members of SIMI [the banned Students Islamic Movement of India] caught from here,” said Baghel. “When a cow is killed, Hindus get angry. Just applying cow slaughter charges would not have been enough to prevent a breakdown of law and order.”

Sunil Jain, the BJP’s media spokesperson in Khandwa, also claimed that the NSA charge in this case was meant to prevent communal tensions. “Yes, there is already a separate law against cow slaughter, but if there is pressure from various quarters, then other charges like NSA can be applied,” said Jain.

Baghel also claimed that the NSA charge was meant to serve as a deterrent for the accused. “These people cut and eat meat. We applied NSA based on their past record,” said Baghel. On further questioning, he admitted that Nadeem Qureshi was the only one out of the three accused who had a past record of being charged for alleged cow slaughter.

‘Cow protection has turned into a business’

After the Qureshi brothers and Azam Khan were arrested, it took a month for a special bench of Bhopal High Court judges to drop the NSA charges against Khan and Shakeel Qureshi. Nadeem had to spend two more months in jail before he too was cleared of NSA charges and released from jail. The police is yet to file a chargesheet against them in the cow slaughter case, and the men are unsure of how long they will have to live under its shadow.

“I was supposed to get married at the end of February, but because of this case, my engagement broke,” said Nadeem Qureshi.

Like most Muslims in the region, Nadeem and his family have always voted for the Congress, and they were angry when the brothers were accused of threatening national security under a Congress government in the state. “But I guess the police is still under the influence of the RSS and Bajrang Dal,” he said in June.

Ahmed Patel, a Congress leader in Khandwa, agreed. “We had a BJP government in Madhya Pradesh for 15 years, so police and other officials have become Sanghi in their mindsets,” said Patel, whose 27-year-old nephew had been booked under the NSA in December 2017 and served more than a month in jail before he was acquitted. “All he did was put up a poster on the street saying something like ‘Khwaja ka Hindustan’ [the Prophet’s India’] and the police found it threatening.”

Now that the Congress government has amended the law to deter cow vigilante violence, Nadeem Qureshi believes that the atmosphere of fear that people like him have been living in will finally change. “Cow protection has turned into a business with thousands of people involved, while we get targeted and suffer,” he said. “I am so happy that the government is finally going to act against them.”