Time of lynch mobs

Print edition : April 12, 2019

Irshad (left), Pehlu Khan’s son, with his brothers at their Jaisinghpur village home in Haryana. Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma

Mohammad Akhlaq, lynched in Dadri in September 2015. Photo: PTI

Lynchings, and not so much riots, have marked communal violence in the last five years, in a political atmosphere that emboldened the assailants and ensured they got away with it.

A month after Narendra Modi was sworn in as the Prime Minister, promising to live up to the election slogan of “Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas”, Mohsin Shaikh, a technocrat in Pune, was lynched by activists of the Hindu Rashtra Sena, a local body espousing Hindutva. The nation, in the middle of a honeymoon with the new political dispensation, was only too willing to treat the lynching as an aberration. The dream of inclusive development, job creation and smart cities was too precious to be allowed to die with the death of one individual. Or so it seemed. Shaikh was soon forgotten as collateral damage.

Things changed in 2015 when on September 28 Mohammad Akhlaq was dragged out of his bedroom on to the verandah of his house and then out on to the street to be lynched by a mob in Dadri, an agricultural township in Uttar Pradesh. Accusing him of cow slaughter, the assailants killed Akhlaq blow by blow, breaking one bone, then another, a rib, then another. As Akhlaq’s mutilated body was returned to his family, the nation was horrified. It was beyond the comprehension of civil society how a man sleeping in his bedroom could be dragged to the street and lynched in full public view and the video of the abominable act shared online. As civil society, and some political parties, notably the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Communist Party of India and the Aam Aadmi Party, called for justice, Modi’s silence screamed the loudest.

The message of his silence registered with the right constituency. To accuse a Muslim of cow slaughter and then lynch him became the new normal. Akhlaq’s brutal end was repeated with the story of Pehlu Khan soon afterwards in Alwar, Rajasthan; then came Naeem in Jamshedpur followed by Alimuddin Ansari in Ramgarh, both in Jharkhand. The same region saw a textbook lynching case in which Imtiaz and Mazloom Ansari were hanged by a mob that accused the duo of trading in cattle. While Imtiaz’s hanging was witnessed by his father, Alimuddin’s gory killing was witnessed by his son on his mobile. It so happened that after Alimuddin left to go to work, his 16-year-old was fiddling with his mobile. Suddenly, a new video popped up. Eager, like any teenager, to see it, he was horrified to find that the video was of his father being lynched at that very moment in the city square. A few moments before he breathed his last, Alimuddin was forced by the Hindutva goons who killed him to pose for the camera one last time; one goon held him by the collar while another pulled his hair from behind to pull up his face in the direction of the camera. For the Hindutva brigade, Alimuddin in his dying moments was like a hunted animal, of the kind that has its head displayed in the drawing rooms of well-heeled hunters. His photograph was circulated on WhatsApp among right-wingers.

Shortly before this incident, in Chittorgarh, Rajasthan, two Muslim men were stripped naked and paraded around the city; their non-Muslim driver was let off with a slap and a scolding. Then came the most reprehensible killing in Rajsamand in Rajasthan where Afrazul was mutilated and then burnt alive by Shambhulal Regar. Shockingly, even as Regar was killing Afrazul, Regar’s 13-year-old nephew filmed it on his mobile, and the video was soon uploaded online. It was no longer just normal to slay or burn a Muslim to death but also a mark of accomplishment. Akhlaq, Ansari, Afrazul, the list went on. The Prime Minister maintained an eerie silence. Not once did he refer to any of these lynching victims by name. Nor did he pull up his partymen. Only once did he make a belated intervention. That was after the Una (Gujarat) incident in which four Dalit youths were stripped to their waist and flogged publicly for skinning a dead cow. It led to a social uproar, forcing Modi to say: “If you feel like attacking someone, attack me, not my Dalit brothers.” This response was too feeble and totally futile. Predictably, the videos, including those of Una, were all shared online as a mark of achievement, with the political bosses tacitly looking the other way.

Soon after Akhlaq was lynched, some men accused of the crime were arrested by the Uttar Pradesh Police. Among them was the son of a local Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader. A few months later, one of them, Ravin Sisodia, died of dengue in police custody. His family held the police responsible for his death. Soon after, Union Minister Manesh Sharma drove down to Sisodia’s village and wrapped his body in the tricolour before it was sent for cremation. With a single action, Sharma legitimised the killing of Akhlaq. It was not just normal to accuse and kill a man for alleged cow slaughter, it was as praiseworthy as a soldier’s sacrifice of his life on the border.

Any hint of doubt of the political connections of the assailants in the lynchings vanished when eight men convicted of killing Alimuddin Ansari were given bail by a Ranchi court. The men were driven from the jail straight to the residence of Union Minister Jayant Sinha, where each was garlanded by the Minister and given a packet of sweets. Asked by the media to explain the action, Sinha initially hemmed and hawed, then meekly defended himself by saying that the attackers were from his constituency. Of course, he did not deem it necessary to visit Ansari’s widow and children, who too were from his own constituency. The identification of the lynch mob with its political masters was complete.

In July 2018, BJP leader Gyandev Ahuja pronounced his verdict on the alleged killers of Rakbar Khan, a milkman in Alwar who was attacked on his way back from a cattle fair. Even before the matter had been decided in court, Ahuja announced that the men arrested by the police for the murder were innocent and that Rakbar’s family and neighbours should be investigated for other instances of cow killing. Like Modi in the case of Sharma and Sinha, the then Rajasthan Chief Minister, Vasundhara Raje, maintained a studied silence. It was the same weapon she had used when Pehlu and others were lynched under her dispensation. Worse, in all cases, the police filed first information reports against the victims, implying that the victims were the instigators. Not one of the accused was pronounced guilty in Rajasthan, Haryana or Uttar Pradesh. In the case of Shaikh’s lynching in Pune, the statement of the Bombay High Court’s Justice Mridula Bhatkar shocked everybody. Granting bail to three of the 21 accused, Justice Bhatkar said: “The fault of the deceased was only that he belonged to another religion. I consider this factor in favour of the applicants/accused. Moreover, the applicants/accused do not have any criminal record and it appears that in the name of religion, they were provoked and have committed the murder.” In February 2018, the Supreme Court quashed the bail of the accused.

Not surprisingly, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath was emboldened to claim that there were no communal riots under his rule and that the Prime Minister had provided security to all. He was not far from the literal truth. Indeed, there were no major riots in the past five years or so. Lynching had replaced the traditional communal combats. In riots, both sides suffer to varying degrees and the attackers remain on the run for a long time. Lynching has provided a better alternative. Only one community suffers.