Pehlu Khan’s killing at the hands of a violent mob in Rajasthan’s Alwar in 2017 was broadcast for all to see. Mobile-phone videos captured the attack on the 55-year-old dairy farmer by vigilantes who accused him of smuggling cows in savage detail, leaving nothing to the imagination. As Khan succumbed to his injuries, those videos went viral. Yet despite the attack being clearly recorded, a trial court this week acquitted all six men who had been accused of killing Khan.

Khan’s death was one of several lynchings that seemed to have the unofficial sanction of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led governments at the Centre and in the state at the time. This spate of murders was usually directed against Muslim men hand under the pretence of protecting cows from smugglers. The killings were so egregious that even the Congress, a party that has struggled to figure out its position on cow politics, promised to do something about it when it came to power in the state last year.

Earlier this year, the Rajasthan Assembly passed a law to prevent mob lynchings, recognising such deaths as being different from ordinary killings or even those that occur amidst a riot. The law has been criticised by Hindtuva supporters as being draconian. But others see it as a necessary acknowledgment that the crime of mob lynching – especially as an outcome of majoritarian politics – cannot be treated on par with other crimes.

Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot of the Congress has already announced that his government would be appealing against the trial court’s decision to acquit those accused of killing Khan.

However, the verdict in the Pehlu Khan case is a good example of the limits of enacting new laws. In fact, the state did not even need new laws to prosecute those who had been accused of killing Khan, though their sentence might have been different if they were being tried under the new legislation. The court was hampered not by the lack of legal provisions to deal with the crime but because the police investigation had been conducted in such a shoddy manner, it was impossible to convict the accused men.

Among other things, the court found that the police did not properly seize the cell phones that had been used to record videos of the incident, did not correctly record Pehlu Khan’s dying declaration that would have had tremendous evidentiary value, did not submit the videos to a forensic lab and did not get the witnesses to identify the accused.

These are baffling lapses. Mistakes of this magnitude are a reflection of the attitude of the police officers involved or those who gave them their orders. Whether it was mere negligence or a deliberately shoddy job, the court was effectively given no choice but to acquit the accused men, saying that they had to be given the benefit of the doubt.

In other words, no matter what the law says on paper, if the authorities do not approach the case with the intention of identifying and prosecuting the guilty, legal provisions and judges can do little. Police departments need to get the message loud and clear that these crimes will not be tolerated.

In this vein, the Rajasthan government’s reaction to the acquittal is important, even if an appellate court probably will not be able to change its position much from this verdict. The authorities need to send the message that crimes by cow vigilantes will not be shielded. The real utility of a new law and better policing will be in the example it sets, one that will hopefully deter cow vigilantes and members of mobs contemplating violence.