Mumbai, India – He was buried on the same day he was born 32 years ago.
On the night of June 24, Mohammad Asgar, 38, received a call from police in Maharashtra state’s Nashik district, about 200km (124 miles) from his residence in Mumbai.
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It was about his nephew, Afan Abdul Ansari.
About three hours later, when Asgar reached the scene, he could not believe what he saw.
“My nephew’s face had turned green, he had a bruise on the forehead, his shoulder was dislocated and fingers broken,” he told Al Jazeera. “I froze when I saw his dead body.”
Ansari had been lynched by cow vigilantes while ferrying 450 kilogrammes (990 pounds) of meat from a vendor in Sangamner – a town 220km (136 miles) away from Mumbai.
On his way back, the vigilantes suspected it was beef and intercepted his car in Nashik. The vigilantes brutally assaulted him along with Nasir Hussain, 24, who was with him in the car.
Both men are residents of Qureshi Nagar in Mumbai’s Kurla locality. Hussain now has a brain injury and is in a critical condition at the city’s KEM Hospital.
Asgar needed a few minutes to gather himself before he took Ansari’s body home to Mumbai that rainy night. The family buried him in the early morning of June 25.
“It was supposed to be his birthday,” said Asgar. “His wife is inconsolable. He has two daughters aged six and four. He comes from a poor family. We are worried about their future.”
The police have arrested 11 men – all from the villages of Nashik – for murder, rioting, carrying weapons and unlawful assembly. One of the suspects is 42 years old and the rest are aged between 19 and 30.
However, the police also charged the two Muslim men under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act. They said the meat found in their car has been sent for forensic analysis because of a ban in the state on the slaughter of bulls, oxen and cows, considered sacred by so-called upper-caste Hindus.
Only the sale and consumption of water buffaloes is legal in Maharashtra. In a complaint he was able to make to the Nashik police, Hussain said the 450kg of meat included two buffaloes and a bull.
Shafiullah Shah, 48, Hussain’s uncle, said what the men carried in their car is a matter for the police. “But what right do the cow vigilantes have to take matters in their own hands?” he asked. “Do these people have no fear of the rule of law in Maharashtra?”
The sequence of events suggests they do not.
According to Hussain’s police complaint, the pair left Sangamner at 3pm on June 24. About two and a half hours later, as their car crossed the Ghoti toll booth at Nashik’s Igatpuri Taluka, he sensed a four-wheel-drive and four or five motorcycles had been following their vehicle.
Not long afterwards, the attackers’ vehicle caught up with their car, and intercepted it. The men dragged Hussain and Ansari out and launched a brutal assault. According to Shah, Hussain told him that the cow vigilantes received a phone call where the man on the other end of the line told them to “kill the landyas” – a slur commonly used against Muslims.
“Hussain would have also died had he not pretended to be unconscious,” his younger brother Mohsin, 22, told Al Jazeera. “He held his breath when the cow vigilantes checked to see if he was breathing.”
The two were taken to a nearby forest and tied to a tree where they were beaten for nearly three hours with iron rods, pipes and shoes. Their brutalised bodies were then dumped on the highway before the attackers left.
The hands of the two Muslim men were still tied behind their backs when passersby noticed them and took them to the nearby SMBT Hospital. Ansari was soon pronounced dead. Hussain was discharged a day later – extremely prematurely – his family believes.
“I don’t understand how the hospital discharged him in a day,” said Shah. “When we brought him to Mumbai, the doctors at the KEM Hospital told us he had a serious brain injury and a clot. He is still admitted and the doctors aren’t clearly saying if he is out of danger.”
Second incident in area in 15 days
The victims are from poor backgrounds and looked after their families through daily jobs and labouring. Their work sometimes entailed ferrying meat or vegetables, or even loading and unloading goods at the Deonar abattoir in Mumbai, said Shah, who runs an animal transport business, where he only carts water buffaloes for sale and slaughter – which is legal in Maharashtra.
However, Shah said, drivers are now petrified to do their jobs because of the impunity with which the cow vigilantes operate. This was the second cow-related lynching in Nashik in 15 days.
On June 10, Lukman Ansari, a resident of Bhiwandi outside Mumbai, was attacked in Nashik on suspicion of illegally transporting cattle for slaughter. He was in his early 20s.
According to local media reports, his body was found four days later. The police arrested six cow vigilantes, some of them suspected members of Rashtriya Bajrang Dal, a far-right group founded by Pravin Togadia, one of the main accused in the deadly 2002 riots in the neighbouring Gujarat state.
Meanwhile, local media in the eastern state of Bihar reported another Muslim man was lynched on Wednesday as the community prepared to celebrate the Eid al-Adha festival.
Truck driver Mohammad Zahiruddin was killed by a group of men for allegedly carrying bones of animals for a local factory that made medicinal ingredients from them. Police said his truck broke down in Bihar’s Saran district. A crowd gathered around due to the smell and then beat him to death.
Cases of mob lynching under the pretext of protecting cows have been rising in India since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in 2014. Critics believe the cow vigilantes once on the fringes of society became mainstream after that year.
A coalition comprising of the BJP and a regional party currently governs Maharashtra, where Modi’s party toppled an opposition-led alliance last year.
The federal government, however, says it does not maintain any data regarding mob lynchings.
In December 2022, Minister Of State for Home Affairs, Nityanand Rai, told the lower house of parliament, “The National Crime Records Bureau [NCRB] publishes crime data as received from all the states and the union territories under various crime heads which are clearly defined under the Indian Penal Code and special and local laws. No separate data on atrocities against religious minority communities and for mob lynching is maintained by the NCRB.”
‘To harass and hound Muslims’
A New Delhi-based centre which has collated data on atrocities against minorities since 2014 has a category for cow-related violence. The Documentation Of The Oppressed (DOTO) database, which has been updated until August 2022, found 206 such instances involving more than 850 people, including Dalits, Christians and public servants. The overwhelming majority of the victims, though, are Muslims.
“The numbers shown here are, at best, representative of the scale of the problem,” the website says. “The database is a fair accounting of all reported incidents of hate crimes against religious minorities in India, but it is by no means a complete accounting of all such hate crimes happening in the country.”
In 2019, Human Rights Watch, a New York-based rights group, found that between May 2015 and December 2018, more than 100 beef-related attacks took place in India, in which 280 people were injured and 44 died – an overwhelming majority of them Muslims.
In 2017, IndiaSpend, a data website, released a report that analysed cow-related lynchings since 2010. It found that 86 percent of the people killed in such cases were Muslims, while 97 percent of attacks transpired after Modi came to power. The website has since taken down its tracker.
The conviction rate in such cases also remains low, according to a study published in 2020 by the Centre for Study of Society and Secularism. “The victims and their families are intimidated to not pursue legal course,” the report said.
“The disturbing trend is that the victims themselves are slapped with charges under different sections of laws to criminalise them and act as a justification for the violence. Thus, there is double victimisation of the victim and a prolonged legal battle which is unevenly stacked against them. This delayed or in most cases denied justice emboldens the vigilantes to mount relentless attacks without fear of law or prosecution, putting the victims in a vulnerable position.”
Even when the cow vigilantes are arrested, critics believe, they are foot soldiers rather than masterminds. Shah fears the case of Ansari and Hussain is heading in the same direction.
“When I spoke to Hussain, he categorically mentioned the name of Shiv Shankar Swami that he overheard among the cow vigilantes,” he said. “They mentioned him while beating the boys up.”
An internet search of his name throws up several news reports of cow vigilantism in Maharashtra dating between 2015 and 2017.
Maruti Borhade, a police officer in Ghoti, told Al Jazeera the investigations are continuing and the police are searching for more men. “They haven’t said anything yet,” he said. “We are still interrogating them.”
Shah, however, believes that cow vigilantes are able to operate so swiftly because of state protection as well as support from society. Their network stems from the toll booths, where vehicles slow down and their informants can get a good look inside, he said.
“My drivers always travel with every necessary document but it doesn’t matter because the main objective is to harass and hound Muslims,” he told Al Jazeera, as he took out his mobile phone.
“A driver is coming from Nashik as we speak. He has WhatsApped me a video of a car that he thinks is following his truck. The cow vigilantes have made us all paranoid.”