On 25 November, Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed an election rally in Alwar, marking the start of his campaign for the 2018 Rajasthan assembly elections. On the stage with him was Gyandev Ahuja, a controversial Bharatiya Janata Party member of legislative assembly from Ramgarh.
Ahuja has supported cow vigilante groups, and has also claimed to fund them. “If you smuggle and slaughter cows, then you will be killed,” he said after a man was assaulted for smuggling cows in December 2017. He recently resigned from the BJP after being denied a ticket for the assembly elections, filed a nomination to contest as an independent, withdrew it and rejoined the BJP as its state vice-president. Dressed in a saffron kurta and a colourful safa—Rajasthani headgear—Ahuja approached the prime minister after the speech. Modi held his hand, patted him on the shoulder and addressed him, before leaving the stage. The mustachioed legislator smiled and flashed victory signs toward the crowd. Standing next to me, Rajveer Dudi, a BJP supporter, described Ahuja as the “pride” of Alwar’s Hindu community. “Ramgarh ka babbar sher hai”—He is the lion of Ramgarh.
“Gyandev Ahuja is the main person in Alwar, not Vasundhara [Raje],” said Dashrath Kumar, a Rajasthan-based farmers’ rights activist and political observer, referring to Rajasthan’s chief minister. “By inviting him on stage, Modi has sent a message that he is okay with a person who has played a role in the polarisation of Hindus and Muslims. In Alwar, voting will be on the issues of cows and lynchings.” Rajasthan goes to polls on 7 December.
Located over 150 kilometres from Delhi, Alwar district in northeastern Rajasthan is home to many Meos, a Muslim community traditionally based in Mewat—a region that includes parts of Alwar and Bharatpur districts in Rajasthan and the adjoining Nuh district of Haryana. Muslims constitute 14.9 percent of Alwar’s population according to the 2011 census, higher than the state average of 9 percent.
According to data compiled by the data-journalism website IndiaSpend, in the last five years, there have been at least six deaths in Mewat due to lynching by cow vigilantes or shooting by the police over rumours of beef consumption and cattle smuggling. The region has witnessed one of the highest concentrations of cow-related violence in India.
In the 2013 state elections, the BJP won nine of 11 assembly constituencies in Alwar, and in the 2014 general election it won the Alwar Lok Sabha seat. But the BJP lost the seat to the Congress in the by-elections held earlier this year, suggesting disenchantment with the Hindu-nationalist party. The BJP’s election manifesto for Rajasthan, released on 27 November by Raje and the union finance minister, Arun Jaitley, does not mention a single welfare scheme for Muslims, in contrast to the 2013 manifesto that contained 12 promises for the community. Moreover, the party has fielded just one Muslim candidate, Yunus Khan, from Tonk. That the BJP is apathetic to issues impacting Muslims is well accepted by the Meos. In my travels through Alwar and Bharatpur, many from the community told me they will not vote for the party. However, the Congress’s silence on issues impacting the security and livelihoods of Meos has puzzled and upset the community. Though many of the Meo community members I spoke to said they will vote for the Congress, they also did not want the party to assume their support.
On 1 April 2017, Pehlu Khan, a Meo from Haryana, was returning home in a truck with cows he had purchased in Jaipur when the vehicle was stopped at Behror, on National Highway 8 by a mob. He tried to show the vigilantes the purchase receipts for the cattle, but was instead punched, kicked and beaten with rods, sticks and belts. Before succumbing to his injuries, Khan named six people. The lynching made national headlines. Then, on 6 December 2017, Talim Khan, another Meo, was shot dead by the police in Alwar city, for allegedly smuggling cows. In July this year, Rakbar Khan was lynched to death by suspected cow-vigilantes in Alwar district’s Lalawandi village, while transporting cattle. Despite this, the Congress has not raised these deaths or cow-related violence in its election campaigning.
Muhammad Hanif was the imam of Alwar’s Jama Masjid for 24 years. Alongside his clerical duties he has been a member of Alwar’s civil society and has played an active role in tracking lynchings in the district. “We fought against Alauddin Khilji, the Mughals and the British,” he said. “When India won independence we felt that this was our country and government. The recent spate of lynchings and polarisation has left us sad and confused. There is a lot of anger in the community, but we don’t want to take the law into our hands. We will work for justice through peaceful and legal means.”
After Pehlu Khan’s lynching, Hanif petitioned the government, demanding justice for Pehlu’s family, and organised protest marches in Alwar, Jaipur and Delhi. The day Rakbar Khan was killed, Hanif visited Rakbar’s village to commiserate with the family. “So many Meos have been killed in the name of the cow under the BJP government,” Hanif said. “We will definitely not vote for the BJP, but the Congress should not take our votes for granted.”