The six-week lockdown that began in April in the Delhi-Haryana-Uttar Pradesh belt may have helped contain the pandemic, but it has failed to control the virus of hatred. In the past one month, there have been reports of lynching of young Muslim men and unprovoked attacks against them by cow vigilantes and local strongmen in Nuh (Haryana) and Moradabad, Mathura and Bhojpur (all in Uttar Pradesh). Instances of violence against Muslim men allegedly involving local policemen were reported in Delhi, and Bulandshahr and Unnao (both in Uttar Pradesh).
From 2015, when Mohammad Akhlaq of Dadri in western Uttar Pradesh was lynched on suspicion of cow slaughter, the template for violence against Muslims has changed. As in the case of Tabrez Ansari in 2019, young men in Nuh and Bhojpur were beaten with rods and hockey sticks and forced to chant ‘Jai Shri Ram’. No political leader other than All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen leader Asaduddin Owaisi called for justice. It was left to social activists, the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative and little-known organisations such as the Muslim Raksha Dal to demand punishment for the accused.
On May 16, Asif Hussain Khan, a resident of Khalilpur Kheda village in Nuh district in Haryana, was going by car with his relative Rashid to buy medicine from Sohna, the nearest town from his village, when a group of men attacked them near a railway crossing. “On their way back from Sohna they spoke to Wasif [a common friend of Asif and Rashid] and offered him a lift back home. He was dropped off a few minutes later. This was when the accused, in three or four cars, repeatedly hit my son’s vehicle and eventually surrounded them from all sides,” Zakir Hussain, Asif’s father, told the media.
In the attack, Asif and Rashid fell out of the car. While Rashid managed to flee, the assailants, who were allegedly carrying guns and revolvers, kidnapped Asif. Reportedly, they shot him in the arm and leg and gouged out one of his eyes. Rashid later claimed that the attackers forced them to chant ‘Jai Shri Ram’.
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The police arrested six men the next day after Asif’s family filed a first information report (FIR) and refused to bury his body until the accused were nabbed. They were charged under Indian Penal Code Sections relating to rioting, unlawful assembly, murder, voluntarily causing hurt, wrongful restraint and kidnapping and abducting a person and under Section 25 of the Arms Act. Asif’s family named 14 persons in the FIR, mentioning Patwari, Advani, Mahendra and Anup, as the accused. The police maintained it was personal animosity that led to the murder.
Three weeks later, a Mahapanchayat was organised at Indri to express solidarity with the accused. At least 50,000 people attended it at a time when no funeral could have more than 20 mourners and no wedding more than 25 guests. A few Bharatiya Janata Party leaders, besides Karni Sena chief Kunwar Suraj Pal Amu and Bharat Mata Vahini chief Dinesh Thakur, too, addressed the gathering.
“It is said that Hindus and Muslims are brothers. Whose brothers? These people are butchers,” thundered Amu at the gathering called to demand the release of the men accused of lynching Asif. Dinesh Thakur also demanded the release of the accused, pronouncing them innocent. He had earlier participated in small rallies supporting the accused and posted the videos online.
Call for justice
Even as most mainstream political parties maintained silence on the issue, Owaisi took to Twitter to call for justice. He tweeted: “50k gather in ‘Hindu Mahapanchayat’ to support Asif’s killers. Speeches celebrate violence against Muslims & blame Asif for his death. This is radicalisation. Lowly thugs who would be rejected in a decent society enjoy social/political support here.”
Asif’s case was not an isolated one. A couple of days before the Mahapanchayat in Haryana, a 19-year-old Muslim boy in Uttar Pradesh’s Bhojpur was forced to chant ‘Jai Shri Ram’ before being attacked with rods and an iron nail. Zeeshan was returning from his aunt’s house in Tohri when a group of people intercepted him and thrashed him. “They stopped me and tore my clothes. They broke my motorcycle and forced me to chant ‘Jai Shri Ram’. When I refused, they started beating me. They had a gun, hit me with an iron nail on my hand and hit me brutally in the back. When I started bleeding profusely, they ran away,” Zeeshan described in a video shortly after the incident.
Two days after Asif’s lynching in Nuh, Delhi reported a case of violence against a Muslim man who had called up the Delhi Police to break up a quarrel between two groups in his neighbourhood. His uncle, Ahmed Ali, told the media that on May 17, around 9 p.m., two brothers from the area got into a fight outside his nephew Wasim Khan’s house. The fight escalated and others too got involved in it. The two sides then started pelting stones at each other. That is when Wasim Khan, who had no rôle in the fight, and instead asked groups twice to disperse, sought police intervention to avoid violence. On the night of May 18, three policemen at the Fatehpur Beri Police Station, Delhi, allegedly “thrashed” Wasim Khan after he was asked to give his eyewitness account of the fight.
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On May 24, another young man, Shakir, a meat merchant, was attacked in Moradabad during the lockdown. Manoj Thakur, who claimed to be the vice president of the Bharatiya Gauraksha Vahini, hit Shakir even as bystanders looked on. Shakir was carrying with him 50 kilograms of buffalo meat. According to eyewitnesses, he was first tied to a tree and beaten up. He was later untied but beaten again with a cane. As the video of the assault on Shakir went viral, the local police registered an FIR against him for not wearing a mask!
A separate FIR was filed against Manoj Thakur too. In this report, five others, namely, Gully, Babu, Pradeep, Vijay and Sumit, were mentioned. They were charged with unlawful assembly, carrying a deadly weapon, criminal intimidation, and rioting.
Three days before the Moradabad attack, an 18-year-old vegetable seller, Faisal Hussain, was at the receiving end of policemen’s fury in Uttar Pradesh’s Unnao district. The police beat him for selling vegetables during the lockdown. He was beaten in the police station too before being moved to the local health care centre where he died even as efforts were on to shift him to a hospital. Constable Vijay Chaudhary was suspended, while Home Guard Satya Prakash was dismissed.
The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative called upon the Uttar Pradesh Police to ensure an impartial investigation into the incident. “All police personnel found guilty of grave violation must be brought to account forthwith,” the human rights body said. The Unnao incident brought back memories of similar, though not fatal, attacks on Muslim vegetable vendors last year and on Christian worshippers by right-wing activists during the lockdown.
Less than two weeks after the Moradabad violence, Uttar Pradesh reported a case of gaurakshaks (cow protectors) taking the law into their own hands again. Muslim Mirror , a news portal which has been keeping a tab on the recent spate of lynchings in the name of cow transportation or slaughter, reported: “A group of cow vigilantes lynched a Muslim man to death and injured five others in Uttar Pradesh’s Mathura district. The deceased has been identified as Shera Khan. Other victims are Anees, Rehman, Shahzad and Khadim. The vigilantes attacked them alleging they were smuggling cows from Kosi Kalan village in Mathura and were on their way to Mewat.”
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The State police are investigating the case, particularly the role played by self-proclaimed cow vigilantes, led by 70-year-old Chandrashekhar Basu, who has a big following in the region. The vigilantes admitted sending out an alert regarding seven men allegedly smuggling cattle around 3 a.m. in Mathura’s Tumaula village and chasing them. Basu later claimed that he was on a motorcycle with another man “doing the rounds when he spotted the truck carrying the animals. Our purpose was to rescue the calves with them. Local people gathered at the place and began attacking the men,” he said.
Shera’s family filed an FIR in Bulandshahr against unknown persons for his murder. And Basu filed a report against the alleged cow smugglers. The police took four accomplices of Shera into custody even as investigations against Basu and others were on.
In Bulandshahr, the family of Mohammed Aqueel Qureshi, who owned a meat shop in Khurja Nagar area, alleged that the police threw him from the roof of his house on the intervening night of May 23-24. They say the police did so after Qureshi refused to pay them. He succumbed to his injuries on May 27. The police refuted the allegation, maintaining that Qureshi was involved in illegal slaughter activities and jumped off the roof to escape the police.
Allegations of forcing victims to chant ‘Jai Shri Ram’ have brought into sharp focus the transformation of a salutation into a cry for violence against Muslims. Sabir Ali, a human rights activist who has been working with victims of lynching and their relatives, said: “The attacks are a part of the template. First, they accused Muslim men of cow slaughter and lynched them. Now they are forcing them to chant a slogan which is being used as a war cry. The police book the victims instead of providing them quick justice. It is no longer about the cow or Muslim men. We have just had an attack on a mosque in Greater Noida. And also heard the slogans in favour of the accused in Nuh. Where are we headed?”
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