The acquittal of all six persons accused of lynching Pehlu Khan, a cattle trader, near Alwar, is an indictment of the Rajasthan government and its law enforcement agencies. The trial court judge gave the benefit of doubt to the accused and ordered their release because the Rajasthan Police probe had “serious shortcomings” and signified “gross negligence”. Simply put, due process was subverted by shoddy investigation, procedural infirmities and poor monitoring of the probe by state authorities. The Ashok Gehlot government in Rajasthan government is appealing against the verdict, but it still needs to answer for the derailment of a high-profile probe that was seen as a test case of the state’s commitment to ensuring justice.
A mob had attacked Khan in Alwar on April 1, 2017, following a rumour that he was smuggling cows. He died in a hospital two days later, after naming six persons in his dying declaration to the police. Onlookers made recordings of the attack and circulated them on social media. On TV, persons in the mob proudly claimed responsibility for the murder. However, the police seems to have ignored due procedures when Khan made his statement, and did not authenticate the videos before submitting them in court. Not surprisingly, then, the admissible material proved insufficient to prove the crime. In fact, controversies have stalked the case right from the beginning. First, Rajasthan Police cleared the persons named by Khan. Later, in May 2019, the police charged Khan’s sons and the driver of the pick-up truck that Pehlu Khan had hired to transport cattle, with violating the provisions of the Rajasthan Bovine Animal Act. The Congress chief minister, Ashok Gehlot, had then said his government would probe if the investigation was biased.
The Pehlu Khan murder is among the earliest lynching cases involving cow vigilantes — the first incident was reported from Jharkhand in March, 2016. The spree of mob lynchings since then — from UP, Assam, West Bengal, Bihar and Jammu and Kashmir — provoked the Supreme Court to ask the government to formulate a law specific to the crime in July, 2018. But law can be a deterrent only if the law enforcers are keen to implement it in letter and spirit. Now, the Gehlot government will be tested on its commitment to justice.