The thin line between culpable homicide and murder under Indian penal law is a subject of endless analysis, but it is not easy to accept this nuanced distinction in a case of mob lynching. A Sessions Court in Alwar district of Rajasthan has sentenced four men to a prison term of seven years for the lynching of a Muslim dairy farmer in July 2018. However, it acquitted Naval Kishore, a Vishwa Hindu Parishad functionary, for want of sufficient evidence. If one recalls the acquittal of all those tried for the 2017 murder of Pehlu Khan, who was also a victim of cow vigilantism, there is a semblance of justice for Rakbar Khan, 31, who was attacked by a mob while transporting two cows along with a friend near Lalawandi village in Alwar. The police had found Rakbar Khan with serious injuries, to which he succumbed later, presumably due to the delay in taking him for medical treatment. If one takes into account the number of attacks, some of them fatal, involving so-called cow protection gangs in various States in recent years, the record of the criminal justice system in successfully prosecuting those involved in such incidents is quite dismal. In this backdrop, the fact that the police in Alwar managed to obtain a conviction is noteworthy. However, that the assailants were found guilty only of culpable homicide not amounting to murder and wrongful restraint does raise some concern. A conviction for murder would have entailed at least life imprisonment.
Rakbar Khan’s family is justly aggrieved both over the acquittal of one suspect, who they believe was the main accused, and the seven-year prison term. The police relied on some telephone conversations between the acquitted VHP leader and the assailants to rope him in as a key suspect. However, the court did not consider this adequate proof. While deciding that the fatal attack did not amount to murder, the trial court has concluded that the assailants neither intended to cause death nor knew that their assault may cause death. The prosecution is likely to take up both the “inadequate” sentence award to the four and the acquittal of one on appeal. Organised cow vigilantism poses a major threat to the safety and security of minorities, as well as to the maintenance of the rule of law. Despite the Supreme Court deprecating the bigotry and hate propaganda that underlie such activities, incidents of sectarian violence and vigilantism seem to go on. Both preventive and punitive measures are needed to arrest the trend, and one cannot emphasise enough the need for efficient investigation and prosecution.