Is the spate of ‘mob lynchings’ in India really just a spontaneous expression of mob anger?
Jan Mohammad is worried.
It has been two years since his brother, Mohammad Akhlaq, was lynched, and the 18 men who stand accused of killing him have been released on bail.
On September 28, 2015, the 52-year-old ironsmith was dragged from his house in the village of Bishahra, in the district of Dadri in Uttar Pradesh, after a local Hindu temple announced that a cow, considered sacred by many Hindus, had been slaughtered. He was beaten to death and his son was severely wounded.
Nine months later, the police filed a First Information Report (FIR) charging 44-year-old Jan and several other members of his family, including his murdered brother, with cow slaughter. They deny the charge.
The Allahabad High Court later put a stay on the arrest of all the family members except Jan. Although no charge sheet has yet been filed against him, he fears he could be arrested.
According to the FIR, Prem Singh, Mohammad’s neighbour, saw him slaughter a calf with the help of Jan and other members of the family three days before the lynching. He was the only witness to the alleged slaughter. But Jan says he wasn’t even in the village on that day.
Arrest isn’t all Jan fears. At his house, not far from the village where his brother was killed and to which he says his family can never return, he explains his concerns.
“Since the accused are out of jail, they have been emboldened. From the way they speak to the media, I can sense their aggression.”
“I do fear they might attack me or my wife or children any time. They live nearby. They might just see me at the market and attack,” he says.
Jan has a resigned air about him as he smokes and drinks sweet tea served by his son. He has been provided with a 24/7 armed police guard, but this does little to reassure him. “One gunman won’t be able to save me from an angry mob,” he reflects.
He also worries that the regional government, which since March has been led by Yogi Adityanath of the ruling Hindu-nationalist BJP party, could remove his police guard.
“I have been outspoken to the media about this case. They might not like that,” he says. “And the accused are close to the ruling party. They might put pressure [on them].”
A 24-hour news channel is on mute in the background as Jan explains that the meat that “was recovered and forms the basis for this case was found by the police at the lynching spot three hours after the lynching took place”.
“This makes it quite possible that they planted it to frame us,” he says.
His lawyer, Yusuf Saifi, says the same thing.
A preliminary report by the government’s District Veterinary Officer in Dadri, which was made public in December 2015, said that based on a physical examination, the meat looked like mutton. It recommended that a forensic examination be carried out. That subsequent examination by the University of Veterinary Science and Animal Husbandry in Mathura concluded, in a report made public in May 2016, that the meat was “of cow or its progeny”.
Nevertheless, by September 2016 the police had found no evidence that a cow had been slaughtered by Jan and his relatives, and The Hindu newspaper reported that the case was going to be closed.
But Mohammad Ali, who reports on western Uttar Pradesh for The Hindu and has been writing a book on Mohammad’s lynching, says: “With the change in government, no closure report has been filed. They are sitting on the case, using it as a stick to beat the family with.”
Jan says the open case is like a “sword hanging above” him and compounds the pain he feels over losing his brother.
“He was brutally lynched by people who knew him, who used to break bread with him, neighbours … and every lynching that has come after his has refreshed our pain. Every other few months, we see a video [of a lynching] in the news. This keeps our wounds open.”
At a village close to Bishahra, four young men – Vishal Rana, Sri Om, Puneet Sharma and Rohit – have gathered in the home of Ved Nagar, a local Hindutva leader – the form of Hindu nationalism to which the BJP subscribes.
The four are among the 18 accused of lynching Mohammad Akhlaq.
The opulent living room has a huge flat-screen TV, high ceilings and white walls. Vishal Rana sits in the middle, leaning forward as he speaks. The others sit around him, fiddling with their smartphones. They are all in their early 20s, except for Rohit who says he was only 15 when the alleged crime was committed. Vishal appears to be the leader of this small group.
“Now that we are all out on bail, we want to pursue the case against the family for cow slaughter,” he says. “We did everything to protect the mother cow.”
Vishal is the son of a local BJP leader.
The four maintain that Mohammad died of a “heart attack” and not as a result of the injuries he suffered.
Vishal gestures angrily as he says: “We went to jail because of the media and its misreporting.”
The post-mortem report says something different. “Shock and haemorrhage due to ante-mortem injuries … This is the cause and manner of death,” it states, noting that Mohammad had 18 wounds, mostly to his skull. It makes no mention of a heart attack.
Ved Nagar, who is in his 30s and dressed entirely in black, sits sprawled on a sofa as he listens to the conversation. His demeanour is forceful, but his smile and polite tone help to soften it – most of the time.
Outside his home, a life-size poster features his photo, the name of his organisation of voluntary cow protectors, Gau Raksha Hindu Dal, and a warning: “We will slaughter anyone who slaughters a cow.”
“I regret the death,” Ved says calmly. “He died without even suffering heavy blows. He was a physically weak man. He died due to the pushing and shoving.”
The younger men say Ved “has done a lot” for them and that “we will go wherever he asks us to come”.
As far as they are concerned, they are the victims.
“Our families have been financially ruined,” says Sri, who had been working for a contractor at a power plant in the village before he was arrested. His father died several years ago and his mother is paralysed, so his job was an important source of income for his family. They suffered without it during the year and a half he was in prison, he says.
Lawyer’s fees of at least $600 a month have also placed a heavy financial burden on each of their families, they say.
“I am looking for a job now,” says Sri, adding that this isn’t easy when charged with murder.
Mohammad’s family, on the other hand, received a “lot of money, a house and high security”, argues Vishal, who continues to work at his brother-in-law’s advertising boards business in New Delhi.
Mohammad’s mother, wife, children and brothers have received 4,500,000 rupees (about $70,000) in compensation. They have also been given three apartments at highly subsidised rental rates, but Jan says none of the family dares to live in them as they are located along a remote highway on the outskirts of a nearby city.
The men say they were tortured in jail and that one of their fellow accused, 21-year-old Ravin Sisodia, died as a result. The jailers have denied this and the police have not filed any charges. Officials at the jail and the New Delhi-based hospital where Ravin died say dengue or Chikungunya, along with kidney disease, was the cause of death.
Now that they are all out on bail, the accused and their lawyer are trying to get their murder charges changed to charges of culpable homicide not amounting to murder.
The charge sheet filed by police at the end of 2015 may help them in this, says The Hindu journalist Mohammad.
“What happened, according to the cops, is that Vishal Rana and his cousin Shivam discovered a plastic packet with meat in it, after [Mohammad] Akhlaq had allegedly disposed of it. A local doctor confirmed to them that it was beef. Following this, they forced the temple priest to make an announcement that a cow had been slaughtered and that everyone should gather near the transformer, the main meeting place in the village. This is how the public spectacle of the lynching started,” Mohammad explains.
In the charge sheet, however, there is no conspiracy charge.
“This was a spontaneous reaction of an emotional crowd,” says Ram Sharan Nagar, lawyer to 10 of the accused. “Even the police mention no conspiracy or planning. So it would be unfair for the police to push for murder charges.”
Sitting in a South Delhi cafe, 33-year-old journalist Mohammad reflects: “If the charges are changed, they will be let off very lightly or they will be acquitted. It will set the template for what is going to happen in other cases.”
About 200km from Bishara, in the village of Dahmi in the state of Rajasthan, Suresh Yadav is angry.
The volunteer with the right-wing Hindu nationalist paramilitary organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) is wearing a spotless dhoti kurta – a traditional Indian form of dress – and sitting on a plastic chair in the poorly lit lobby of the Sri Rath Gaushala cow shelter.
The focus of his anger is the Supreme Court of India, which recently ruled that district administrations should be responsible for stopping cow-related violence in their localities.
“Does cattle smuggling take place or not?” the 50-something-year-old asks combatively.
“They are calling gau rakshaks (cow protectors) murderers. You tell me, do the police have the capacity to catch all the cattle smugglers? We are only helping them,” he says, before launching into a tirade against Muslims.
I am at the cow shelter to meet Jagmal Singh Yadav, but he hasn’t turned up. Suresh appears to be here in his place.
Jagmal, who is in his 70s, was one of those accused of murdering Pehlu Khan, a 55-year-old Muslim dairy farmer, in the nearby town of Behror on April 1. Despite being among six people named by Khan before he died, Jagmal has since been absolved, along with the five others, by the police.
The mob that attacked Pehlu allegedly suspected that the milk cows he was transporting were being smuggled to a slaughterhouse. A video of the attack went viral.
Suresh says he knows all of the accused – who mostly belong to the dominant Yadav and Ahir castes, who traditionally work in the dairy business – and can, therefore, speak on their behalves.
When I tell Suresh that Arif Khan, Pehlu’s son who was with him that day and was also beaten up, had shown me the papers to prove that the milk cows were purchased at a government-sanctioned cattle fair, he scoffs.
“They are not beyond killing even [milk] cows for meat. Once you acquire a taste for cow meat, like they have, you cannot resist it,” he says.
Pehlu’s cows are now being kept at the Sri Rath Gaushala, which according to local media reports used to be run by Jagmal.
It is one of the biggest cow shelters in the area, with 350 cows. Some people say it is 100 years old, others that it is 200.
“These are cows which have become old and the villagers cannot take care of them any more. We get abandoned cows, too,” explains Rajendra Yadav, an administrator at the shelter.
Suresh insists that Pehlu and his sons were facing charges of cattle smuggling. When I tell him that according to media reports, they had been exonerated, Suresh refuses to believe it. He is livid at the media for “misreporting” the case.
“Not one of the papers or channels have written in our favour,” he says.
Suresh might be upset about the media coverage, but it is the authorities’ reactions that concern others.
In April, Human Rights Watch noted: “Instead of taking prompt legal action against the vigilantes, many linked to extremist Hindu groups affiliated with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the police, too often, have filed complaints against the assault victims, their relatives, and associates under laws banning cow slaughter.”
A recent report by the website IndiaSpend revealed that 97 percent of the cow-related violence that has taken place in India since 2010 happened after the BJP government of Narendra Modi came to power in May 2014.
According to the same report, 28 people have been killed in 63 incidents of cow-related violence in the past seven years. Of those, 24 – 86 percent – were Muslim.
After failing to arrest the eight people who were initially accused in the Pehlu Khan case, the police have arrested seven other people. Five of them have already been released on bail.
“Our dairy business is finished,” says Pehlu’s 20-year-old son, Arif, as he sits on the porch of his family’s farm in Jaisinghpur, two hours’ drive from Dahmi. “We have no other source of livelihood. Even our relatives are poor, so we cannot turn to them for help.”
He says nobody from the local government has come to see them and they haven’t received any compensation.
“Only Imran Pratapgarhi, the poet, has given us some money. We have to borrow money to go to Jantar-Mantar [the government-designated protest spot in New Delhi],” Arif explains.
His family is worried, he says, that they will not get justice under the current state and central government.
“They are against Muslims and Dalits [the least privileged in the caste system]. Only they have died in the incidents of lynching over cow,” he reflects.
It is 9.30am, the scheduled time for the bail plea of Rameshwar Dayal, one of those accused of lynching a 16-year-old Muslim student called Junaid Khan. But the judge, YS Rathor, is yet to arrive at the court in Faridabad, an industrial town in the southern part of the National Capital Region.
“He is a good judge for criminal cases. So was his father,” I overhear Rameshwar’s lawyer, Mahinder Bharadwaj, tell one of his assistants.
The police arrested six people for the lynching, which took place on a train heading south from New Delhi on June 22.
Junaid died after being stabbed eight times. His older brothers, Hashim and Shakir, were wounded.
According to Hashim, the brothers were called “beef eaters” and “Pakistanis” by a mob of at least 25 men.
Four of the accused have been given bail. The main accused, Naresh Kumar, who confessed to stabbing Junaid with a kitchen knife, remains in jail.
In his statement to the police, Rameshwar admitted to using religious slurs and participating in a fight with the brothers, but said he did not play any part in the killing.
Subhas Chand, Rameshwar’s brother, is sitting on a bench in the corner of the courtroom. When questioned about the case, he says he is an “illiterate farmer” and doesn’t know the details.
“Ask me in yes or no, and I will answer,” he says.
I ask if he thinks his brother, a New Delhi government employee, is guilty of the alleged crime.
“No,” he says promptly. Then he stops talking.
Mohit Bharadwaj and Dev Dutt, two young men from the same village have accompanied Subhas Chand to the court. They, too, say they believe Rameshwar is innocent of murder.
“We are here in solidarity,” says Mohit as Dev nods. “There was a lot of pressure on the police to show some arrests, so they picked up the boys from our village at random.”
The village is Khambi, in Palwal district, not far from Faridabad. It is mostly inhabited by members of the most advantaged castes.
The main accused, Naresh Kumar, is from a neighbouring village called Bhimrola.
The judge arrives at around 10am and, in a matter of minutes, adjourns the hearing until September 15.
Rameshwar’s lawyer, Mahinder Bharadwaj, says that his plea is based on the premise of parity. “His offences are bailable, just like those of the four others who have received bail,” he explains as he walks down the court stairs flanked by file-carrying assistants.
Asked why he thinks the judge didn’t grant bail, he replies: “[Because] there is too much media pressure and a scapegoat is needed.”
Nibrash Ahmad, the lawyer representing Junaid’s family, had earlier told me that the police had removed the charge of murder from the charge sheets of five of the accused, which had helped four of them get bail.
“They never informed us that they were doing so. We have protested this and have complained to the higher courts, Human Rights Commission and Minority Commission about this. We want the investigating officer to be changed,” he explained in his chamber as several other younger lawyers sat on wooden benches, listening to him intently.
Rameshwar’s bail please was eventually rejected on September 20.
|Junaid’s father, Jalalludin, fears that the killers of his son may not be brought to justice [Abhimanyu Kumar/Al Jazeera]|
Junaid’s brother, Shakir, is at his family’s home in Khandawali village, just south of Faridabad. He was stabbed five times during the attack and, while recuperating, hasn’t been able to do his work as a commercial driver.
Shakir hadn’t accompanied Junaid and Hashim that day. But he had entered the train in Ballabgarh, the nearest station to their village, after receiving phone calls from his brothers asking for help.
On their way back from New Delhi, the brothers had gotten into a fight after an elderly man had asked Junaid to give up his seat for him. According to Hashim, Junaid immediately did so, but several men started to abuse them.
Junaid’s father, Jalalluddin, says his sons were stopped from leaving the train at Ballabgarh. “When Shakir entered the train, he heard cries for help,” he says.
“They were fighting when I entered,” Shakir explains. “We could not stop the train as we could not find any chain to pull.”
Junaid died from his stab wounds, after being left at the station after Ballabgarh.
Shakir remained in bed for days, unable to walk. Hashim has made a complete recovery from the two stab wounds he received.
The family has been awarded a total of about $30,000 in compensation from the government, NGOs and local politicians. One MP from Kerala gave them a small car.
“Brinda Karat of the CPIM (Communist Party of India (Marxist)) keeps in touch with us,” says Jalalluddin.
But the family is worried about four of the accused getting bail. “We learnt they got bail only through the media. The police kept us in dark,” says Shakir.
The recent Supreme Court directive that angered Suresh Yadav came after a petition was filed by Congress party politician Tehseen Poonawala. He is one of those behind the Not In My Name protests against cow-related lynching and is also pushing for a new law.
Standing on the lawn of Congress MP Digvijay Singh’s bungalow in New Delhi, as a press conference he had organised on behalf of Pehlu Khan’s family winds up, Tehseen explains that the details of 11 cases were included in their petition to the Supreme Court.
“The problem is that the central government or the state governments we listed in our petition are yet to respond. In fact, this is the third time the Court has reacted on the issue but the response of the said governments has been the same,” he says.
If it was up to Tehseen, the case against the six accused who were cleared of murdering Pehlu Khan would not be over. He is now urging the Supreme Court to transfer the case outside of the state of Rajasthan. His brother Shehzad Poonawala, a lawyer, is arguing the petition.
The politician is currently organising protests against lynching in Uttar Pradesh, after which he plans to visit Jharkhand where such incidents have also occurred. “We will go all over the country to mobilise people in favour of the new law,” he explains, as he negotiates a cab ride back to his house.
The new law, which has been drafted by his team of lawyers, has provisions for several measures, including the immediate suspension of police officers under whose watch such incidents occur, having the district magistrate investigate cases instead of the police, ensuring the protection of witnesses and having the cases heard by a judge with no less than seven years of experience.
“It also allows for the rehabilitation of the families of the victims and provides adequate compensation,” he explains.
But many legal experts say it is a lack of political will, rather than a lack of laws, that is the main obstacle to bringing justice to the victims of mob violence.
Meanwhile, as the judicial battle continues, the victims say the stakes are high.
“The cow is just an excuse,” says Jan Mohammad. “Muslims of the country are under siege and an attempt is being made to turn them into second-class citizens.”