In Another Blow To the Ramgarh Lynching Case, Wife of Main Witness Dies Near Court; Deposition Stalled

Alimuddin Ansari's vehicle, which was set aflame by the mob that lynched him, on 29 June 2016. Yesterday, the wife of the main witness in the case died less than a kilometre from the court. The witness was ultimately unable to depose. AFP/Getty Images
13 October, 2017

On 12 October, Zulaikha Khatoon, the wife of the only eyewitness in the case of the lynching of Alimuddin Ansari, died in an alleged road accident barely a kilometer away from a Ramgarh district court. Zulaikha was on her way to fetch a photo identification card that would allow her husband, Jaleel Ansari, to appear before the court that day. He was ultimately unable to depose.

Alimuddin was lynched on 29 June. Jaleel was the first person to alert the residents of Manua village, where he and Alimuddin lived, of the murder. According to the Jharkhand police, Alimuddin died after being beaten by the members of the Gau Raksha Dal—a local cow-protection group—and the Bajrang Dal, the youth wing of Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). The members of the extremist Hindu groups had attacked Alimuddin in the middle of Bazar Tand, a market in the Ramgarh district of Jharkhand, on the suspicion that he was carrying beef in his tempo.

“Prima facie it appears to be a case of accident,” Priyadarshi Alok, the superintendent of police of Ramgarh, told me over phone. “But, we are investigating it from all possible angles.” In a complaint lodged with Ramgarh police station the same day, Jaleel alleged that his wife’s death resulted from a “planned conspiracy” to prevent him from appearing in court.

Jaleel wrote: “I’m an eye witness of the Alimuddin Ansari murder case. Today, on 12.10.2017, at around 10 am, I was present in the court with my wife to give my testimony. But, since I forgot to bring my identification card, I sent my wife to fetch the card with the son of Alimuddin Ansari on a bike.” He continued: “At that time, accomplices of the accused in the case, who are always seen during the court proceedings, threatened me and my wife that I should not give my testimony to the court in Alimuddin’s murder case, or should be prepared to face dire consequences.” “No sooner than they left the court premises on a motorcycle, another motorcyclist hit them from behind and fled from the scene,” Jaleel wrote. “The accident was caused so that I couldn’t give my testimony to the court,” he alleged.

The first information report registered in the case of Alimuddin’s murder named several people, including Nityanand Mahato, reportedly the media-in-charge for the Bharatiya Janta Party in Ramgarh. In early July, the police arrested 12 people in relation to the case. Mahato was among them. Two others named in the FIR—Deepak Mishra and Chhotu Verma, both members of the local Gau Raksha Dal—surrendered before a city court a few days later.

While reporting on the incident in early July, I spoke with ML Meena, the inspector general of operations for the Jharkhand police. Meena said that the attack on Alimuddin was planned, and that the attackers trailed him before the murder. The police arrested a man named Raj Kumar, a member of the Gau Raksha Dal, allegedly for informing the attackers of Ansari’s whereabouts. I wrote in my report that even though the members of two extremist groups—one of whom enjoys a national presence—appeared to be closely involved in Alimuddin’s murder, the state police had demurred from taking any action against them. According to Meena, only some members of the two groups were suspected of being involved, and not the organisations themselves. “In the investigation, there is no role of social group or any party,” he told me.

At the time this report was filed, Jaleel was waiting in the district hospital to receive his wife’s body and was unable to speak to me. Shahzad, Alimuddin’s eldest son, who was driving Zulaikha home, was also with Jaleel. His sister, Sadaf Praveen, told me that he was not in a position to speak either.

I spoke to Mariyam Khatoon, Alimuddin’s wife, who was also present in court on 12 October. Her account concurred with Jaleel’s submission to the police. Mariyam said that when Jaleel realised he had forgotten his identification card, and that he would need it in order to depose before the court, she immediately asked Shahzad to take Zulaikha home on his bike and get the card.

“When the bike hit them, Zulaikha who was riding pillion fell on the ground and died there itself,” she continued. “My son survived because he was driving. By the time he could balance himself, Zulaikha was already gone. In the hurry, he couldn’t even see the motorcyclist’s registration number while he [the latter] fled,” she told me, adding that the alleged attacker was wearing helmet and was driving alone. Shahzad was in shock following the incident, Mariyam said. According to her, the motorcyclist who hit the bike was “acting on behalf of the same groups that killed my husband.”

She appeared worried about her family’s safety. “Hum log ka nikalna aafat ho gaya hai. Ghar se nikalne ke liye sochna padega baccha leke”—it has become a hassle for us to leave the house, we will have to think twice before leaving with our children. (Neither Alimuddin’s nor Jaleel’s family were provided police protection in the aftermath of the lynching.)

On 12 October, I called Meena again, but he said that he was “really not aware about all these things.” He directed me to Alok, the Ramgarh SP. I pointed out that when I spoke to him in July, Meena was familiar with the details of Alimuddin’s murder. “That was burning issue at the time. Right now, trial is going on. There are so many other issues. There are seven districts yaar, I’m digging somewhere else,” he said.

Alok was dismissive of Jaleel and Mariyam’s allegations. “Nahi, hatya wali baat hi nahi hai”—it’s not about murder at all, he said. “How can you say it’s a murder?” I pointed to Jaleel’s complaint. “We are investigating it from all angles,” he replied.

Zulaikha’s death is certainly a grave blow to Mariyam’s quest for justice, but it is not the first. In early September, she had called to ask if I could help her procure Alimuddin’s post mortem report. She said officials at the local police station near Manua village would dismiss her and send her away whenever she went to ask for the report.

Alimuddin was the family’s sole earner. When I last visited the Ansaris at their home in Manua, in early July, Mariyam had told me that 16-year-old Shahzad had stopped going to school and was looking for a job to support the family. “Whatever had to happen has happened,” she told me over the phone in September. “Just do something please that would get one of my children a job. Any job will do.”

Manua, which has a majority Muslim population, is located about ten kilomtres from Ramgarh town and Bazar Tand, where Alimuddin was killed. I met several villagers during my visit—most appeared to fall into one of two categories. The first were young Muslim men, who, angered by rising attacks by Hindu groups, wanted to retort with the formation of a Muslim youth organisation. “Agar hum par iss tarah ka attack hota rahega toh kya option rahega hamare pass?” a young man, who appeared to be in his twenties, had said—if such attacks on us continue, then what option would we have remaining? He continued: “Hum kya maar khane ke liye bane hain?”—Are we meant to be beaten?

The second kind were the elders, who wished to repose their trust in the police and the system, even though they didn’t appear hopeful. Mahmood Alam, the sadar, or chief, of the village, told me that he only wanted the police to arrest Alimuddin’s killers. “Humey baaki se kya lena hai? Kisi aur ne toh kuch nahi kiya”—What do we have to do with any others? No one else has done anything.

On the morning of my visit, at about 8 am, I sat in a gathering of over 50 residents of Manua. Gaus Khan, a middle-aged village resident, joined us after a while. Khan had contacts with the local police, and had just returned from the police station. “Three witnesses are required, and those who won’t back out later,” he said.

Alam paused, and then asked him to contact Jaleel, as he was the only person who had seen Alimuddin being attacked. “Ask him if he would be ready to become a witness in the case,” Alam said. One of the villagers called Jaleel, who arrived a few minutes later.

Khan asked him if he would agree to testify. “Yes, I’ll be the witness. Go ahead, write my name,” Jaleel said, adding that he would identify the attackers. Khan suggested that Jaleel speak to his family before committing to testifying, but Jaleel remained resolute.