By Tanvi Ahuja:
The fairies at Pari Chowk were warm and inviting in the October sun. A little ahead on the swanky Expressway were beautiful animal sculptures. It was Gandhi Jayanti, and the ride was smooth. I had never seen this side of Uttar Pradesh and it mesmerized me. The wide road and lush green spaces soon merged into dustier, busier terrains. A little boy standing next to an overflowing auto rickshaw suddenly caught my eye. And before I knew it, he picked up a stone and aimed it at me. The stone hit my window with full force. “Welcome to U.P.!” my colleague exclaimed.
We reached the Dadri West railway track after taking a few wrong turns. We asked an auto-wallah for directions. “Patri ke baad, Dadri hi Dadri hai” (Beyond the railway line, you will see only Dadri for miles), he shouted. Just as we were laughing and thanking him for his help, our car banged into an auto that in turn jolted into a Wagon R in front. People were angry. The Wagon R owner got out of his car and pulled our driver by his neck. My colleagues quickly intervened, and we spent the next hour at a Maruti Auto Repairs shop working out the damages. Once that was done, we were finally on our way to Bisada in rural Dadri.
We decided to walk and made our way through the narrow, winding lanes of Bisada. We didn’t need to ask for directions to Mohammad Akhlaq’s house. A smattering of PSC and RRF vehicles and media vans pointed us right toward it. The veranda was teeming with people. A man was shouting at a news channel crew for recording a personal conversation between family members and invading their privacy. Akhlaq’s brothers were exasperated of the incessant media glare. And then, they saw us; two women in a swarm of men. They were courteous and invited us to talk to the women in the household.
We went in from the back. The door was barely hanging by its hinges. A young woman sat on the khatiya with her child. She invited us to sit. She was Akhlaq’s older daughter, M. We asked after their well-being. Danish, her brother, had had a brain surgery the previous night and was on ventilator support. He had moved his fingers slightly before the surgery but had been unconscious since. Akhlaq’s younger daughter, wife, and mother were in the other room, resting. The curtains were drawn, and we hesitated to ask if we could speak to them. “They don’t want to talk. They are disturbed and unwell,” a young girl, as if reading my face, said.
We asked M if we could help in any way. She looked at us blankly. “I cannot narrate the events properly because I was not here. But my sister was. Our father is gone. He is no longer here; to sit with us, love us, hug us. We have lived here in peace for generations. We had no inkling whatsoever of what transpired. It would have been better if they’d just broken a few limbs. But they killed him. All I want for my family is insaaf (justice)”. With this, she got up and went inside, leaving us lost for words. Akhlaq’s younger brother came in. After we introduced ourselves, he invited us to meet his brother, Jan Mohammad who was outside speaking to the media.
There were fewer people on the veranda now, and the family, and media persons had shifted base to the living room. Jan was narrating the sequence of events- the announcement from the temple on 28th night that Akhlaq’s family had slaughtered a calf and were storing beef, a mob of 200 odd people materializing in no time and proceeding towards Akhlaq’s home, young men attempting to enter the house from the front door and encountering Akhlaq’s wife who ran inside to hide, the men then jumping over walls and entering the house from the back, assaulting Akhlaq’s mother, beating him to death, and landing Danish in the hospital.
Excerpts from our conversation with Jan:
“Which family did the missing calf belong to? Newspaper reports say a calf went missing on Sep. 16th and its remains were found in an open field.”
Jan: “There was no missing calf. It is all a saazish (conspiracy). A group of men spread these rumours in the temple. Think logically. Tell me which cow parts or remains can fit in a polythene bag? Haven’t you heard the statements made by Mahesh Sharma and Nawab Nagar? This was no accident or misunderstanding. Our very history is being rewritten in the hope of extinguishing us for good.”
“Has it been conveyed to you that the government is going to give a compensation of Rs. 10 lakh?”
Jan: We saw it in the news. No one has told us anything personally.
“But many politicians including Mahesh Sharma visited you.”
Jan: He(Mahesh Sharma) did not meet us. I, in fact, ran after his entourage, but they stopped me from speaking to him. He came, got his pictures clicked, and left.
“What about the Sarpanch?”
Jan: He accompanied political leaders to our house but has not visited us or asked after our well-being personally.
“What is your plan of action now? Do you know everything you need to know about the criminal case registered?”
Jan: We don’t have the FIR copy yet. We don’t know the sections under which the men have been booked. The SDM told us they had arrested six men on the basis of S, Akhlaq’s younger daughter’s eye witness account. The women in the house are scared. They just want to leave the village.
The discussion was interrupted by the arrival of a local Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) leader. Jan repeated the whole story for his benefit. But this time, Jan’s narrative had strong indications of multiple kinds of physical assault against the women in the household. Akhlaq’s mother had sustained serious injuries on her face and eyes. His wife needed medical attention but was not supposed to go out of the house during iddat. S was in shock. We offered to help with getting medical aid to the house. But the men declined. They deflected our concerns and were evasive. Later, we discussed our work and explored legal options with the brothers before taking their leave.
We walked around the village, speaking to a few people on the way. A couple of Rajput men feigned ignorance. Others seemed to go about their lives as if nothing had happened. “Bhaichaara” (brotherhood) was invoked in our conversations repeatedly and yet no one was able to answer as to why this bhaichaara could not save an innocent’s life, why Akhlaq, in particular, was targeted, or who these mobsters were and where they came from.
We came across a few Muslim families. On the surface, they seemed calm and collected. But they conceded that they felt paralyzed with fear. I asked them their names, and they just smiled in reply. One man said, “What if they click my picture and put it in a newspaper tomorrow? These people will come after me.” They had no immediate plans of leaving the village even though some of their friends had- the panchayat and administration for one wouldn’t “let them leave.” But “zindagi hi to sabse zaroori hai” and they wouldn’t hesitate leaving Bisada in the next six months. Land in Bisada was mostly owned by the Rajputs and Thakurs. The 20-30 Muslim households, scattered throughout the village, were poor, making a living as washer men, barbers, ironsmiths, or agricultural labourers. The Rajputs had contributed money toward the construction of the mosque three years back. But on that fateful night, a group of men had come to the mosque and tried to lock it saying, “Isko bandh karo. Ye mulleh bahut bolte hain” (Close this mosque. These Muslims talk a lot). This was followed by an altercation between them and a Muslim youth, the latter sustaining minor injuries.
We walked back to our car to leave. Some of the constables we had seen earlier at Akhlaq’s home were standing by the road, noting down the numbers of all vehicles leaving the site of the crime. My colleague quipped, “Itna khoobsurat mulk hai ye. Kya kar rahe hain ye log? Pehle Muzaffarnagar. Fir Trilokpuri. Atali. Aur ab yeh.” (Ours is such a beautiful country. What are those in power doing? First it was Muzaffarnagar. Then, Trilokpuri. Followed by Atali. And now, this).
I felt like I was in the midst of a jigsaw puzzle, able to envisage the bigger picture but unable to work out the individual pieces. There was definitely a method to the madness- a clever strategy long time in the making and now reaping fruits when the stage was set. The fears expressed by many of us, when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power, were already coming true, one incident at a time. Small- scaled riots and instances of communal violence were sprouting in the hinterlands, fuelled by social media and raging, misguided youth. Meat, sometimes pork, sometimes beef, was being used as a political rallying point. Those who protested did so at their own peril, even as the State machinery made insensitive and ridiculous comments, amounting to hate speech leading to further polarization. Was this to scare, humiliate, and ghettoize the poor, marginalized, and minorities, and send them a message that India did not belong to them anymore? Apparently, yes.
For now, the Uttar Pradesh administration seems to be putting up a front. The temple priest who allegedly made the announcement has vanished. Eight of the ten accused have been arrested, two of whom are allegedly related to Sanjay Rana, a local BJP functionary. People in Bisada however still insist that they are innocent. Akhlaq’s family is deeply hurt by statements made by the likes of Mahesh Sharma, according to whom, this was a one-off incident, a “misunderstanding” and shouldn’t be viewed from a communal lens. Further, the SDM is alleged to have threatened the family against taking BJP’s name in their interactions with the media. Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister, Akhilesh Yadav has increased the compensation to Rs. 35 lakh. But the family is yet to receive formal communication or a copy of the First Information Report (FIR). And even as Akhlaq’s relatives come to terms with their loss, the media is having a field day, with reporters shoving their mics and cameras in the family’s faces for two-minute sound bytes.
When the frenzy has died down, and Akhlaq’s murder is conveniently nestled in some dark corner of our national conscience, I will go back to Bisada. I have a funny feeling that Dadri abhi baaqi hai.
Editor’s Note: The facts mentioned in the article have not been independently verified.