How India and Pakistan are afflicted by the same madness of religious vigilantism

Published: April 25, 2017

It seems that this malaise has transformed and metastasised into a cancer that is permeating the very fabric of each nations’ respective society.

The issue of cow slaughter and the consumption of beef has been an issue that many orthodox Hindus have found an affront to their religion. Blasphemous speech, in regards to orthodox Muslims and their reverence for the Prophet (pbuh) and Allah (swt), produces a similar sentiment of outrage.

This sense of outrage has led to the phenomenon of religious vigilantism. Yet, it seems that this malaise, which was once a rare occurrence in the early history of both India and Pakistan, has transformed and metastasised into a cancer that is permeating the very fabric of each nations’ respective society.

Justification through legislation


In 1986, Pakistan, under the brutal dictatorship of Ziaul Haq, witnessed the institutionalisation of blasphemy laws that the nation inherited from the British penal code. The original law, Section 295, was originally instituted as a means of preventing communal violence during the time of the British Raj.

The law stated that “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religious belief” is deemed a criminal offence. Pakistan, before the institutionalisation of blasphemy, saw only rare occurrences of this law being applied in the court of law. Records indicate that before 1986, only 14 cases were ever filed over allegations of blasphemy. The number of cases filed, from 1986-2015, jumped to 1,472.

This uptick in cases filed has also been accompanied by a series of assassinations and murders, the persecution of religious minorities (Ahmadis, Shia, Christians), the intimidation and targeting of proponents who want to amend the law, and ironically, fellow innocent Muslims.


India, since the days of the British Raj, has heard demands from orthodox Hindu sects that propagate the imposition of bans on cow slaughter and beef consumption. The impetus behind this stance is due to the cow’s culturally sacred status in Hinduism.

The reverence for the cow is also enshrined within India’s secular Constitution, through Article 48, that exclusively allows Indian states the ability to ban or allow the slaughter of cows. The Article specifically states that:

“The state shall endeavour to organise agriculture and animal husbandry on modern and scientific lines and shall, in particular, take steps for preserving and improving the breeds, and prohibiting the slaughter, of cows and calves and other milch and draught cattle.”

As of 2016, only five out of 29 Indian states allow cow slaughter and beef consumption. Yet, these laws were rarely enforced. Historically, the issue of cow slaughter in India has only been truly contentious within circles of ultra-orthodox Hindus, whose views of strict enforcement have usually been restricted to the fringes of Indian society.

The proponents of instituting and imposing bans on cow slaughter and beef consumption call themselves gau rakshaks (cow protectors) but can easily be viewed as religious vigilantes. The actions of these vigilante groups have either resulted in the beatings or murder of those, either guilty or innocent, viewed as having killed a cow or consumed beef. The rise of the religiously inclined Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), under recent leadership, has only strengthened the position of gau rakshaks.

In the name of God

The contentious issue of cow slaughter in India and blasphemy in Pakistan share many parallels. Recent acts of vigilante justice in both nations are perceived as justified through legislation that reaffirms their legality.

In Pakistan, the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) government and parts of the judiciary provide a sense of legitimacy for the string of recent violent actions that go against the predominant religion. Official statements condemning blasphemous content on social media, made by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Islamabad High Court Justice Shaukat Siddiqui, further lend a cover of justification to those who viciously target individuals accused of blasphemy. But most importantly, they provide an alternative method of silencing dissent.

The most recent episode of violence perpetrated in the name of defending Islam targeted a university student, Mashal Khan, who supposedly posted blasphemous content on social media. A brutal recording of vigilante “justice” appeared last week that showed a crowd beating, stripping naked, killing, and then tossing the body of the student off a second floor dormitory in the name of religion.

This horrific event shares its place in the nation’s psyche along with the assassination of former Punjab governor Salman Taseer, the witch-hunt against Asia Bibi, and a multitude of other victims that have fallen to the curse of being labelled a blasphemer.

India, often viewed as a foil to Pakistan, has had a long history of secularism entrenched within society. Yet recent decisions by the BJP-led central and state governments, and the tepid response by those in power towards acts of vigilante justice, further strengthens the position of those that lynch in the name of their religion.

The appointment of Yogi Adityanath as the chief minister of the largest state in India, Uttar Pradesh (UP), has further fuelled the fracturing of India’s secular civil society. He, along with various other BJP party members, have made past comments that have targeted the family of Mohammad Akhlaq (who was lynched under the suspicion of possessing beef), Dalits who have been accused of cow slaughter as they dispose recently deceased cattle, and other minority groups.

CM Adityanath, shortly after gaining office, advocated for enforcing the ban on both cow smuggling and slaughterhouses and has a record of rarely making remarks that condemn actions of vigilante justice. Shortly after his appointment as UP CM, reports of arson were submitted against three shops that sold meat.

On April 5, 2017, a 200-member gau rakshak mob attacked a convoy of cattle transporters in India’s state of Rajasthan. The mob surrounded the vehicles and beat the drivers, who happened to be Muslim, leading to the death of Pehlu Khan who succumbed to his injuries.

Incredibly, the state has filed charges and arrested the 11 men on charges of cow smuggling, which is illegal in Rajasthan. Charges have also been filed against Khan’s family, who argue that the cows were not being transported for slaughter but for dairy production.

They also stated that the necessary paperwork was also available as transportation of cattle requires a permit. The police have also begun a murder investigation into the group of gau rakshaks, but so far no arrests have been made.

Following the tragic episode of Pehlu Khan, Rajasthan’s home minister, Gulab Chand Kataria, stated that,

“There are two sides to this… They know that one cannot smuggle cows out of Rajasthan. A law is in place… Stopping is not a crime… But taking the law into your hands that is a crime.”

It seems that the minister finds the transportation of cows equivalent to the actions perpetrated by the mob.

In Pakistan, following the murder of Mashal Khan, statements by top political party officials from the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), and PML-N all condemned the murder of the student, but there was no mention regarding the concept of blasphemy that was at the root of the controversy. The fear within Pakistani society regarding blasphemy continues to reach new heights. It is now understood that the very criticism of the nation’s blasphemy laws now amounts to having committed the very act of blasphemy.

Indian politician, Shashi Tharoor, writes in an article,

“Where has the central government been as all of this has been happening? Initially, it did not condemn cow vigilantism. India’s social justice minister, whose principal responsibility is to promote the welfare of [Indians], expressed regret not for the vigilantes’ violent actions, but for the fact that they were spurred by ill-founded rumours.

This view was reflected in the government’s response to an attack in UP, where a mob lynched a Muslim and beat his son nearly to death; simply because they suspected that he had killed a cow. Rather than leaping to the victims’ defence, the authorities launched a forensic investigation into whether the meat in his refrigerator was beef (it was not). The implication was clear: violence is unjustifiable only if the victim has not actually killed or eaten a cow.”

The same can be said of the authorities across the border in Pakistan. Following the brutal and inexcusable murder of Mashal Khan, early reports stated that,

“Police in Pakistan’s north-western Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) province today said there was no concrete evidence yet to register a blasphemy case against Mashal Khan who was lynched by a violent mob, as it arrested 22 people and opened a hate speech probe against two clerics in the case. We did not find any concrete evidence under which an investigation or legal action can be launched against Mashal, Abdullah or Zubair,” Inspector General of Police Salahuddin Khan Mehsud told reporters at a press conference here.

If these actions are not indicative of a madness gripping the subcontinent, then we must redefine sanity.

This post originally appeared here.

Ali Malik

Ali Malik

The author works as a researcher at the South Asia Program at Hudson Institute in Washington DC.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • addo

    Pakistanis trying to make themselves feel better by comparing themselves to India…there is no comparison… Pakistan has already committed genocide on millions of ethnic comparison…and all pakis support blasphemy laws…here we can’t imagine something called blasphemy laws…Recommend

  • Mirza Asif Baig

    NO Compromise on 295C.Recommend

  • Yogi Berra

    Muslims must abide by Indian constitution and laws. If not then they are free to leave India. No one will stop them.Recommend

  • goggi (Lahore)

    All religions worshipping an invisible / nonexistent? deity, are same in their nature……extreme perverted imaginations!!! No comments about Abrahamic religions but please have a look at the link below and you shall find spine-crawling similarities in all such religions:

  • vinsin

    Good, but you should have mentioned that Pakistan was created by Indian Muslims to eat beef and also pork is banned in many Muslim majority countries. Indian is a not a secular society and even by constitution. Muslims make 25% of world population and has 57 countries but still call Hindus, Sikhs, Jains and Jews as majority.

    People take law in hand when they dont see justice, same in India and Pakistan. In Pakistan for blasphemy cases and in India regarding beef issue. People those who want to eat beef can move to Pakistan and people accused of blasphemy in Pakistan can move to India. This way everyone would be happy.Recommend


    talk about pakistan and muslim only.Recommend

  • jiyala

    Your Hindu nationalist bias is so strong that you forget that the people you want to leave your country are your fellow countrymen. India is as much their country as it is yours.

    How would you feel if one of your siblings told you to get the hell out of his home even though it’s your home too?Recommend

  • Rohan

    India becoming like Pakistan and Pakistan becoming a Syria Recommend

  • differon

    You can’t equate hindus with muslims. They are just totally different things. But what some hindus are doing is not good, it is not the right way to do it. Nowhere does hindu religion say that cow-killers should be killed Recommend

  • hp kumar

    this article is less focussed on blasphemy and more on cow slaughter.and hey listen Muslims in India will have to stop cow slaughter.Pakis don’t understand that the world appreciates indians sensibility towards animals.however masal Khans killing dented paks image badly.comparing apple and oranges?Recommend

  • Waron Dafe

    Utterly stupid article, comparing blasphemy law with cow vigilantism, this is why pakistan is unable to get rid of its home grown terror.Recommend

  • Sane

    What comparison between Pakistan and India? Hindus in India do not need any blasphemy law. Now, since cows in India are to be issued Identity Cards, I hope this will add in the vote bank of Modi. In next elections you will see cows also queuing to vote.Recommend

  • 19640909rk .

    ” The law stated that “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religious belief” is deemed a criminal offence.”

    Since Pakistanis take offence to anything, its a stalemate.Recommend

  • Sarfaraz A.

    India’s religious madness is worst

    India whose nation and the politicians feel proud about lynching and beating humans to protect holy cow — what else can be called more religious-madness than that…?Recommend

  • Sane

    ET: You wiped off one sentence of my comment.Recommend

  • IAF101

    Let’s hope atleast cows can vote in Pakistan if this current pm isn’t killed or jailed or neutered by the army.Recommend

  • IAF101

    Asking if cow smuggling is the same as murder is the foolishness of this Pakistani journalist. All laws are equally important and no mention about how these Mohammedan cattle smugglers continue to risk their lives committing illegal acts as it is their nature. Not too many people are upset that some smugglers got what was coming to them. FYI these laws against cow slaughter, they were enacted by the secular liberals, the BJP is enforcing them . Recommend

  • siesmann

    The irony of these anti-Laws is manifest. Laws against beef eating are a farce as the country -India-is still no. 1 in beef exports. Blasphemy laws are a power grabbing tool. Beef laws gives the exclusive power of beef production to big business and corporations to the detriment of individual butchers and farmers.Recommend

  • Ahmar

    Good writing. It appears religious madness is strong in the region.Recommend

  • Kulbhushan Yadav

    What is common in both countries??? Muslims. Recommend

  • siesmann
  • Patwari

    That’s because hindu can write anything they want here on
    ET. Bad toxic hate. Approved by ET. For hindus only.
    But Muslims, no, their comments will be edited, and mangledRecommend

  • Vishal Reddy

    Yogi they are our fellow country men.they have equal rights as like you.india is not a theocracy Hindu country. Recommend