The acquittal of six persons accused of lynching Pehlu Khan, the dairy farmer whom they waylaid near Alwar, in Rajasthan, while he was ferrying cattle from Jaipur on 1 April, 2017, has been ascribed to the shoddy police investigation in the case. It prompted Additional District Judge Sarita Swami, who heard the case, to give the accused the benefit of doubt. This doesn't come as a surprise -- ham-handed police probes, or witnesses turning hostile, or trials dragging on for years have always dogged the judicial process.
Yet the acquittal of those accused of beating Pehlu Khan to death can't but demoralise the Muslims of India. The grisly episode involving Pehlu Khan wasn't a local affair. It had sparked national outrage and dominated media headlines because the video recording of his lynching had gone viral. For the Muslim public, the case of Pehlu Khan had seemed a close-and-shut one. It has turned out otherwise.
The judgment in the Pehlu Khan case was preceded by the withdrawal of dozens of cases against those accused of fomenting or participating in the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots. A variety of factors has been speculated upon behind the turn in the Muzaffarnagar riot cases.
It is said that pressure was brought upon Muslim witnesses to retract their statements made earlier to the police in court. They, in turn, were monetarily compensated for their U-turn. It is also claimed that tired of waiting for the justice they wished to forget the past and bridge the chasm between communities. Dependent for their livelihood on the dominant Hindu landholding class, the Muslims of Muzaffarnagar perhaps thought it was pragmatic to secure their future instead of waiting for years for justice, which could well prove elusive or even ineffectual, as has been true of most communal riots in India since 1947.
However, Muslims will find it hard to invoke the flawed judicial process to rationalise the verdict in Pehlu Khan and the withdrawal of Muzaffarnagar riot cases. They will likely think the tripod on which India's governance rests " the political, administrative and judicial systems " are prejudiced against them.
This is because members of a social group generally have four options to resolve their grievances. They can appeal to the political party in power to provide them respite. Or they can take to the streets to express their displeasure, believing their numbers will persuade the ruling party to address their problems or risk losing their support. Or they can hope their protests will inspire the Opposition to take up their cause for securing their votes. Or they can knock on the doors of the judiciary in the hope that justice will be meted out to them.
Judiciary is vital for Muslims because of the limitations inherent in the other three courses of action available to them.
The appeal of Muslims to the ruling dispensation is unlikely to be heeded. This is because the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh are ideologically opposed to Muslims. This has inspired a large contingent of Hindu radicals, including those belonging to the affiliates of the RSS, to physically and rhetorically target Muslims.
Muslims have been lynched in the name of the cow, at times even for their Muslimness, targetted for masquerading love for Hindu girls only to convert them to Islam, and threatened with "re-conversion" to Hinduism, benignly termed as ghar wapsi. The RSS-BJP's propaganda against Muslims has created a culture of impunity around the country. It has made Hindutva hotheads believe they have the licence to pummel, humiliate and insult Muslims.
This is evident from what transpired as soon as Additional District Judge Swami acquitted the six accused in the Pehlu Khan case. They trooped out of the courtroom chanting Jai Sri Ram, Bharat Mata Ki Jai and Vande Mataram. Their chants sought to transmute their alleged action against Pehlu Khan into an honourable one. Likewise, Tabrez Ansari, a resident of Jharkhand, was compelled to chant Jai Sri Ram as he was pulverised to death. The assailants of Tabrez sought to legitimise their violence by invoking ideology, even hoping their criminal deed will secure them political patronage.
Muslims know their periodic appeals to the ruling dispensation are, at best, pro forma. They know the BJP is heavily invested in polarising the electorate to win elections. It is for this reason, they feel, the party has focussed on triple talaq and turned the exercise to update the National Register of Citizens for Assam into an instrument to scare the community. Though Muslims in the Hindi heartland has, until now, not identified with Kashmir, they were stunned that the government could choose to read down Article 370 and abrogate Article 35A so close to the Bakrid festival. They perceived it as the BJP's disdain for the religious sensitivities of Muslims. Then there is the ongoing hearing in the Supreme Court on the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi case, which the Muslims fear the BJP will milk to its advantage.
The second option available to Muslims " of taking to the streets to protest against hate crimes targetting them " is also likely to be ineffectual. For one, the levers of the administration are with the BJP. The community's fear is that their protests could be suppressed. Or their protests could fuel polarisation, again, to the BJP's advantage.
It is also true that the BJP, unlike other parties, doesn't risk losing the support of Muslims on account of their disenchantment. Muslims don't vote for the BJP, which does not seek their support. Over the last two Lok Sabha elections and several state Assembly polls, the BJP has demonstrated that it can win without the votes of Muslims. In fact, the party has proved that its strategy of demonising Muslims facilitates its endeavour to consolidate the Hindu vote bank.
Until 2019, Muslims fervently believed in the efficacy of the third option " that their alienation and disenchantment will inspire the Opposition parties to take up their cause and intercede on their behalf. In fact, the reverse seems to happening: The Opposition parties believe they are the only electoral option available to Muslims, who cannot vote for the BJP. They don't wish to focus on the Muslim issues lest their Hindu voters are alienated.
It won't be wrong to say that the Opposition is scared of being perceived anti-Hindu and anti-national, the two terms increasingly becoming synonymous in our political parlance. This factor prompted a clutch of Opposition parties to either walk out or vote for the Bills, including the one changing the status of Jammu and Kashmir, in the recent session of Parliament.
Muslims, like any minority community in all democratic countries, look upon the judiciary as their best bet to protect their interests. After all, the institution of judiciary enjoys majesty and grandeur that no institution commands. It is regarded as ideologically neutral and impartial. Unlike political parties, the judiciary is not susceptible to the game of numbers; its powers do not flow from winning elections. The verdict in the Pehlu Khan case will demoralise Muslims because they are prone to think, rightly or wrongly, that the fourth option " of knocking on the doors of justice " is closed to them.