Our second day of the Karwan-e-Mohabbat 2018 was India’s 69th Republic Day. We spent this day travelling in the remote corners of rural Bengal, meeting the 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 it and circulating the recording triumphantly on social media.
At that time, it was claimed by the crowds, the police and even the representatives of the ruling party that a mob of villagers had killed them because they were cow thieves. The story we heard in our travels was all too familiar – it was 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 day of the roza (fast) during Ramadan, on June 22 last year. Three friends in three different villages in the Uttar Dinajpur district in north Bengali 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-20s. Two of them were day labourers who were ready to do any work that was locally offered to them – construction work, farm labour, tea-leaf plucking, and whatever else came their way. The other was trying to set up a small business. All the three friends were married and had small children.
Each of their families told us that their mobile phones rang while they were eating. The families also said that initially, the three young men said (to the people who had called them) that they were reluctant to leave their family’s celebrations. But they finally conceded. The family members are of the opinion that because the three of them often took petty construction assignments together, that was what they had been summoned for, so urgently.
But now, they now have no way of knowing it for sure. Two of the men left on their bikes. The other walked and was picked up some distance away. They did not return that night. The next morning, the three families were summoned to the police station – to collect their sons’ savaged bodies, dead and mutilated after being lynched by a mob.
The first family we met was in the village Dhulagoch. The young man Nasruddin’s ageing father, Yasin Mohammed, had a white beard, a white singlet and a blue lungi customary for men of his age. He met us, weeping. During the hour we were with him, he would not let go of my hand. He was joined by his mother, bent over with age and mourning. Nasruddin’s mother, his widow Anisa and their two small children also met us.
The entire family sobbed out loud and long as they shared with us the trauma of his loss (six months back) 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 widow Marjina live in the village Kutipada. Marjina gave birth to a daughter months after Nasirul’s death. Samiruddin’s widow lives in the village Kandapora.
We came to know that two of the bodies of the young men lay in an ambulance, and a third on a hospital stretcher. They were disfigured and dismembered – the limbs smashed and crushed. Even their genitals had been stoned. The police would tell them nothing more except the information that the villagers of a neighbouring Hindu village, Durgapur, had found them stealing cows.
They had caught the three men red-handed – and in their mass fury, they lynched them. However, the families of the three men were enraged at the allegation of them being cow thieves. “Would anyone in their right mind set out to steal cows on motor cycles?” they asked indignantly.
They also told us that the police had been rough with them. Two of the post-mortems were completed before the families arrived. One of them was done in the presence of the family. The police then handed the bodies over 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. A few people from the local media also visited them. A local politician announced that he was convinced that the men were indeed cow smugglers, without offering any proof. No senior officials came forward to offer help or solace to the bereaved families. One of the families told us that the local block office gave them some grain and a bag of rice – and nothing else. We found the families in a state of extreme want – after the sudden loss of their able-bodied bread earners.
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 of ‘culpable homicide not amounting to murder’ (under Section 304) and ‘not murder’ (under Section 302). The faces of the killers and a large crowd of onlookers were clearly visible in the video that was circulated. But only three men were ultimately arrested and released on bail within 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 they also stated that they were roughly turned away without answers. They claimed that the police threatened them that they would be locked up if they made too much trouble. The villagers had even planned a gherao surrounding the police station. But, a local representative of the panchayat – the same who had said that the men were cow smugglers – dissuaded them from doing so. 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 only they would suffer in the end. They finally accepted this counsel – either out of voluntary restraint, or despair.
We decided that we should try to get some answers from the police for 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 – and that they were entitled to know if there has been any progress in the investigations into the lynching.
I also asked the inspector if the murder chargers had at least been instituted against the killers. He said that 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 told us 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 bereaved families. But he was adamant.
We left Bengal intensely troubled about how deep the poison of communal hatred has penetrated a part of India that has maintained relatively greater communal peace after the Partition than most other areas. The villagers in all the three villages had said that, apart from stray and minor incidents, there had been no major incidents of communal tension and violence between Hindus and Muslims in the area, before this. But all of this was 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 solace, support or justice of any kind to the families concerned. I also feel compelled to point out the failure of local civil liberty groups, progressive and secular political parties.
My greatest disappointment was that the attitude of the state administration to the suffering families whose loved ones had been felled by hate-violence seemed to be no different from that of the administrations of BJP-ruled states. I could have easily been in Gujarat or Rajasthan or Uttar Pradesh, and not West Bengal. The betrayal of governments and political parties that claim to be secular (in failing to defend the minorities) rankles painfully and erodes the secular promises of India’s Constitution.
Today’s journey was 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’s villages revealed how hollowed out the promises of India’s republic to its most vulnerable citizens really are – and how weakly we all defend these.
A version of this post was first published here.
Featured image used for representative purposes only.