Report from Dadri

Hate culture

Print edition : October 30, 2015

Mohammad Akhlaq's son Danish, who was also attacked on September 28, in a hospital in Noida, on October 6. Photo: PTI

Asgari Begum, mother of Mohammad Akhlaq, with his bloodied clothes in their Bisara home two days after the lynching. Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma

Jan Mohammad (left), Jamil (centre) and Afzal (right), brothers of Mohammad Akhlaq, at a peace meeting in Dadri on October 7. Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma

Police deployment in Bisara village following the lynching. Photograph taken on October 7. Photo: PTI

The lynching at Dadri came after months of concerted attempts at communal polarisation.

BISARA, a sleepy village in Dadri block of Gautam Budh Nagar district in Uttar Pradesh, came alive on September 28 as word spread that a Muslim resident, 50-year-old Mohammad Akhlaq, had slaughtered a calf and had beef at home. Some 25 Muslim families form a minuscule minority in this village with its predominantly Rajput population. The Muslims here are mostly landless labourers and take up odd jobs such as washing clothes or working as farmhands to eke out a living. Akhlaq’s modest home in a narrow lane, with paint peeling off the brick walls, presents a stark contrast to the bungalows of the Thakurs on the main road with their stately iron gates and fancy cars parked on the lawn.

Residents say there was never any communal violence in the village in the past. On September 28, however, there were concerted efforts by fringe elements to mobilise villagers around the emotive issue of cow slaughter. The Rajput reaction to the lynching also points to communal polarisation that must have preceded the crime. Union Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma, who is also the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Member of Parliament from the Gautam Budh Nagar constituency, has claimed that the lynching was not a premeditated action. But interactions with villagers on the ground suggest the contrary.

Dharamveer Singh, a Rajput who owns a flour mill in Bisara and has lived in the village for 30 years, admitted that he received a message on WhatsApp with a clip of a carcass of a calf on the morning of September 28. “I am pretty sure that the cow slaughter actually happened. Images of a killed calf were all over social media. I do not have any enmity with Muslims, but they should not do things that hurt the sentiments of Hindus. Now, Muslim leaders from Hyderabad [Asaduddin Owaisi] and other places are coming down and trying to communalise the issue. The Samajwadi Party government in Uttar Pradesh has spoilt the Muslims,” he told Frontline.

Other Rajputs shared the sentiment. One resident, Mahinder, said: “I did see the leg of a calf in front of their [Akhlaq’s] house,” he said. He also said that he was present at the scene of the attack, and on being asked why he was there, he said: “I got to know about it from other villagers, and I was curious.” Om Veer, a Rajput who owns a grocery store, said: “There is no communal tension in this village. We [Rajputs] have even donated land for their [Muslims’] mosques. But, of course, they cannot be allowed to slaughter the sacred cow. My understanding is they were doing this earlier, too, but stealthily. When they were caught, people expectedly were outraged.”

Amit Sharma of the Sarvadaliya Gau Raksha Manch, an umbrella organisation working across Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi and Haryana to prevent cow slaughter, said: “There is evidence on social media to suggest that a cow slaughter actually happened. There are images of the slaughtered calf still being circulated on Facebook, WhatsApp and other social media. We demand that the district administration order an inquiry.”

Akhlaq’s brother Jan Mohammed does not live in Bisara, but he rushed to the village on the night of September 28 as soon as he heard of the attack. He said that rumours about Akhlaq being involved in the slaughtering of a cow and having beef in his house had been doing the rounds in the village that day. Around 10 p.m., an announcement was made on the loudspeaker that a calf had been slaughtered and that its remains had been found on the street where Akhlaq’s house stood. Villagers were exhorted to assemble. A mob of some hundred people gathered around the house and broke into it just as Akhlaq was getting ready for bed after having offered his namaaz. They ransacked the house, broke the doors and windows and beat up Akhlaq and his 18-year-old son, Danish. They then dragged Akhlaq out and attacked him with bricks. Both Akhlaq and Danish were rushed to Kailash Hospital in Noida, where Akhlaq succumbed to his injuries. At the time of writing this article, Danish was still in a critical condition.

Akhlaq’s one-room house with a small courtyard is surrounded by homes of Hindu and Muslim neighbours. Akhlaq’s daughter, Sajida, and friends of the family said that he had shared cordial relations with his neighbours and never had a fight with anyone. Shaqir Ali, an engineer from Dadri who has been a friend of the family for several years, said Akhlaq was a peace-loving person. That night, however, no one came forward to help the family.

The policemen on patrol outside Akhlaq’s house at present claim that they arrived within 15 minutes of receiving information of the attack, around 10:45 p.m. Indrapal Singh, a police officer from Jarcha police station who has been on patrol from the night of the incident, said that the police had done their best to protect the family. “We rushed to the spot as soon as we received information,” he said.

In a first information report (FIR) filed on the attack by the Uttar Pradesh Police at Jarcha police station on October 5, 10 young men from Bisara village have been named as the accused. Eight of them have been arrested. Seven of the accused are from local BJP leader Sanjay Rana’s family, and one of them is his son, Vishal. Vishal has been accused of having forced the priest of a local temple to announce that Akhlaq had beef at home. He is among those who have been arrested.

In a curious move, the police sent a sample of the meat found at Akhlaq’s home for an examination to a forensic laboratory in Mathura, though a vet had said it was mutton. (And mutton, indeed, it has turned out to be after the Mathura laboratory’s test results were announced.)

The State administration’s handling of the case does not appear entirely impartial. This reporter was present when on October 2 the Sub-divisional Magistrate of Dadri, Rajesh Kumar, virtually threatened Jan Mohammad in the courtyard of Akhlaq’s house. “Some of your people are issuing false statements to the media. You will have to face the consequences of this,” Kumar told Jan Mohammad. Some residents of the village, angry over the threat, blocked the SDM’s car for a while. In another shocking incident on October 3, a group of village residents attacked some journalists who were trying to enter the village. The car of a major television channel was ransacked and a cameraman was injured. Uttar Pradesh Police personnel posted at the site reportedly made no attempt to thwart the attack.

The lynching seems to have followed a build-up of communal polarisation and demonisation of minority religious and cultural practices in the village. Jan Mohammad said: “Our family has lived in this village for generations. There was no animosity between Hindus and Muslims. But over the last year, some organisations in the village have been working towards building up an atmosphere of hatred against the minority communities, especially Muslims. The Rashtravadi Pratap Sena and the Samadhan Sena have been targeting people in the 25-35 age group. They put up posters with anti-Muslim messages. The younger people in the village are becoming intolerant. They are more willing to listen to the propaganda of the fringe groups than the older people.”

Efforts are now under way to use the incident to further demonise Muslims and exercise control over their dietary choices. Members of the Sarvadaliya Gau Raksha Manch, an organisation ostensibly dedicated to cow protection, are going around the village mobilising support for a probe into the cow slaughter that they claim took place on September 28.

Amit Sharma, a member of the organisation, spoke at length about the ways in which it is working towards cow protection in Shahjahanpur, Bareilly, Ghaziabad and Noida in Uttar Pradesh. He boasted that Muslims in large numbers attended the organisation’s meetings. The organisation has also been active in Delhi, Haryana and Uttarakhand over the last five years.

Sharma said, “All religious texts, including the Quran, prohibit cow slaughter. Our organisation is dedicated to the preservation of cows. We are trying to enrol members in Dadri now. Our aim is to prevent cow slaughter and encourage the breeding of cows. There are a number of benefactors in cities who want to contribute to the cause. City dwellers often do not have enough space to rear a cow, so they pay a sum of about Rs.2,500 to Rs.3,000 to a villager for tending a cow. We want Muslims to participate in this initiative. In Mewat last month, about 25,000 Muslims participated in a meeting for cow protection. Some of the Muslim members have even been persuaded not to sacrifice cows on Bakrid. They want to reform the existing religious customs. The implementation of cow protection across religions is essential for an undivided India. Muslims have to respect our religious sentiments. In the Vedas, gau mata is venerated as sacred.”

Sharma also said that a Muslim wing of the cow protection committee worked towards discouraging Muslims from slaughtering cows or eating beef. He said, “The Rashtriya Muslim Mahasabha is spreading the message of cow protection among Muslims. There are several Muslim members in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. They have taken upon themselves the task of convincing Muslims to protect cows.”

Kaimrala village

In Gujjar-majority Kaimrala village, about 20 kilometres from Bisara, Muslim men find themselves targeted on the pretext of preventing cattle theft. aIn September, a mob lynched three young Muslim men suspected of having stolen a couple of buffaloes. The similarities with the Bisara incident are stark. The villagers make no bones about the fact that the lynching took place and see it as fitting retribution for the act of stealing cattle. The communal overtone is hard to miss. Village residents also say that the police did not arrive in time to control the mob.

Gujjars are a farming community and own most of the land in Kaimrala village. There are a few villages around it that have sizeable Muslim populations.

Shripal Bhati, a farmer who witnessed the lynching, said, “Three Muslim guys were caught trying to steal two buffaloes from Baburam Bhati’s house around 10 at night. Cow theft has become a nuisance. There was a truck waiting on the highway nearby, on which the cattle thieves were planning to put the buffaloes. About 500 people from the neighbouring villages gathered. A jagaran [Hindu religious event involving night-long song and dance performances] was under way in the neighbouring village of Bhogpur. Religious passions ran high. The people started beating up these two youths and set fire to the truck waiting on the highway.”

He said the police arrived too late to control the mob. “The police arrived at about 2:30 a.m. The three men were dead by that time. They recovered some identification cards from the bodies of the dead men. This is how we got to know that they were Muslims. Two of them were from Bulandshahar and one was from Mussoorie.”

There was no sense of outrage in Shripal Bhati’s narration at the lynching of two people. On being asked about the recent incident in Bisara, he said, “When a cow is killed, passions get ignited and these things can happen.”

Baburam Bhati, the farmer whose buffaloes were allegedly stolen, admitted that two men had been lynched but refused to share further details.

Satish Kumar, a farmer, tried to rationalise the lynching: “This was the third incident of cattle theft that was about to happen in the village in the last one year. A farmer spends about Rs. 1-1.5 lakh in buying a buffalo or a cow. He is devastated when it is stolen. So it is only expected that at some point he will react.”

Dhiraj Bhati, also a farmer, said: “I had six buffaloes, but all got stolen in just one year. This is really a problem. Groups of villagers have to stand guard every night to prevent cattle theft.”

Balraj Bhati, a leader in the village panchayat, described the lynching as an “accident”. He was aggrieved that the State police was not able to prevent “cow slaughter and cow theft”, which he termed as a serious law and order problem. He did not think of the lynching as a law and order problem.

He said, “In the panchayat meeting organised about two weeks ago in the village, we have decided to step up vigil at night to prevent cow and buffalo theft. There will be 10 to 15 people in every lane on guard at night.”

Chhaulas village

Chhaulas, about 10 km from Kaimrala, is a predominantly Muslim village with some Brahmins and Valmikis. The Muslims eat beef, the Brahmins are vegetarians, and the Valmikis eat pork. Residents of the village say that there has never been any violence or hostility between the communities despite their cultural differences. Over the past one year, however, Hindutva groups have been trying to engineer conflicts.

Jarrar Rizvi, an advocate whose ancestral house is in the village, said: “Over the last one year, members of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh [RSS] have been active in and around the village. Every day at the time of the azaan [call for prayer] in the village mosque, a number of temples from the neighbouring villages start playing music on loudspeakers. Some of the neighbouring villages—Noorpar, Nangla—are dominated by Gujjars. This has been happening for a year, ever since [Prime Minister Narendra] Modi came to power. It’s a deliberate ploy of the RSS to disturb the understanding and amity between communities in the village. This village has traditionally seen amicable relations between communities. We are tolerant towards one another’s dietary preferences and food habits. The Valmikis, living next to the Muslim colony, eat pork. We have never objected to it. Also, a large section of the population is involved in selling meat. No one has ever objected to these practices. The Muslims would enthusiastically participate in the Ramlila performances in the village. But things are changing now.”

Rizvi added: “There is a dargah for a Sufi pir at the entry to the village. The RSS and the VHP [Vishwa Hindu Parishad] have been trying to mobilise villagers to construct a temple at that very site for the last one year.”

Rizvi’s father, Zabbar Hussain, who has lived in the village all his life, lamented the growing intolerance towards minorities. The village’s butcher community (some 30 families) has been facing some vigilantism for about a year.

Suraj Pandit, a shopkeeper in the village, said, “A Muslim butcher was arrested about nine months ago after remnants of a cow were allegedly recovered from his house.” Mohammed Lukma, a mechanic, betrayed the self-censoring that Muslims resort to in this atmosphere of fear and paranoia. He said, “I would think it is best that the Muslims avoid eating beef as it creates an atmosphere of distrust between communities. Anything that disturbs the peace is best avoided.”

Subhash Sharma, a Brahmin resident of the village said, “Most Muslims in the village do not eat beef. If beef slaughter is carried out illegally, our Muslim brothers themselves hand over the culprits to the police.”

The murder of Akhlaq in Bisara village comes in the backdrop of increasing attempts at demonising the Muslim as a religious and cultural “other”. It polarises society and intensifies the sense of fear and paranoia among minorities. Looking at it as merely a law and order issue would mean ignoring the larger implications of Hindutva politics for pluralism and tolerance in the country.

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