October 5, 2017

The lynching that changed India

Jan Mohammad is worried.

It has been two years since his brother, Mohammad Akhlaq, was lynched, and the 18 men who stand accused of killing him have been released on bail.

On September 28, 2015, the 52-year-old ironsmith was dragged from his house in the village of Bishahra, in the district of Dadri in Uttar Pradesh, after a local Hindu temple announced that a cow, considered sacred by many Hindus, had been slaughtered. He was beaten to death and his son was severely wounded.

Nine months later, the police filed a First Information Report (FIR) charging 44-year-old Jan and several other members of his family, including his murdered brother, with cow slaughter. They deny the charge.

The Allahabad High Court later put a stay on the arrest of all the family members except Jan. Although no charge sheet has yet been filed against him, he fears he could be arrested.

According to the FIR, Prem Singh, Mohammad’s neighbour, saw him slaughter a calf with the help of Jan and other members of the family three days before the lynching. He was the only witness to the alleged slaughter. But Jan says he wasn’t even in the village on that day.

Arrest isn’t all Jan fears. At his house, not far from the village where his brother was killed and to which he says his family can never return, he explains his concerns.

“Since the accused are out of jail, they have been emboldened. From the way they speak to the media, I can sense their aggression.”

“I do fear they might attack me or my wife or children any time. They live nearby. They might just see me at the market and attack,” he says.

Jan has a resigned air about him as he smokes and drinks sweet tea served by his son. He has been provided with a 24/7 armed police guard, but this does little to reassure him. “One gunman won’t be able to save me from an angry mob,” he reflects.

Jan Mohammad says those who have been accused of murdering his brother have been emboldened after they were released on bail [Abhimanyu Kumar/Al Jazeera]

He also worries that the regional government, which since March has been led by Yogi Adityanath of the ruling Hindu-nationalist BJP party, could remove his police guard.

“I have been outspoken to the media about this case. They might not like that,” he says. “And the accused are close to the ruling party. They might put pressure [on them].”

A 24-hour news channel is on mute in the background as Jan explains that the meat that “was recovered and forms the basis for this case was found by the police at the lynching spot three hours after the lynching took place”.

“This makes it quite possible that they planted it to frame us,” he says.

His lawyer, Yusuf Saifi, says the same thing.

A preliminary report by the government’s District Veterinary Officer in Dadri, which was made public in December 2015, said that based on a physical examination, the meat looked like mutton. It recommended that a forensic examination be carried out. That subsequent examination by the University of Veterinary Science and Animal Husbandry in Mathura concluded, in a report made public in May 2016, that the meat was “of cow or its progeny”.

Nevertheless, by September 2016 the police had found no evidence that a cow had been slaughtered by Jan and his relatives, and The Hindu newspaper reported that the case was going to be closed.

But Mohammad Ali, who reports on western Uttar Pradesh for The Hindu and has been writing a book on Mohammad’s lynching, says: “With the change in government, no closure report has been filed. They are sitting on the case, using it as a stick to beat the family with.”

Jan says the open case is like a “sword hanging above” him and compounds the pain he feels over losing his brother.

“He was brutally lynched by people who knew him, who used to break bread with him, neighbours … and every lynching that has come after his has refreshed our pain. Every other few months, we see a video [of a lynching] in the news. This keeps our wounds open.”

Part 2: ‘Protecting the mother cow’ – the accused

At a village close to Bishahra, four young men – Vishal Rana, Sri Om, Puneet Sharma and Rohit – have gathered in the home of Ved Nagar, a local Hindutva leader – the form of Hindu nationalism to which the BJP subscribes.

The four are among the 18 accused of lynching Mohammad Akhlaq.

The opulent living room has a huge flat-screen TV, high ceilings and white walls. Vishal Rana sits in the middle, leaning forward as he speaks. The others sit around him, fiddling with their smartphones. They are all in their early 20s, except for Rohit who says he was only 15 when the alleged crime was committed. Vishal appears to be the leader of this small group.

“Now that we are all out on bail, we want to pursue the case against the family for cow slaughter,” he says. “We did everything to protect the mother cow.”

Vishal is the son of a local BJP leader.

Ved Nagar stands by a poster that declares ‘We will slaughter anyone who slaughters a cow’ [Abhimanyu Kumar/Al Jazeera]

The four maintain that Mohammad died of a “heart attack” and not as a result of the injuries he suffered.

Vishal gestures angrily as he says: “We went to jail because of the media and its misreporting.”

The post-mortem report says something different. “Shock and haemorrhage due to ante-mortem injuries … This is the cause and manner of death,” it states, noting that Mohammad had 18 wounds, mostly to his skull. It makes no mention of a heart attack.

Ved Nagar, who is in his 30s and dressed entirely in black, sits sprawled on a sofa as he listens to the conversation. His demeanour is forceful, but his smile and polite tone help to soften it – most of the time.

Outside his home, a life-size poster features his photo, the name of his organisation of voluntary cow protectors, Gau Raksha Hindu Dal, and a warning: “We will slaughter anyone who slaughters a cow.”

“I regret the death,” Ved says calmly. “He died without even suffering heavy blows. He was a physically weak man. He died due to the pushing and shoving.”

The younger men say Ved “has done a lot” for them and that “we will go wherever he asks us to come”.

As far as they are concerned, they are the victims.

“Our families have been financially ruined,” says Sri, who had been working for a contractor at a power plant in the village before he was arrested. His father died several years ago and his mother is paralysed, so his job was an important source of income for his family. They suffered without it during the year and a half he was in prison, he says.

Lawyer’s fees of at least $600 a month have also placed a heavy financial burden on each of their families, they say.

“I am looking for a job now,” says Sri, adding that this isn’t easy when charged with murder.

Mohammad’s family, on the other hand, received a “lot of money, a house and high security”, argues Vishal, who continues to work at his brother-in-law’s advertising boards business in New Delhi.

Mohammad’s mother, wife, children and brothers have received 4,500,000 rupees (about $70,000) in compensation. They have also been given three apartments at highly subsidised rental rates, but Jan says none of the family dares to live in them as they are located along a remote highway on the outskirts of a nearby city.

The men say they were tortured in jail and that one of their fellow accused, 21-year-old Ravin Sisodia, died as a result. The jailers have denied this and the police have not filed any charges. Officials at the jail and the New Delhi-based hospital where Ravin died say dengue or Chikungunya, along with kidney disease, was the cause of death.

Now that they are all out on bail, the accused and their lawyer are trying to get their murder charges changed to charges of culpable homicide not amounting to murder.

The charge sheet filed by police at the end of 2015 may help them in this, says The Hindu journalist Mohammad.

“What happened, according to the cops, is that Vishal Rana and his cousin Shivam discovered a plastic packet with meat in it, after [Mohammad] Akhlaq had allegedly disposed of it. A local doctor confirmed to them that it was beef. Following this, they forced the temple priest to make an announcement that a cow had been slaughtered and that everyone should gather near the transformer, the main meeting place in the village. This is how the public spectacle of the lynching started,” Mohammad explains.

In the charge sheet, however, there is no conspiracy charge.

“This was a spontaneous reaction of an emotional crowd,” says Ram Sharan Nagar, lawyer to 10 of the accused. “Even the police mention no conspiracy or planning. So it would be unfair for the police to push for murder charges.”

Sitting in a South Delhi cafe, 33-year-old journalist Mohammad reflects: “If the charges are changed, they will be let off very lightly or they will be acquitted. It will set the template for what is going to happen in other cases.”

Part 3: ‘We are helping the police’ – at the cow shelter

About 200km from Bishara, in the village of Dahmi in the state of Rajasthan, Suresh Yadav is angry.

The volunteer with the right-wing Hindu nationalist paramilitary organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) is wearing a spotless dhoti kurta – a traditional Indian form of dress – and sitting on a plastic chair in the poorly lit lobby of the Sri Rath Gaushala cow shelter.

The focus of his anger is the Supreme Court of India, which recently ruled that district administrations should be responsible for stopping cow-related violence in their localities.

“Does cattle smuggling take place or not?” the 50-something-year-old asks combatively.

“They are calling gau rakshaks (cow protectors) murderers. You tell me, do the police have the capacity to catch all the cattle smugglers? We are only helping them,” he says, before launching into a tirade against Muslims.

I am at the cow shelter to meet Jagmal Singh Yadav, but he hasn’t turned up. Suresh appears to be here in his place.