As 12-year-old Abdus Salam neared the end of his prayers on Friday afternoon in a madrassa in the outskirts of Delhi, dozens of other students, neighbours and media persons gathered around him. Pressed for details, he narrated a harrowing tale – one that the boy perceived as a close shave with death.

On Wednesday night, a day after the festival of Bakr-Eid, Salam witnessed his teacher at the madrassa, 25-year-old Mohammad Khalid, and Ali Hasan, 35, a driver, being assaulted by men in Outer Delhi’s Kanjhawala area while they were carrying animal remains for disposal to a dumping yard. The victims have alleged that the men accused them of carrying cow meat.

Bike wala pehle roka … Sawal karne laga phir signal kiya… Phir gaadi wala aya aur bohut maara… main chhup gaya kone mein nahi to mujhe maar dete (A biker stopped us first. He started questioning us and then signaled someone. Some people stepped out of a car and started thrashing my companions. I hid in a corner, else they would have killed me),” said the 12-year-old, who hails from a village in Bihar.

Salam said around 7.30 pm that evening, he accompanied Khalid and Hasan in a van to a dump yard in Kanjhawala, about six or seven kilometres from the madrassa, to dispose of the remains of animals sacrificed at the madrassa for Bakr-Eid, which was on Tuesday.

As they neared their destination, they were waylaid by the biker, who questioned them about what they were carrying in the van. Khalid, Salam said, told them it was garbage, but the biker seemed sceptical and gestured to a car packed with people.

“The group checked the containers in the van and accused us of slaughtering cows,” Salam said. The 12-year-old said they were then told to get out of the vehicle. While Khalid and Hassan got off from driver’s side, Salam exited from the left. The group then assaulted the madrassa teacher and driver with rods and sticks. “I hid in a corner and saw everything,” Salam said. “I was so scared. The group tore off their clothes and thrashed them mercilessly. They were bleeding.”

Khalid and Hassan, who sustained severe injuries, are recuperating in hospital. Salam added that the men did not notice him because he was not wearing his skull cap, which is associated with Muslims.

'No links to gau rakshak groups'

The boy said he ran back to the madrassa and informed others of what happened, following which a police complaint was lodged. Four people, whom police said live in villages near the spot of the attack, have been arrested. One of them is a government servant, one a farmer and the other two are students.

A senior police official said they are not affiliated to a gau rakshak body. The incident, however, bears resemblance to vigilante-style attacks by so-called cow protection groups. Such attacks came into the limelight after four Dalit youth were stripped, tied and flogged in July in Gujarat’s Una district by cow protection vigilantes who accused them of cow slaughter. The incident had sparked widespread protests by Dalits in Gujarat. A string of such attacks have been reported since, including incidents this month in Ahmedabad, where a man succumbed on Saturday to injuries sustained in an assault by alleged cow vigilantes, and Bangalore.

Qari Mohammad Lukman, the president and principal of the Jamia Rehmania Tajuridul Quran, the madrassa in Prem Nagar where Khalid and Salam live, said they have never had any confrontation with any gau rakshak dal or cow-protection group, nor has he heard of one active in the area. However, he claimed that a group had threatened them over animal sacrifice last year as well.

“Two days before Bakr-Eid last year, a group of around 50-60 men had gathered outside the madrassa, yelling that they will not allow qurbani [animal sacrifice as part of the festival],” he said. “However, we had clearances from the police and civic agencies and there was no reason to be intimidated by them.” Taking out some documents from his pocket, he claimed they had police permission this year too.

The document was the copy of a letter to the station house officer of Aman Vihar Police Station in outer Delhi, requesting adequate police presence in the area during the sacrifice ritual on the eve of Bakr-Eid. In the letter, Lukman mentioned last year’s incident and said he feared a repeat.

The qurbani ceremony takes place in a closed hall in the madrassa. “We do have an open area, but we keep in mind public sentiments and perform the qurbani in the hall, which has a proper drainage facility too,” said 27-year-old Ameenuddin, who has lived at the madrassa for more than five years. “After the meat is extracted, the buffalo skins are also sold and the remains are discarded, for which we take due permission from the authorities. This year, the van that was attacked had seven gunny bags of waste.”

Food policing?

Locals from the Z block colony in Prem Nagar phase 2, where the madrassa is located and which is home to a significant Muslim population, said there have been cases of threat and intimidation in the past over suspicions that beef is being sold.

“Around four months ago, a local started an eatery near a mosque here,” said Mohammad Akbar, a resident of Z block. “Soon after it was inaugurated, around 100 men gathered outside the eatery on a Sunday and claimed to belong to the Bajrang Dal [an RSS-linked Hindu fundamentalist organisation]. They demanded the immediate shut down of the eatery, alleging beef was being served there. They even confiscated utensils, following which the owner gave in.”

This food policing of sorts was also seen earlier this month in Haryana's Mewat district before Bakr-Eid, where stalls selling biryani had to shut shop after the police conducted raids based on complaints that beef biryani was being sold.

Lukman and other residents of Z block however said that there weren’t too many familiar faces in the crowd, which seemed to largely comprise outsiders. Residents of Z block further said that there had not been no history of communal violence or tension in the area.

It is not yet known whether the accused had randomly chanced upon the vehicles of the victims, or if they had received a tip off. contacted Deputy Commissioner of Police (Outer Delhi) Vikramjit Singh for details, but he did not respond to phone calls.