By – Atish George, SY BBA LLB (Hons.)
The popularity of the south Indian superhero movie, Minnal Murali, which explored the prospect of an Indian superhero raised in a thatched roof, highlighted a long-dormant desire for a brown vigilante to call our own. A twist to the classic tropes of Superman and his arch nemeses, it captivated the imagination of audiences across the nation, ranking the movie on the top ten lists for a straight 4 weeks on Netflix. But the question arises as to what it is about these superheroes which fascinate the populace so much, drawing adulation for their escapades and cheers for the blows landed on criminals. It often serves as an empowering tale of citizens taking justice into their own hands and bringing about a fair society by taking up the mantle of a superhero but how much of it is legal and is it restricted to a sweet innocent depiction of our childhood heroes, and what happens when it is slowly replaced by blind violence.
The liability of a vigilante?
A vigilante is “a member of a volunteer committee organized to suppress and punish crime summarily (as when the processes of law are viewed as inadequate)”. It accords to these citizens a status of judge, jury, and executioner all at once, enforcing their ideals of justice upon those deemed to violate the law. Now when we speak about this, we reflect on our childhood heroes, darting about at inhuman speeds, as, more often than not, they inflict some form of grievous hurt upon their ‘criminals’. But when we turn to vigilantes, still bound by our mortal form, then the innocent image lies shattered at our feet. In the United States of America, the recent case of Kyle Rittenhouse was a supposed case of aggressive vigilantism where the teenager shot and killed two people during unrest in Kenosha, Wisconsin in 2020, in response to a call to arms to protect the neighbourhood. He was acquitted of all charges, primarily thanks to the misuse of strong Stand Your Ground laws in the United States which support such deadly defence against aggressors. However, when we turn to look at the situation in India, vigilantes in India are no longer associated with the images born of childhood innocence either. For these are no dedicated citizens of India serving their duty by catching pickpockets and the like, but a far deadlier form whose change was brought about by a term known as Cow vigilantism.
Revered as a sacred animal in Hinduism, the cow holds an esteemed position in India due to the large percentage of the Hindu population present in the nation. They served as a catalyst for a portion of the nation’s people to take up arms and become vigilantes to serve the interests of the cow mother and their religion, an era of moral policing brought about to inflict mortal punishment on offenders. On 18th February 2019, a 104-page report titled ‘Violent Cow Protection in India: Vigilante Groups Attack Minorities‘ was published by the Human Rights Watch, detailing the atrocities committed by the self-appointed watchmen of India in the name of protection of a religious symbol. Spurred on by the rhetoric of the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party, the nation witnessed a drastic jump in the number of deaths and injuries from attacks on those engaging in the cattle trade, with these victims often hailing from religious minority groups in India, with these falling under the purview of murder and conspiracy, leaving no excuse for these brutal atrocities. While the cow has often held a significant position in Indian society, owing to its religious status, the rise of religious policing has only ensured a skewed distribution of a disturbing view of justice in society, with minorities suffering disproportionate harm. This rampant violence was only further bolstered by supportive policies from the government, which further strengthened cow protection laws, with the government even declaring a national commission for cow protection.
This, combined with a reticent attitude on behalf of the police agencies, has ensured sustained growth for the aggressive and murderous vigilantism in the nation. This is evident in the brutal cases reported in the news with children as young as twelve years old being murdered in broad daylight for carrying on a centuries-old business of trading cattle, or a crime which they might not even have committed as proof of cow slaughter is of little value to these modern-day fanatical vigilantes. However, to understand the rationale behind the growth of such violent vigilantism, one must explore the underlying religious fervor that serves to incite such crimes.
The intention behind the cow vigilantism in the nation could easily be identified as a form of Hindu nationalism which kept with the trends of an increasingly aggressive stance of extremists towards establishing a Hindu majority nation, with the primary step towards such a dream being waging war against other religious minorities in the nation, the first in the firing line being Muslims. The chasm between Hindus and Muslims has only widened ever since the Bharatiya Janata Party has stepped into power, with their aggressive religious stance only serving to further incite such a religious divide. Furthermore, governmental support in the form of the biased legislature and ineffectual intervention by the police has ensured that there has been a steady decline in the trust that the people had in the institutions of our nation.
However, the consequences of this religious fervour have only served to worsen the issues which have longed since our society’s development, with the World Inequality Report 2022, India ranking as one of the most unequal countries in the world. The worrying issues of rising Covid deaths, which were rumoured to be misreported, India’s stark failure in ensuring basic access to food and sanitation, and a growing income divide have only worsened over the past years. However, in true Indian fashion, the government sought to find issues with the report rather than to address the major glaring shortcomings on its behalf. While inequality and developmental issues are not something specific to India, there is a radical difference in the way it is addressed under the rule of an increasingly totalitarian government. The past decade has shown that the moral claims of Hindu nationalism and its superiority are but a mere window dressing to distract from the growing inequality and disruption in various socio-economic sectors in India. To this end, enlisting citizens for such moral policing serves no purpose but to ensure a regime dictated by fear and violence. The spread of propaganda and toxic ideologies in an increasingly intolerant environment can only spell disaster for the nation. All forms of cow vigilantism and religious policing only contribute towards a festering wound in the nation, with such conflicts eventually coming to a head in a possibly violent outcome, not unlike the Gujarat and Delhi riots which marked the bloody days in the history of India. Any attempts to salvage this situation would require not just a marked shift in the mindset of all these self-appointed watchmen of the nation, but also an acceptance of the basic secular fabric of the nation where each one can learn to respect each other’s religion or at the very least hopefully tolerate it.
 Shubhra Gupta, Minnal Murali review: All hail Minnal Murali, our home-grown superhero (Minnal Murali review: All hail Minnal Murali, our home-grown superhero | Entertainment News, The Indian Express)
 Adrienne Vogt, Aditi Sangal, Meg Wagner, Melissa Macaya and Melissa Mahtani, Kyle Rittenhouse found not guilty on all charges ( These are the 5 charges Kyle Rittenhouse was acquitted of (cnn.com )
 India: Vigilante ‘Cow Protection’ Groups Attack Minorities – (India: Vigilante ‘Cow Protection’ Groups Attack Minorities | Human Rights Watch (hrw.org) )
 Samanth Subramanian, How Hindu Supremacies are tearing India Apart – (How Hindu supremacists are tearing India apart | India | The Guardian)