On the Road With the Karwan E Mohabbat, A Trail of Untold Deaths Emerges

Taufeeq, a 25-year-old resident of Pema Kheda in Haryana, was attacked by a mob in August 2013. His friend, Sher Singh, was killed during the attack. Taufeeq's leg had to be amputated due to the injuries he sustained. Nikhil Roshan
18 September, 2017

On 14 September, over five months after a mob of cow-protection vigilantes killed the cattle farmer Pehlu Khan and injured his sons Ibrar and Areef, the Crime Investigation Department of Rajasthan announced that it was closing the investigations involving the six people that Khan had named before succumbing to his injuries. In early September, the CID submitted a report to the Alwar police, in which they stated that the six men—Om Yadav, Hukum Chand Yadav, Sudhir Yadav, Jagmal Yadav, Naveen Sharma and Rahul Saini—were not present at the site where Khan was lynched in Behror, in Rajasthan, this April. The CID reportedly cited statements from people working in a nearby cow shelter who said the six named were present on the premises of the cow shelter at the time of the attack. Of the 15 persons accused in the case, two were minors, and five were granted bail—at least one of them was visible in a widely circulated video of the attack.

It was against the backdrop of this announcement that the Karwan e Mohabbat team arrived in Haryana’s Nuh district—formerly known as Mewat. Led by the activist and former bureaucrat Harsh Mander, the Karwan is a month-long yatra through parts of northeastern, northern and western India. Mander and his team—which includes lawyers, researchers and other activists—intend to visit homes of people who were killed or lynched in incidents of brutal violence, often by cow-protection vigilantes. The Karwan team delivers condolences to the families of the victims, and proffers legal support to pursue cases—in many instances, the killers were never apprehended, or no cases were filed. In others, the police dubbed the deaths accidents, or charged the victims with crimes such as cattle smuggling or animal cruelty.

Stops on the Karwan’s journey, which began on 4 September in Nellie, Assam, have so far included Shabbirpur, in Uttar Pradesh, where violent caste-based attacks took place earlier this year, and Shamli, where various people have died in alleged encounters with the police. The Karwan team was scheduled to visit Behror, where the Khan family resides, on 15 September, the day after the CID’s announcement. The team received intimation that members of the Bajrang Dal and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad intended to protest their presence in Behror and prevent them from visiting Pehlu’s family. Though the police attempted to dissuade and subsequently forbade Mander and his team from completing the visit, the activist was able to lay flowers at the spot of the attack. Soon after, the Karwan bus was pelted with stones by a group of protestors.

A day before it reached Behror, however, the team had visited several villages in the Nuh district, in Haryana. I joined them during this leg of their visit to the state. In each of the villages, we met families of victims whose stories were uncannily similar to that of Pehlu’s. Each of them had been killed during attacks by gau rakshaks or in altercations with the police, and belonged to poor and oppressed minority communities. In each case, no one had been held responsible for the murder. Unlike Pehlu, however, few of these deaths had received widespread attention. Further, most family members said they received hardly any details of the deaths, and were not equipped to file complaints or pursue cases.

In a village named Bhango in Nuh district, the Karwan team visited the home of Khursheeda, a 30-year-old woman who belongs to the Meo community—a Muslim group specific to the historical Mewat region. Her husband, Ajmat, was allegedly killed amid police firing on 16 May 2010 at the state’s Kosi border. A group of about 50 people, including Karwan members, villagers, and reporters gathered in a clearing outside Khursheeda’s house—one of the smaller houses in the village, with a single room in which she and her three children stay.

Ajmat used to drive a tempo traveller, Khursheeda recounted to the group, and earned money by transporting goods. Khursheeda said she learnt of his death via a phone call from a police official—she did not have any other details to offer us. She added that she had received Rs 5 lakh as compensation for Ajmat’s death. A member of the Karwan late told me that the patwari of the tehsil had given her the compensation amount, but the details of this, too, were unclear—Khursheeda had no documentation regarding this. She told the group that the police investigation into the case was subsequently closed, but no one had been held responsible.

Mander asked Khursheeda whether she would like the Karwan’s assistance in reopening the case. She agreed. The gathering soon dispersed, and proceeded to the Dhulawat village in Haryana.

In Dhulawat, the team met Nehmat Khan, whose 16-year-old son, Karar, was killed on 29 May 2015. “My son was killed along with another resident of this village in an encounter with the police while they were transporting sabji to Palwal in a rented vehicle,” Nehmat said. (Some residents of Dhulawat later explained that “sabji,” which otherwise translates to “vegetables,” is a local euphemism for traded cattle.)

According to Nehmat’s account, Karar’s vehicle had five occupants, and as it passed through Palwal, police officials allegedly opened fire at it. Karar and one other occupant died in the firing. “The three others in the vehicle were told that my son was a cow-slaughterer and they were arrested under falsified cases,” Nehmat claimed.

Among the large group gathered at Nehmat’s house during our visit was Irfan, Karar’s 26 year-old cousin. According to him, in the report of the encounter, the police claimed that they were shot at first, and registered cases against the victims as well as the survivors. “A Section 307 case”—attempt to murder, under the Indian Penal Code—“was registered against the three in the vehicle that survived,” Irfan told the group. Karar’s family members visited senior police officials such as the inspector general of the police in Bawal, Irfan said, but were never given any official explanation for Karar’s death.

In Hussainpur, another village in the Nuh district, the Karwan visited the home of Amim Khan, a 50-year-old dairy farmer and cattle trader. On 3 January this year, Amim’s son Mushtaq, a 24-year-old who also worked as a cattle trader, and Jeerhan, another trader, were attacked by a mob. Mushtaq died during the attack.

“We have been purchasing and then selling jersey cows for years now,” Amim told me. He added that his family bought cows at the rate of Rs 1,700 from traders and sold them at a profit of around Rs 400 per cow. Mushtaq and Jeerhaan had set out to make such a sale that morning, Amim said. “There were around 4-5 cows in the vehicle that they were in,” he added, and that a third friend of the young men was driving the car.

On a road in the Dadri tehsil, a mob stopped the vehicle, and attacked its occupants, Amim said. “The driver of the vehicle abandoned the vehicle when they were attacked,” he said. Mushtaq died on the spot, he continued. Jeerhan sustained a grave injury to his leg, but managed escaped and hide in a nearby field, where he was later found by the police when they reached the scene of the crime. (Amim said he was relying on Jeerhan’s account of the incident.)

Mander asked Amim whether the police had taken any action in the case. “The police deemed the incident an accident, and filed a case against Jeerhan and my son under Section 187, Sector 279”—obstructing a public servant and rash driving, respectively under the IPC—“and the cow protection act,” Amim claimed. He alleged that the attackers included “members of the Bajrang Dal and the Gau Rakshak Dal.”

The Karwan’s next stop was Pema Kheda, a village that comprises primarily Dalit and Muslim residents. One of these residents is Bhagwan Das, a middle-aged Dalit man who works as a labourer. In August 2013, Das’s 24 year-old son Sher Singh was lynched by a mob. Singh’s friend, Taufeeq, who is now 25 years old, was with him during the attack. Taufeeq’s leg had to be amputated as a result of the injuries he sustained. Das said that Singh worked as a daily-wage labourer and sometimes helped transport goods.

Taufeeq said that the attack on Singh and him took place around the time of Eid al-Fitr. Both of them, he said, had gone to Delhi’s Sadar Bazar to purchase new clothes for the festivities. On their journey back home, near the Surajkund reservoir in Haryana, a mob attacked their car. “They thrashed us, shot Sher Singh, and shot me in the leg.” Though Taufeeq survived the attack, Singh did not. “Late that night, I was told by the police that he was killed, although I was never given any reason,” Das told me. He added that after his son’s death, he and his wife were providing for Singh’s two children. Singh’s wife, he said, had remarried. “Our income is inconsistent,” Das added. “My son was definitely an important source of family income for us as well.”

Both Taufeeq and Das were unable to show me any documentation or official complaints—they both said that they did not know how to file a complaint, and that the police had not pursued an investigation into the killing. As the two spoke to the Karwan team, a middle-aged resident of Pema Kheda who was present at the gathering commented that few people knew how to go about such matters. “Information here is circulated in a manner that you will not understand,” he said. “Nobody knows the truth of these attacks and therefore no one knows what complaint to file.”

At each of the villages, the victims and their families spoke of the lasting effect that the killings had had on the communities. In Dhulawat, Irfan told me that Karar’s death had made the residents of the village fearful. “People in this region that used to transport cows to sell them to dairy farmers have stopped addressing this fact unless you bring it up with them forcibly,” he said. He added that since the Bharatiya Janata Party government had come to power in the state and at the centre, the Muslim population in the region has had to make drastic changes in what they do for a living. “The poor among the Meo and other Muslim communities in Mewat are becoming—and will continue to become—poorer because the more lucrative occupations are becoming life threatening here,” he said.

According to Mohammad Qayyum, a resident of Hussainpur, people in the village were shaken by Mushtaq’s death as well, and that it had impacted their involvement with cattle trading. “I myself am a daily-wage labourer, but cattle trading is where the money was in this region earlier,” he said. Qayyum alleged that members of right-wing groups such as the VHP and the Bajrang Dal “train people to identify vehicles and easy targets and then terrorise people trying to make an honest living in the region.”

Ramzan Chaudhry, a lawyer and civil-society activist from Nuh, said that suspicious police encounters and lynchings have been taking place in the region for a number of years, but that the rise of the BJP in the state had put justice further out of reach for most victims. “You should understand that the CM of Haryana is an RSS man with a strong hold over the police,” he said. Chaudhry, too, said that several cattle and dairy farmers he knew were looking for new avenues to earn a living.

Qayyum echoed Chadhry’s point of view. “Mushtaq’s case did not become national news the way Pehlu Khan’s did,” he said. “There are cases in neighbouring villages that we hear about from people—there are many such cases that we know of for sure,” he added. A senior resident of the village overheard Qayyum’s statement. “At the rate at which these incidents are happening, there will be a Pehlu every month,” he said, before walking away.