On 19 July, Ghulam Nabi Azad, the leader of the opposition in the Rajya Sabha, caused a stir in the upper house. Azad said thatthe recent spate of lynchings in the country was “not religious,” but was the “[Sangh] Parivar’s battle against everybody.” “In all the cases of lynching now, someone or the other belonging to the ruling party and the Sangh Parivar is involved,” Azad said. He further alleged that “there was an understanding” between the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and the central government, to allow such lynchings to continue.
Azad’s comments were made at the beginning of a discussion that continued in the house for two days. Arun Jaitley, the finance minister, said that it was unfair to characterise the lynchings with political colour. “Violence cannot be a partisan issue,” Jaitley asserted. All the perpetrators of such crimes are in jail, he claimed. “They will be prosecuted and serve their punishments.”
Prime Minister Narendra Modi too, recently disavowed lynchings in the name of cow-protection. On 29 June, in an address delivered at the Gandhi ashram in Sabarmati in Gujarat, Modi said: “Killing people in the name of gaubhakti”—cow-devotion—“is not acceptable. This is not something Mahatma Gandhi would approve of.” However, the prime minister added, “No one spoke about protecting cows more than Mahatma Gandhi and Acharya Vinoba Bhave. Yes. It should be done.”
The same day that Modi delivered the address, Bazar Tand, a market area with general stores, stationery shops, tea stalls, and vegetable sellers, located in Ramagarh in Jharkhand, witnessed the brutal murder of Alimuddin Ansari. A group of men lynched Ansari, who was in his 40s, for transporting cow meat in his car. As in other cases similar to his, Ansari’s killing was filmed, and the video was later circulated widely across social media. “Someone [who could be heard on the video] was saying, ‘make the video properly—his face should be visible,’” Shama Praveen, Ansari’s daughter, said. “Woh daya ki bheek maang rahe the, unke samne kam se kam 50-100 public hain, lekin sabki insaniyat mar chuki thi”—my father was begging for mercy, and there were at least 50–100 people in front of him, but their humanity had died.
A close look at Ansari’s death and the investigation that followed shows that despite the government’s assertions, there is little reason to believe that violence in the name of cow-protection will come to an end. Though the police investigation in the case appears to have made progress in terms of arrests, police officials are reluctant to investigate the Hindu right-wing groups active in the region, despite indications of their involvement. The central government’s response and directives are ambivalent—as illustrated by Modi and Jaitley’s statements, it is unwilling to lay the blame on any political ideology.
I visited Ramgarh on a drizzly morning on 3 July, and headed to the Manua village—about ten kilometres away from Bazar Tand—where Ansari lived. The village consists of around 200 Muslim households, and a majority of its residents are labourers. Members of the Ansari family told me that on the day of the incident, the police did not tell them that Ansari had been killed until 6 pm that evening. Aldul Jaleel, a resident of Manua who witnessed the attack in Bazar Tand, had alerted the villagers. “We went to the police station at around 11 am.” Ansari’s 16-year-old son Shahzada said, referring to the Ramgarh police station, which is located about 2 kilometres from Bazar Tand. “Instead of telling us where our father was, the cops took my mother to a government hospital and started forcing her to get on drips because she was weak,” Shahzada added.
He added that Ansari’s postmortem was conducted without their consent or knowledge. “The cops sent the body home directly, on the sly, while we still sat in the police station,” Praveen said. She added: “Hamare khane peene pe rok lagayi sarkar ne, bahar chalne firne pe rok laga di, magar ye un logon ko kab saja degi jo gau raksha ke naam pe musalmaano ko maar rahen hain?”—the government dictates what we eat, tells us where we can and cannot go, but when will it punish those who are killing Muslims in the name of cow-protection?
“All the shops [in Bazar Tand] were open,” Jaleel told me. “Magar sab bas dekh rahe the”—everyone just watched.
Most vendors I met at Bazar Tand were reluctant to speak to me—they were curt, and categorically denied being present at the time of the murder. I asked a fruit vendor-cum-juice seller if he could tell me where the attack took place. He pointed to a spot nearly 20 metres from where he stood, next to a salon. I asked if he could describe what he saw. “I don’t know anything. I was closed that day,” he said.
I went to the next shop, a grocery store, and asked the grocer if he could tell me what he had seen. He, too, said that he had not been present at the time of the attack, owing to a medical issue. “The incident took place after 9 am,” he said. “I had closed the shop at 9 am that day. My foot had swollen up.”
I then went to the salon next to the spot at which Ansari had been murdered—ash from his vehicle, which the attackers had burnt, lay next to it. The response I received from the surrounding shops was the same. “I didn’t see anything. I was closed that day,” the barber at the salon said, while lathering up a client for a shave. The owner of the tea-stall across the road said, “That day my wife had to go to her parental home and so I had taken her there. My shop was closed.”
The lack of empathy was not unlike that I encountered while reporting on the murder of Junaid, a 15 year old who was killed in a running train on 22 June. Junaid’s brother, Shaaqir, was severely injured during the attack. Mohsin, their nephew who was also in the train compartment, told me that when he and his relatives alighted from the train, they were visibly injured. Yet, he said, no bystander offered to help them. “No one was willing to give us even a scarf to stop Shaaqir’s bleeding,” Mohsin had told me. He added that the police officials appeared reluctant to help them even after they called out to them.
According to the Jharkhand police, the men who lynched Ansari included members of the Bajrang Dal, the youth wing of the Hindu right-wing group the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, as well as a local cow-protection group, the Gau Raksha Dal.
The Bajrang Dal was formed in 1986. According to the VHP’s website, “the role of Bajarang Dal [sic] in Hindu Awakening is not a secret. It successfully got the Hindu Youth involved in Ram Janma Bhumi movement.” The Dal has squads in different cities which are notorious for enforcing vigilante moral justice, such as by threatening couples on Valentine’s Day, conducting extra-judicial raids on the suspicion of cow slaughter, and fomenting riots.
Members of Ansari’s family and his acquaintances told me that some of the attackers were well-known affiliates of the Dal. “I had only seen him [Ansari] being beaten by Bajrang Dal men,” Jaleel said. “The attackers were all locals. I could identify some of them.”
The Ramgarh police station registered a First Information report in relation to the incident on 29 June, based on a complaint by Khatoon. The complaint, of which I obtained a copy, names 12 persons: Deepak Mishra, Chhotu Verma, Pappu Yadav, Sujit Sonkar, Bhojan Thakur, Nagendra Munda, Biju Goenka, Nityanand Mahato, Chhotu Rana, Santosh Singh, Vijay Kumar Singh alias Tunda and Alok Barelia.
Kishore Kaushal, the superintendent of police in Ramgarh district told me on 6 July that 12 people had been arrested in the case so far. Among those arrested were Nityanand Mahato, reportedly the media-in-charge of the Bharatiya Janata Party in Ramgarh; and Deepak Mishra and Chhotu Verma, the main accused, both of whom surrendered before a city court on 3 July, and who were reportedly functionaries of the cow-protection group. However, according to a report published in the Indian Express on 4 July, five among the person arrested until then were not named in the FIR.
Both Kaushal and ML Meena, the inspector general of operations for the Jharkhand police, said that investigations revealed that the attack was planned, and that the attackers had trailed Ansari before murdering him. On 6 July, Meena told me that a man from Manua had given information on Ansari’s whereabouts to the attackers. However, a few days after I spoke to Meena, the Jharkhand police arrested Raj Kumar, a member of the Gau Raksha Dal, for trailing Ansari’s van and informing the main accused of his whereabouts.
During our phone conversation, I asked Kaushal whether the investigators were looking into the roles of the Bajrang Dal and the Gau Raksha Dal. Kaushal said that he “couldn’t say anything until the investigation was over.” Meena said that the Gau Raksha Dal in Jharkhand was affiliated to the VHP. He added however, that he was “just narrating the story.” “There was a murder, [some affiliates of] the VHP were there,” he said. “But in the investigation, there is no role of social group or any party.”
I asked Meena if the nature of the planning behind Ansari’s murder indicated that the organisations to which the accused belonged may have been involved. He denied this. “They confessed that their intention was not to kill Ansari, and only to stop beef,” Meena said.
Meena insisted that the VHP was not involved, and that certain individuals who were members of the organisation had carried out the murder on their own. I asked him whether he thought these groups could pose a threat to security. “I’m not the right person to answer that,” he said.
There also appeared to be some confusion among the police ranks regarding Ansari’s background. According to a report published on 29 June, RK Mullick, an additional director general with the Jharkhand police, told the Indian Express that Ansari had been “chargesheeted in a previous case of kidnapping and murder of a child.” Another report noted that “a senior police officer said investigations have indicated that Ansari was involved in dubious activities” and that he had “no credible source of income.” Meena refuted this—he said that Ansari had not been involved in any suspicious activities, nor had a chargesheet been filed against him.
I spoke to Mrityunjay Singh, who was the Jharkhand convener of the Bajrang Dal between 2011 and 2015 and is now a chief coordinator of the VHP. Singh told me that during his tenure, the Bajrang Dal had seized a large number of cows from different places in Jharkhand. “In one raid, my team found 1,600 cows,” Singh told me.
When I asked him if any volunteers or members of the organisations employed violent means to carry out these activities, he denied it. There may be “a bit of roughing up, such as slapping,” he said. “Magar hatya ka koi nirdesh nahi rehta”—there is no directive to murder, he said, before adding: “there is a directive for self-preservation, though.”
I asked Singh about the video of the lynching, in which the men can be seen violently beating Ansari. “You know what happens in such beatings. Bheed mein anjaan aadmi bhi haat dho leta hai,” Singh said—amid the crowd, strangers also get in on the beating.
I asked him what the Bajrang Dal’s stance on Muslims in India was. “Agar dekhiye wo hamare mandir ke samne gai katta hai toh hum kya karenge?”—what can we do if they cut cows in front of our temples, he said. “The situation that arises if we let such things go, that is worth thinking about.” I asked him why he believed that Muslims were slaughtering cows in front of Hindu temples. “You can go to Bengal and see with your own eyes how they kill cows there,” he said.
Similar to the stances of the police and the central government, the position of the state government in Jharkhand on the vigilante justice in the state appears ambivalent. On 30 June, Raghubar Das, the chief minister of Jharkhand, called for strict action against the culprits of Ansari’s murder. Das added, however, that the officer-in-charge of the area concerned, the deputy superintendent of police and senior officers will face action if incidents of cattle smuggling come to light. Nearly a year earlier, Das had said in an interview to the Press Trust of India that “those who consider India as their country will treat cow as their mother.” “The entire Sangh Parivar is on the same page on the issue of cow protection,” he had said.
The official responses of the central government do not show much promise. In April, I submitted a Right to Information request to the Prime Minister’s Office, requesting details on what instructions, if any, the prime minister had given the home ministry to prevent such lynchings from occuring. The PMO had denied my request, saying that my query could not be answered, as it was a “matter of opinion.” I appealed against this decision, but my request was denied once again. The appellate authority did so on the grounds that my “queries are framed in the nature of questionnaire whereby clarification/opinion have been sought with reference to PMO’s stand in the matter in hand.” The order added: “It is clarified that in the context that the information sought did not form part of the records of this office, calling given information not covered within the meaning of information under section 2(f) of the Act.” (Section 2(f) of the Right to Information Act defines the ambit of the term “information,” to include records such as documents, memos, e-mails, and opinions, among others.)
I had filed another RTI with the Home Ministry, wherein I had asked for information regarding the steps it had taken to stop such mob lynchings across the country. In its response, the ministry stated that on 9 August 2016, it had issued an advisory to all the states, asking them to be vigilant about such incidents.
A copy of this advisory was enclosed. Addressed to the chief secretaries, the first four points of the advisory—there were 9 points in all—referred to the need for cow protection. The first point states that, “Historically cattle have a very special, respected and venerated status in Indian culture and history. In this regard, Father of the nation had stated ‘cow protection to me is not mere protection of the cow. It means protection of that (which) lives, is helpless and weak in the world.’” It then noted that Article 48 of the Constitution of India provided for the “preservation of cows.” Further, the advisory note quotes the seventh schedule of the constitution—which allocated the work of “Preservation, protection and improvement” of livestock to the state—to bolster its case for the requirement of cow protection.
The fifth point then says: “However, that doesn’t entitle any individual or group of persons to take action on their own to prevent the alleged slaughter or punish the alleged wrong doers.” It goes on to assert that no person can take the law into their own hands, and asks states to deal strictly with any individual who commits such violence in the name of cow-protection.
During my visit to Manua, Khatoon, Ansari’s wife, had said that the authorities should give her eldest child, Shahzada, a job in order to make up for the loss of livelihood that had resulted from Ansari’s death. I tried to reach the member of parliament Jayant Sinha, who represents Hazaribagh, under which Manua falls, to ask what help the authorities would be able to provide the family. I was unable to speak with him—his personal secretary answered the phone, but said the MP was busy and asked me to call back at a later time. This interaction was repeated the next time I called as well.
I also met several other residents of Manua, all of whom appeared distressed. “These people have become so aggressive that if they get their hands on any Muslim, they first kill us,” Mahmood Alam, the sarpanch of Manua said. “Toh fir prasasan kiske liye rakha hai sarkar?” –so then why has the government employed law-enforcement?
“Sonia ka bhi sarkar tha, Marandi ka bhi tha”—Sonia also had a government, and so did Marandi, Mohammad Alam, another village resident, added, referring to the Congress head Sonia Gandhi, and Babulal Marandi, the first chief minister of the state.“But no one had ever murdered anyone for where they were going in their car or what they were carrying in it.”
“We are exercising restraint and keeping faith in the system,” the sarpanch added. “We hope the police will arrest the accused and bring them to justice.”