Should cow vigilante groups be banned? This question has surfaced once again with the opposition criticising the ruling BJP for promoting such vigilantism after the recent killing of a Muslim farmer Pehlu Khan who was attacked with four others in Alwar, Rajasthan on 1 April by an alleged right wing group. The 55-year-old Khan who was transporting cattle died after being beaten up by a mob of about 200 cow protection vigilantes. Cow vigilantes are self-styled cow protectors who take the law into their own hands and attack those who slaughtered or are suspected to have slaughtered cows.

Echos of the incident were heard in Parliament on Thursday when Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh assured the Lok Sabha that things would be sorted out. The echo has also reached the Supreme Court which has asked six states for their views on a plea seeking a ban on cow vigilante groups. The court has issued notices to Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Jharkhand, Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh, five of which are ruled by the BJP. The petitioner also alleged that these groups were committing atrocities against Dalits and minorities in the name of protection of cows and other bovines and they needed to be "regulated and banned in the interest of social harmony, public morality and law and order in the country".

The National Human Rights Commission is not lagging behind as it too has sought a report on the Alwar mob incident. The Scheduled Caste commission chairman P.L. Punia last year had demanded a ban on gau rakshaks as their attacks mostly affect the Dalits who depend on their livelihood on the leather trade.

With all this, can State governments and the Centre remain passive? The immediate provocation for this demand is the Pehlu Khan killing. This is not the first instance of cow vigilante activism. It came to focus in July last in Gujarat, when four Dalits were brutally beaten up for allegedly having skinned a cow followed by other such incidents elsewhere. The opposition case is that these so-called fringe groups have become bolder after Prime Minister Narendra Modi took over in 2014.

Cows are considered sacred by Hindus. Except in half a dozen states, mainly in the North-east, cow slaughter is not legal in the rest of the country including Rajasthan. Many states impose heavy fines on offenders, and imprisonment. Gujarat recently made cow slaughter punishable with a life term in jail. For the BJP, cow protection has been a core issue for long. The cow protection committees, which have sprung up in most BJP-ruled states in recent times, are insisting on implementing the laws and have set up vigilante committees to enforce the laws.

The cow belt, where cow vigilantism is most rampant, is also a hub of atrocities against Dalits, 63 per cent of which occur in just four states, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan. But beef is part of the traditional diet of Christians and Muslims, religious minorities in the country, and the ban heavily affects the main livelihood of these communities.

Why is there an increase in cow vigilantism? The first reason could be that Hindu right wing groups might be feeling that their time to rule has come and to implement their Hindutva policies. The second could be that the Sangh Parivar might think since Modi had become prime minister with their support, it is really they who should be ruling and not Modi. The third could be that Modi himself is from the parivar stable and is trying to implement the policies that he believes in as an RSS pracharak.

However, chanting the development mantra, Modi had come down heavily on cow protection committees last year in the wake of cow vigilantism. While addressing a town hall meeting in the capital he had noted that pseudo gau-rakshaks who claimed to be cow protectors during the day often resorted to criminal activities at night. He even asked the states to open dossiers to see how many of them were criminals. But what happened in Rajasthan shows that this injunction fell on deaf ears.

The opposition claims that cow vigilantism has increased after the Yogi Adityanath government came to power in Uttar Pradesh and clamped down on illegal slaughterhouses. Some other BJP-ruled states such as Haryana, Rajasthan and Jharkhand followed suit. This perhaps emboldened these gau rakshaks to indulge in violence in the name of protecting cows. The point is that even if the cow protection laws are not followed, the vigilante groups should file complaints in police stations and not take the law into their own hands.

Cow vigilantism may become counterproductive if not addressed properly. Cow politics has now reached a stage where it could defeat its main protagonists. The BJP and RSS have the most to lose as the RSS has been trying to unite Hindus. How can this vigilantism help when Dalits will be alienated? It is, thus, time for the PM and RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat to realise that they are not going to win this war. They must speak out before it is too late.

Although Rajnath Singh had assured the House that the matter would be addressed he did not spell out a plan of action. It is time that the Modi government sends out another stern signal asking the vigilante groups to take care of the cows rather than indulging in vandalism.