The Congress government in Rajasthan, which dismissed an Indian Express report on the charges against lynching victim, Pehlu Khan, as “factually incorrect”, may want to check its facts.

Khan, who died after being attacked by a mob of cow vigilantes in Alwar in April 2017, was posthumously booked under provisions of the Rajasthan Bovine Animals (Prohibition of Slaughter and Regulation of Temporary Migration or Export) Act, 1995, in a chargesheet filed by the Rajasthan Police, the Indian Express reported .

Hours after the report appeared, Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot denied this: he said Khan had not been named in the chargesheet filed by the Rajasthan Police in December 2018.

But the newspaper carried an excerpt from the chargesheet which clearly mentions Khan as one of the accused in at least two places.

Photo credit: Indian Express

The state police now claims that Khan’s name was later dropped from the chargesheet “because a dead man cannot be tried”. However, his two sons still feature in it.

The chief minister’s office added that “the Congress party is ideologically committed against any kind of lynching anywhere in the country” and that the investigation, conducted under a Bharatiya Janata Party state government, would be revisited. But the party cannot exonerate itself by simply transferring blame to the BJP. Congress governments in Rajasthan as well as other states will be watched for how well they follow up on their ideological commitment.

The indictment of Pehlu Khan

The indictment of Pehlu Khan is an example of the grim reversals in lynching cases, where the victims have ended up being named as offenders.

Immediately after the lynching, the Rajasthan police registered a complaint against Khan and his sons under the Bovine Animals Act. This despite the fact that Khan and his companions, beaten up on a highway, had shown papers to prove they were not smuggling cattle.

It was only on Arpil 5, two days after Khan died of his injuries, that the police filed a murder case against his attackers, announcing a reward for information about them. This despite the fact that Khan had given a statement to the police before he died, naming six gau rakshaks as his killers. These were men allegedly affiliated to the Bajrang Dal and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad.

As the case gave rise to public outrage, the police made an initial round of arrests. But in September 2017, the police cleared the six men of charges, based on the testimonies of the staff at a nearby cow shelter and cell phone records. By then, the case had changed hands at least twice.

While the case against Khan’s killers flounders, the Rajasthan police seems to have devoted considerable energy to establishing the crime of illegal cattle transportation. Apart from his sons, Khan’s two companions, also lynched by the mob, were booked for the alleged offence last year.

Those accused of murder were granted bail and roam free.

A saffron force?

In state after state, lynchings have thrived in a culture of impunity, created by cow protection laws, by a police force which does not seem to rank murder and majoritarian hate over alleged cattle smuggling or beef consumption, and by the political patronage of the mob.

In the BJP-ruled Uttar Pradesh, the accused in the Dadri lynching attend Chief Minister Adityanath’s rallies. But states ruled by the Congress, with its vocal opposition to lynchings, must do better.

In Madhya Pradesh, where the Congress won the assembly polls last November, Chief Minister Kamal Nath’s government has proposed a law to punish cow protection vigilantes guilty of violence. It is a welcome step, signalling an end to the impunity with which cow vigilantes have operated. But will it be implemented with due diligence by the state police?

Between 2007 and 2016, 22 people accused of cow slaughter were booked under the draconian National Security Act, even though Madhya Pradesh has separate laws against cow slaughter.

As reported, months after Nath took charge, the police invoked the act against three Muslim men in Khandwa district. While they have since been cleared of charges under the National Security Act, they still face up to seven years’ imprisonment under the anti-cow slaughter law.

Speaking the majoritarian language

Congress leaders in Madhya Pradesh claim that 15 years of BJP rule have saffronised the police force.

Police and other officials have become Sanghi in their mindsets,” Ahmed Patel, a Congress leader in Khandwa, told His nephew had been booked under the NSA in December 2017 for putting up a poster on the street and served more than a month in jail before he was acquitted.

Yet the BJP are not the only takers for Hindutva in a state where the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and other saffron bodies have deep roots going back decades. In the run up to the Madhya Pradesh state elections, the Congress itself ran a campaign tinged with Hindutva.

Over the past few years, majoritarianism has spilled out from the BJP’s party agenda to become the ruling common sense. It is entrenched across institutions, from the police to the bureaucracy to educational bodies. Even the Congress, stung by allegations of minority appeasement, seemed to distance itself from minority voters. Last year, former Congress president Sonia Gandhi hotly refuted the BJP’s claims that hers was a “Muslim party”.

After being routed in the Lok Sabha elections, the party now holds on to isolated pockets of power. It is here that Congress’s commitment to upholding secular values and protecting minorities will be tested.

It can demonstrate this commitment by ensuring that majoritarian violence is punished – from Karnataka, where a 26-year-old Google employee was battered to death after distributing chocolates to children, to Madhya Pradesh, where three Muslims were thrashed just weeks ago for allegedly carrying beef, to Rajasthan, where Gehlot’s government tries to play down charges against Pehlu Khan and his children.