Mumbai, India – Rafiq Tamboli would have been 33 years old now. Or maybe he still is. His wife doesn’t know if he is dead or alive. Nobody has seen him for at least two years.
A resident of Qureshi Nagar in Mumbai’s Kurla locality, Rafiq worked as a driver transporting meat for a couple of traders in the animal industry.
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On June 4, 2021, he received an assignment to pick up meat from the city of Daund in Pune district of Maharashtra – about 250km (155 miles) from Mumbai, the state capital.
After loading the meat in his truck, Rafiq embarked on a five-hour journey back home at about 9pm. He called his wife, Reshma Tamboli, just before he started driving.
“It was a normal conversation,” the 35-year-old told Al Jazeera. “I asked him if he had had dinner. He said he would in half an hour or so. That was about it.”
Little did Reshma know that it would be their last conversation.
At about 10:30pm that night, Rafiq’s truck was intercepted and stopped by cow vigilantes on the highway near the village of Ravangaon in Daund. He has not been seen since then – neither alive nor dead.
What happened after that is anybody’s guess.
When Rafiq did not return that night, Reshma frantically started calling him. The phone was switched off.
When he did not return even three days later, she went to the local police station in Mumbai’s Chunabhatti locality to file a complaint.
“The police called the man Rafiq worked for,” Reshma said. “That’s when he told us that his truck was intercepted by cow vigilantes in Daund.”
The moment she heard that, her heart sank.
Since 2014 when the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, cases of mob lynching under the pretext of protecting cows, considered holy by some Hindus, have been rising in India.
Critics believe the cow vigilantes, who are organised, often armed and once found on the fringes of society, have become mainstream after they started enjoying the BJP’s political patronage.
A New Delhi-based centre which has collated data on atrocities against India’s minorities, mainly Muslims, since 2014 has a category for cow-related violence.
The Documentation Of The Oppressed (DOTO) database, which has been updated until August last year, found 206 such instances involving more than 850 people – an overwhelming majority of them Muslims.
‘Even if you have killed him, just let me know’
Reshma, fearing the worst, immediately travelled to Daund police station, where Rafiq’s truck was parked.
“The police told us that the driver of the truck had run away,” she told Al Jazeera. “The cow vigilantes had told the police about it in a written statement.”
The statement was written by a self-proclaimed cow vigilante, named Shiv Shankar Swami.
In the statement, Swami, 27, said he heard from his sources at 5pm that day about a truck carrying cow meat to Mumbai.
According to the statement, Swami gathered some members of his Akhil Bhartiya Krishi Gauseva Sangh (All India Agriculture Cow Service Organisation) and waited for Rafiq at Ravangaon village in Daund along the Pune-Solapur highway.
At 10:30pm, Swami’s statement says, they noticed the truck and signalled the driver to pull over. The moment the driver, Rafiq, saw the cow vigilantes, he ran away and they could not catch him, Swami said.
The statement further alleges the truck was carrying about two tonnes of cow and bull meat covered in ice. The group then called the Daund police and asked them to confiscate the truck.
However, Reshma asks if that was the case, why hasn’t Rafiq contacted his family since.
“Why would he not come home for two years?” she asks. “Why wouldn’t he want to see his kids?”
She breaks down recalling the time when she had the conversation with her kids about the possibility of their father never coming back. Her daughter, Shaista, is 12 and son, Hasan is 10.
“They kept asking where he is,” Reshma told Al Jazeera.
“What was I supposed to tell them? Eventually, I told them your father may never return. I hope no mother ever has to have this conversation with her kids.”
Reshma says she even met Swami at Daund police station and fell onto his feet asking about her husband. “I pleaded with him to tell me about Rafiq’s whereabouts,” she said.
“I said even if you have killed him, just let me know. All I want right now is closure. I just want to know if he is dead or alive. I can’t even mourn properly with this uncertainty.”
But Swami stuck to his story and told Reshma she was like his sister, and he did not have the licence to kill people.
But it is not as simple as that.
‘They mentioned Swami’s name’
On June 24 this year, two Muslim men from the same locality where Reshma lived were returning from Nashik, about 200km (124 miles) from Mumbai, carrying 450kg (990 pounds) of meat.
Again, the cow vigilantes intercepted their car, dragged them out and took them to a nearby forested area, where they were tied to a tree trunk and beaten for three hours.
One of them, Afan Ansari, 32, died on the spot. The other, Nasir Hussain, 24, survived.
“When I spoke to Hussain, he categorically mentioned the name of Shiv Shankar Swami that he overheard among the cow vigilantes,” Hussain’s uncle Shafiullah Shah told Al Jazeera.
“They mentioned his [Swami’s] name while beating the boys up.”
According to Shah, Hussain told him that the vigilantes received a phone call where the man on the other end – presumably Swami – told them to “kill the landyas” – a slur commonly used against Muslims in BJP-ruled Maharashtra.
An internet search of Swami’s name throws up several news reports of cow vigilantism in Maharashtra dating between 2015 and 2017. He has been under police protection since 2015 due to a “threat perception” to his life because he has filed several police cases against cow smuggling and supposedly made enemies.
Swami is also a government-appointed “honourary animal welfare officer”, according to media reports.
Reshma, therefore, says she has no hope of ever getting justice or closure. For a year now, she has stopped pursuing the matter with the Daund police.
“Initially, the police carried out a small search operation when I went to the police station,” she said.
“But I can’t keep going back. I have two kids to look after. I have already spent a lot of money going back and forth from Daund. The pursuit of justice is expensive in India.”
Bhausaheb Patil, the police inspector at Daund, told Al Jazeera last week that Rafiq’s is “an old case and I will have to look into it” for the latest updates.
When asked what would be a good time to call back, he said, “I am in a meeting and I will get back to you.” Patil never did.
Reshma ran from pillar to post in the first year of Rafiq’s absence. She even printed posters of him and plastered them herself around the areas where he went missing.
“I was all alone in the night, installing the missing posters,” she recalled. “I went at night so I could return the next day to Mumbai and work. I didn’t even worry about my safety.”
One time, Reshma had gone to Daund for a follow-up with her children and the police told her to come back the next morning. She didn’t have money for a hotel nor did she know anyone in the city.
“I slept on the road under a tree with my kids,” she told Al Jazeera. “I have done everything I could but I couldn’t keep up with it.”
Reshma and Rafiq had saved about 100,000 rupees ($1,218) and made a fixed deposit for their children. She had to break the deposit to pay for the expenses incurred while following up the case.
“I realised I would jeopardise my kids’ future if I keep at it,” says Reshma. “So I have retreated now.”
Every day, she wakes up and gets her children ready for school, after which she goes to the market to sell onions and potatoes.
“My in-laws used to do it,” she says. “But after they passed away about six, seven years ago, I took over. I make 250-300 rupees ($3.05-3.66) per day. I just want to ensure a good life for my kids.”
Reshma is resigned to the idea that Rafiq will never come back. She is almost certain the cow vigilantes killed him. But even then, she sometimes grapples with the idea of a miracle.
“The thought does come up every now and then,” she admits. “What if he is alive?” But then the uncertainty takes over again. “It is a horrible feeling to live with.”