Hapur verdict, challenging vigilantism

The Hapur conviction is an acknowledgement that the state was not only a participant but also an enabler.

Published - April 18, 2024 01:48 am IST

An injured man beaten up by locals over the suspicion of cow slaughter is dragged in the presence of police personnel in Uttar Pradesh’s Hapur on June 18, 2018.

An injured man beaten up by locals over the suspicion of cow slaughter is dragged in the presence of police personnel in Uttar Pradesh’s Hapur on June 18, 2018. | Photo Credit: PTI

On 12 March 2024, in a first for Uttar Pradesh, a trial court in Hapur awarded life imprisonment in a case of cow protection-related lynching of a Muslim man. Six years earlier, in June 2018, Qasim Qureshi was lynched to death, and Samiuddin was brutally assaulted, by a Hindu group in the Bajhera Khurd village, under the false accusation of cow-slaughter. The additional district and sessions court judge Shweta Dixit sentenced 10 men to life sentences and fined them ₹59,000 each, under charges of murder, attempt to murder, rioting and promoting religious enmity. The conviction in this case is significant because while illegal vigilante crimes are coalitionary projects between state and non-state actors, the price paid is solely by the non-state actors.

The steep rise in cow vigilantism in India has occurred on the back of the state’s interest in the campaign to protect cattle from slaughter. The subsequent violence has blurred the boundaries between vigilantes and the state and has gained legal legitimacy. Governments in Haryana, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh have amended their cow slaughter prevention laws and set up special task forces to enforce them. These have allowed cow vigilantes to operate freely, with the state’s sanction and the police’s cognisance. As a result, judicial processes that punish cow protectionists for their anti-Muslim violence have been rare occurrences.

The Uttar Pradesh court’s conviction is just the fifth one in cow protection-related lynchings in India: three others are in Jharkhand and one in Rajasthan. Of these, only the courts in Jharkhand have pronounced maximum life sentences in the 2016 lynching of Mazlum Ansari and Imteyaz Khan and the 2017 lynching of Alimuddin Ansari.

Despite its rarity, the judgment in the Hapur lynching is significant for three critical reasons.

First, the conviction of the 10 men, is also a conviction, in principle, that bears down on the actions of the state. The order censures the police for fabricating the First Information Report (FIR). It states that the police created an alternative narrative of Qasim’s death and Samiuddin’s grievous injuries. The police claimed that these were the result of a motorcycle accident, instead of a lynching. It raises questions about police accountability. The Hapur conviction is an acknowledgement that the state was not only a participant but also an enabler.

The judgment also casts aspersions on the police’s intent. The police did not collect the statements of Samiuddin and other eyewitnesses. In an “extremely objectionable” act, the police also damaged the video evidence of the confession of one of the accused. The judgment alleges that the police did not conduct a forensic investigation of a weapon that was recovered from another one of the accused. And finally, it asks the Director General of the Police, Uttar Pradesh, to investigate the collusion of police personnel and investigating officers. In this way, the Hapur court’s conviction lays bare the collaboration of the police in the violence, and in endeavouring to protect the accused.

Second, the police made attempts at misdirecting the investigation initially. Despite Samiuddin approaching officers, the police did not conduct an official identification parade, for Samiuddin to single out the men accused of the crime. This failure helped the accused to secure bail. However, the court’s sentencing to life imprisonment is an indicator that the State cannot ensure the unconditional security of the cow vigilantes. In the alliance between state and non-state actors, the vigilantes will continue to bear higher risk, and pay a higher price. The sentence, thus, demonstrates the fragile nature of this coalition of violence. The partnership is tipped on one side such that the occasional non-state actor can be disposed of in a rare conviction. The Hapur court’s decision, thus, must serve as a forewarning to any budding cow vigilantes and smaller-time Monu Manesars and Bittu Bajrangis of north India. In the exercise of such violence, the boundaries between state and non-state actors may be blurred. But the power continues to lie with state agents.

And third, the conviction must not be seen as a dent in the state’s sanction of such anti-Muslim violence. Instead, it brings to the fore how the state delegates illegal policing to vigilantes. As seen in several cases of anti-minority violence, while police complicity enables crimes against Muslims, the convictions have no material impact on the state. Thus, the police can be both — deeply entwined in the making of the violence, as well as being comfortably distant from its punitive consequences. The Hapur conviction, thus, will not address, punish, or put an end to the means of violence that are a part of the state.

State-induced lynching

The two systems that sustain every lynching conviction are the state that enabled it and the processes that legitimised it. Despite the life imprisonment, what remains untouched, unpunished, and unchanged, is the state-induced lynching. The close association of the police, in the exercise of such violence has persisted through several such instances. The processes that led to the concoction of the FIR, manipulation of the investigation, the designedly defective evidence collection and handling, and the police harassment, are typical of cases of anti-minority violence.

Editorial | Rap on the knuckles: On lynching, mob violence and judiciary fiat

The Hapur conviction, that imposed the maximum punishment on the culprits, can be a big win for justice. However, it is also a reminder that state crimes continue to be sustained while the non-state actors, or 10 of them, are disposed of.

Nidah Kaiser is a doctoral researcher in the Department of Politics and International Studies at SOAS, University of London

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