Our second day of the Karwan-e-Mohabbat 2018 was India’s 67th Republic Day. We spent this day travelling in remote rural Bengal, meeting families of three young men who were lynched, and their bodies mutilated and dismembered. This was one more lynching in the country that was celebrated by videotaping the killing and circulating the recording triumphantly on social media.
It was claimed at that time, by the crowds, the police and even representatives of the ruling party, that a mob of villagers killed them because they were cow thieves. The story we heard in our travels was all too familiar, one troublingly similar to those that we have heard over and over again in the eight states to which the Karwan has travelled so far.
It was the evening of the 27th roza fast of Ramazan in Eid on June 22 midsummer last year. Three friends in three different villages in the North Bengal district of Uttar Dinajpur were enjoying the special Iftar meal to break their fasts with their families, in anticipation of the Eid celebrations that were to follow.
The friends were all in their mid-twenties. Two were day labourers ready to do any work that was locally offered to them – construction work, farm labour, tea leaf plucking, and whatever else came their way; one was trying to set up a small business. All the three friends were married, with small children.
Each of their families reported to us that their mobile phones rang while they were eating. Each said that the young men initially said to whoever called that they were reluctant to leave their family celebrations but finally conceded. They speculate that because the three of them often took petty construction assignments together, perhaps this was what they were called away so urgently for. But they now have no way of knowing for sure. Two of the young men left on their bikes, one walked and was picked up some distance away. They did not return that night. The next morning, each of the families was summoned to the police station. To collect their sons’ savaged bodies, dead and mutilated after mob lynching.
The first family we met was in the village Dhulagoch. The young man Nasruddin’s ageing father, Yasin Mohammed, with a white beard, white singlet and blue lungi customary for men of his age, met us weeping. For the hour that we were with him, he would not leave my hand. He was joined by his mother, bent over with age and mourning, the boy’s mother, his widow Anisa and their two small children.
The entire family sobbed out loud and long as they shared with us the trauma of his loss six months earlier, and the nightmare of what followed. He used to work in Delhi as a truck driver. After a road accident, his father called him back home. It did not matter if he earned less as work was uncertain and low-paid. At least he was safe and close to home.
The morning after he did not return home, a policeman of the village came to their home in civil clothes. He showed them a video of a lynching. To their horror, they could recognise that one of the young men being attacked was Nasruddin. They rushed to the police station, only to be handed his bloodied and defaced dead body. The distraught families of his two friends were also there. We met their families as well in the course of our journey today. Nasirul’s mother Masida Begum and wife Marjina in the village Kutipada; and Samiruddin’s widow in the village Kandapora. Nasirul’s widow gave birth to a daughter months after he had died.
Two of the bodies of the young men were lying in an ambulance, and a third on a hospital stretcher. They were disfigured and dismembered, with limbs smashed and crushed, and even their genitals stoned. The police would tell them nothing more than that villagers of a neighbouring Hindu village Durgapur had found them stealing cows.
They had caught and in their mass fury lynched them. The families were enraged at the charge of their boys being cow thieves. "Would anyone in their right mind set out to steal cows on motor cycles?" they asked indignantly. But they reported that the police was rough with them. Two of the post-mortems were completed before the families arrived. One was done with the family present. The police then handed over the bodies to the families. The dazed and grieving families spent their own money to transport the bodies to their home before they confined each to their graves.
After their deaths, some local politicians came to see them, and some people from the local media. A local politician announced that he was convinced that the men were indeed cow smugglers, without offering any proof. No senior officials, to offer help or solace. One family reported that the local block office gave them some grain and a bag of rice. Nothing else. We found the families in extreme want, with their able-bodied bread earners suddenly lost.
The families were desperate to know the truth of who had killed their sons and husbands so viciously, and why. We looked at the papers of the cases, and found that the police had registered cases under Section 304, of culpable homicide not amounting to murder; and not murder under Section 302. The faces of the killers and a large crowd of onlookers were clearly visible in the video they circulated. But only three men were ultimately arrested, and released on bail in just a fortnight because of the lenient sections of the Indian Penal Code under which they had been charged.
The families went in delegations to the police station, but report that they were roughly tuned away without answers. They claim that the police threatened that they too would be locked up if they made too much trouble. The villages planned a gherao surrounding the police station. But a local representative of the panchayat – the same who said the men were cow smugglers - dissuaded them. He said that if they did this, it would anger their Hindu neighbours, and might result in Hindu-Muslim riots. It was wise, their representative advised them, to remain silent to avoid trouble in which in the end only they would suffer. They finally accepted this counsel – whether out of voluntary restraint, or despair.
We decided that we should try to get some answers from the police to the grieving families. We took representatives from each of the three families with us to the Chopra Police Station. We waited for an hour before the circle inspector agreed to see us. We told him about the Karwan, and our concerns for the families whose sons had been lynched, that they were entitled to know the progress in the investigations into the lynching.
I also asked if charges of murder had at least now been instituted against the killers. He said he would not speak to us until he had the permission of the district superintendent of police. He spoke to his superior in our presence and then replied that he was not authorised to give us any answers at all. I asked heatedly how as a public servant, he could turn away the families of the bereaved families. But he was adamant.
We left Bengal intensely troubled about how deep the poison of communal hatred has penetrated even a part of India that has maintained greater communal peace after Partition than most others. The villagers in all the three villages to which we travelled said that apart from stray and minor incidents, there had before this been no major incidents of communal tension and violence between Hindus and Muslims of the area before this. All of this lies shattered after the lynching of the three young men, aggravated first by the charge that they were cow thieves, and then the refusal of the state administration to extend to them solace, support or justice of any kind. This is a failure also that I feel compelled to point to, of local civil liberty groups and progressive and secular political parties.
My greatest disappointment was to observe that the attitude of the state administration to the victim families whose loved ones had been felled by hate violence was no different from that of the administrations of BJP ruled states. I could easily instead have been in Gujarat, or Rajasthan, or Uttar Pradesh, and not West Bengal. The betrayal of governments of political parties that claim to be secular in failing to defend their minorities rankles painfully and erodes the secular promises of India’s constitution.
Today’s was a journey made even more painful because we made it on the day that the Indian government was celebrating its republic with displays of its military might and cultural pageantry. The despair and fear in the eyes of the members of the three families we met on this day in Bengal villages revealed how hollowed out are the promises of India’s republic to its most vulnerable citizens, and how weakly we all defend these.