Bias in the open

Print edition : October 13, 2017

Pehlu Khan’s wife and sons at a press conference in New Delhi on September 15. Photo: Sandeep Saxena

The Rajasthan Police’s “clean chit” to dairy farmer Pehlu Khan’s assailants whom he had named in his dying declaration displays the discrimination against the minority community in the BJP-ruled State.

ON April 1, some unsuspecting dairy farmers from Mewat in Haryana returning from a cattle fair in Jaipur were set upon by cow vigilantes on the Jaipur-Delhi highway at Alwar in Rajasthan. Accused of being cattle smugglers, they were beaten up even as a crowd silently watched. The police post at Behror was not far away from the site of the attack.

One of the farmers, 55-year-old Pehlu Khan, was beaten so severely that he died two days later in hospital. In his dying declaration, he named half a dozen persons who had beaten him up. Some of them were employees of a nearby gaushala (shelter for cows) which has known affiliations with Hindutva outfits. Thirteen persons were arrested; Pehlu Khan could specifically name six of his attackers—Om Yadav, Hukum Chand Yadav, Sudhir Yadav, Jagmal Yadav, Naveen Sharma and Rahul Saini—as their names were being called out by the mob.

The police filed a charge sheet on the basis of his dying declaration, circumstantial evidence, statements of eyewitnesses that included Pehlu Khan’s sons and three others who were roughed up by the mob, and videos of the attackers that were taken by people present on the spot. The police reached the spot while a good section of the crowd was still there and took Pehlu Khan to the hospital where he gave a statement in front of the doctors.

Interestingly, the case was handed over to the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) of the State government in July even though the family had not demanded one. On September 1, the CID submitted its report to the government giving a “clean chit” (the term used by the police officially) to the six accused who were named by Pehlu Khan. The CID found no evidence, circumstantial or otherwise, linking them to the incident. The six persons were given a “clean chit” on the basis of statements of eyewitnesses present at the scene of the crime, videos, photographs and mobile phone records.

Of the 13 booked under various sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), three were released on bail earlier. Four persons are still in police custody.

Qasim, an Alwar-based lawyer representing Pehlu Khan’s family, told Frontline that the CID’s report would be challenged in court. “We were satisfied with the police’s investigation and felt that justice was almost done. The FIR [first information report] was registered and the charge sheet filed on the basis of Pehlu’s statement as well as other evidence like videos. He was conscious when he gave his statement to the police in front of the doctors. There is a statement of the doctor as well, which the police recorded as evidence. His ribs were broken, but he was able to speak. Our judicial system also says that a dying man does not lie. No one asked the State government to hand the case over to the CID. We knew this would happen,” he said. Neither Pehlu Khan’s family nor his lawyers have seen the CID report as yet.

AIKS protest

The All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), which rallied agriculturists and dairy farmers on Pehlu Khan’s lynching, called the investigation by the CID, which “exonerated the six accused as not guilty in the Pehlu Khan murder case”, as “motivated”. Office-bearers of the AIKS, Hannan Mollah and Amra Ram, said that “it is becoming increasingly evident that any grave crime committed by a person related to the Sangh Parivar will be exonerated by any investigation agency in present-day India. The dying declaration of Pehlu Khan named those persons as his killers or conspirators, but the investigation agency ignored that and made a case to remove their names. This is the real face of the investigating agencies today under a BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] government.”

The AIKS demanded that the “biased report of the CB-CID be scrapped” and an impartial inquiry conducted in its place under the supervision of the High Court. It had raised money for the families of Pehlu Khan and Azmat Khan, another dairy farmer who was also severely assaulted by cow vigilantes on April 1.

Ironically, the State Home Minister, Gulab Chand Kataria, had declared in the Assembly that Pehlu Khan’s was a family of cattle smugglers. It so happened in 2011 that his sons were charged for cruelty against animals on complaints by cow vigilantes in Haryana. Not in the least surprising since it was commonplace for cow vigilantes to accost cattle traders of the minority community and accuse them of smuggling cattle for slaughter. All this was done with the active connivance of the police.

With the passage of stringent laws for cow protection, cow vigilantism has been on the rise in parts of Haryana, Rajasthan and Punjab and the National Capital Region of Delhi. Javed, a member of the Sanjha Manch, a broad coalition of progressive organisations, said that the “clean chit” given by the CID was a huge setback for the Meo community. “Where is the question of tutoring Pehlu Khan as is being alleged by some? We were not even there near him in hospital. We will rally people again as this cannot be allowed to pass. Aawaaz to uthani padegi [we will have to raise our voices in protest],” he told Frontline.

He said Meos were being harassed on a regular basis even for purchasing milch cattle for their own subsistence. “There have been huge panchayats in Mewat where the community has taken resolutions against the smuggling of cattle for any purpose, but our people are being harassed at every level. There is no source of employment here other than transporting cattle, which most of our youths are engaged in,” he said.

Almost every agriculturist in the State owned some livestock that were traded at cattle fairs held in the State. Rampant cow vigilantism had created a fear psychosis among cattle traders. As buffaloes were more expensive than cows, dairy farmers preferred to buy the latter and that was what Pehlu Khan was doing that fateful day.

Livelihood concerns

Despite the Union government’s rhetoric on agriculture, there is little sympathy with the livelihood concerns of the agricultural community as a whole. In July, livestock owners and farmers heaved a huge sigh of relief as the Supreme Court upheld a stay granted by the Madras High Court on a notification of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change that put a ban on the sale and trade in bovine species at livestock fairs for purposes other than agriculture. The Central government notification was in response to a petition filed in the Supreme Court regarding the checking of smuggling of cattle across the border. The notification incidentally covered all animals—bulls, bullocks, heifers, cows, buffaloes, steers, calves and camels. With agriculture in dire straits all over the country, farmers were found to increasingly rely on their livestock for sustenance in crisis periods.

According to a content analysis of the English media by IndiaSpend, Muslims were the target of bovine-related violence between 2010 and 2017; members of that community constituted 86 per cent of the 26 Indians killed in 63 incidents. As many as 97 per cent of these attacks were reported after the National Democratic Alliance government under Narendra Modi was sworn into power in 2014. Fifty per cent of the cow-related violence was in States governed by the BJP, with Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Gujarat, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Delhi reporting the majority of the cases. In the first six months of 2017, at least 20 bovine-related attacks were reported.

The murder of 16-year-old Junaid Khan on June 22 on a Delhi-Mathura train on the Faridabad route in Haryana was yet another instance of targeting the minorities. Junaid Khan was stabbed to death after an altercation over a seat took an ugly turn, with the attackers using communal slurs against Junaid Khan and his brothers who were travelling with him. They were returning home after shopping for Eid in Delhi. Four of the six accused in the case are out on bail. The Haryana Railway Police dropped charges of unlawful assembly, rioting and common intention against some of the accused, facilitating their bail.

Of the 18 youths who were charged with the murder of Mohammad Akhlaq in Bisada village, Dadri district, Uttar Pradesh, on September 28, 2015, over the allegation that he was storing beef, almost all of them, including the son of a BJP functionary, have been given bail. Only three remain in custody. Like Pehlu Khan, Mohammad Akhlaq was also in his fifties; he was the sole breadwinner of his family. His murder created a national outrage but there has been no let-up in minority bashing since his wanton killing. The list of those awaiting justice is long even as cow vigilantism and communal profiling continue unabated.