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Vigil on vigilantes: on the Supreme Court's reminder
Updated:Sep 7, 2017
 
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It is a telling commentary on our times that it needs the Supreme Court to remind those in power that they cannot remain silent while vigilantes take the law into their own hands in the name of cow protection. Sending out a stern message that the time has come to end the activities of aggressive gau rakshaks, the court has asked the States and Union Territories to appoint nodal police officers in each district to crack down on such mobs. The order came after the counsel for Haryana, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Rajasthan offered to appoint such district nodal officers to check vigilante groups and act promptly whenever offences take place. 
 
For over a year now, instances of groups beating up and even killing persons allegedly suspected of transporting cattle or bovine meat have become commonplace. The court had issued notices to the Centre and some States in April on a writ petition that demanded action against such cow protection groups. In the few months since then, more incidents of lynching have taken place. Villagers killed two persons transporting cattle in West Bengal less than two weeks ago. Three persons were killed in the same State in June after they were accused of cattle theft. Three persons were beaten up last month in Bihar. In more than one State, cow ‘protectors’ have legal recognition as local laws provide immunity to them if they were acting in good faith. The validity of such provisions in laws aimed at banning or regulating slaughter of animals and protecting the cow may be decided in the course of these proceedings.
 
Curbing cow vigilantism requires an obvious change in the police’s approach to these incidents. In most cases, they register cases against the victims for slaughter or theft of cattle. Typically, the administration seems eager to determine if they were engaged in cow slaughter or transportation of bovine meat than in arresting the culprits involved in murder and violence. A related question is whether the Centre ought to take recourse to Article 256, which empowers it to issue directions to the States, to put an end to the activities of vigilantes, instead of shirking its responsibility on the ground that this is essentially a law and order issue to be addressed by the States. 
 
The Centre can no more ignore its credibility deficit because of the ruling dispensation’s ideological commitment to cow protection. It has to respond meaningfully to the charge that it is soft on vigilantism and is keen on pushing animal slaughter rules aimed at making life difficult for those engaged in the cattle trade for their livelihood. Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared a few months agothat killing people in the name of cow worship is unacceptable. The law and the way it is administered must demonstrate that these are not empty words.
 
 
 
 
 
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