The wheels of justice have turned with great alacrity in Dadri. On Thursday, a local court ordered the Greater Noida police to register a case against Mohammad Akhlaq, lynched last September for allegedly eating beef, and against six other members of his family. The case was to be registered under the Uttar Pradesh Cow Protection Act, 1955. The court was acting on a petition filed by Akhlaq’s neighbour in Bisada village and backed by those accused of murdering him.
Only consider this sequence of events. On September 28, loudspeakers at the local temple were allegedly used to announce that Akhlaq and his family had eaten beef. Later that night, a mob descended on the household, killing Akhlaq and severely injuring his son. As the event became the subject of a polarising political debate, it appeared that two sets of crimes were committed that night: cow slaughter and beef eating, rioting and murder.
The police rounded up and arrested 19 people accused in the lynching case. Of these, one person has been given a clean chit and two minors have been let off on bail, while 16 people still remain behind bars.
But the conversation soon shifted to whether beef had been consumed that night. The police took meat samples from Akhlaq’s fridge to get them tested. In May, a forensic lab report said the meat belong to a “cow or its progeny”. Even though the government said this would not affect the lynching case, the families of the accused demanded a mahapanchayat, which was duly held. At the meet, the clamour for action against the Akhlaq family grew louder.
Except, beef-eating is not a crime in Uttar Pradesh, cow slaughter is. Soon enough, neighbours reported that they had seen members of the Akhlaq family beating a calf and later slaughtering it. A petition was filed and admitted in the Surajpur court. The fury that moved mobs to kill that night in September has now been legitimised by a court ruling.
Within months, Mohammad Akhlaq has gone from being victim to accused. His family, harassed by neighbours and forced to leave Bisada now face charges under a law that essentially criminalises the food habits of the minority. The case against those charged with murder has barely inched forward.
Beefing it up
The judicial process here is framed by the political economy of Dadri, by networks of influence that flow from the village level to the national level, by a power balance that is heavily skewed in favour of the accusers.
At the local level, eight of the 10 people initially arrested were related to members of the Bharatiya Janata Party. The families of the accused were clearly influential enough in Hindu-majority Dadri to demand a mahapanchayat. They were backed by leaders of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad who circled the village days after the forensic report was published. After the court ruling on Thursday, Sanjay Rana, father of one of the accused and a BJP leader, said it was a “victory of justice” and promised to hold another panchayat meeting.
At the national level, reactions from the BJP leadership ranged from denial to indifference to active support. Union Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma called it an “accident” and asked the media not to “give it a communal twist. The prime minister spoke obliquely about “plurality and tolerance” and then admitted that the incident was “sad” but what could the Centre do?
BJP leaders from UP rose in a chorus of support for the accused. The group headed by Yogi Adityanath, BJP member of Parliament from Gorakhpur, offered to arm the Hindu population of Dadri with guns. Sanjeev Balyan, BJP MP from Muzaffarnagar, Union minister of state for water resources and an accused in the Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013, advised the police to find out everyone who ate the cow and punish them. BJP MLA Sangeet Som and BJP general secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya also urged action against the Akhlaq family. “You cannot have privileges simply because you belong to a minority,” Vijayvargiya reportedly said.
Far from it. The case against the accused was soon dismissed as minority appeasement by the Samajwadi Party dispensation in UP. For now, at least, the louder political voice has managed to push its case.
A poll on Dadri
Dadri was never an isolated crime. It took place at a time when BJP ruled states were suddenly discovering beef bans, the Centre had floated the idea of a nationwide law against cow slaughter and the word “intolerance” had acquired a new political currency. It fed into a viciously polarising election in Bihar, where beef politics took centre stage and the BJP suffered defeat.
Since then, the BJP seems to have toned down its rhetoric on beef, though the poll campaign in Assam this year saw low key agitation over meat being thrown into temples. As the Uttar Pradesh polls approach, the old politics around beef might be revived in the Hindi heartland.
With the case against the Akhlaqs, Dadri is a live issue once more. It does not bode well for the campaign ahead.