An impoverished dairy farmer, white-bearded, visibly Muslim, only a few years younger than me, was lynched on a national highway by a mob of young men with stones and sticks who claimed that he was a cattle smuggler. He died later in a private hospital. Compelled and haunted by images of his attack – captured for history on a couple of mobile phone cameras – a few colleagues and I went to meet his bereaved family in their village Jaisinghpur in Mewat, Haryana. When we sat with them, our eyes lowered, we found it hard to find the words to convey to the bereaved, distraught and terrified family our sadness, our shame, and our rage.

And yet before I proceed to tell you their story, in the strange, fraught times we live in, even I feel obliged to start by underlining that the murdered man and his sons were innocent, that they were not cattle-smugglers but legitimate dairy farmers. As though the crime of their brutal mob killing would be any less monstrous if they had in some way broken the law. Rajasthan’s Home Minister Gulab Chand Kataria, while criticising the attack, blamed the victims saying, “The problem is from both the sides. People know cow trafficking is illegal but they do it. Gau Bhakts try to stop those who indulge in such crimes.”

His description of the marauders as Gau Bhakts, or worshippers of the cow, brought back memories from my years as a district collector in Madhya Pradesh during the Ayodhya Ramjanam Bhoomi movement, when rioters who terrorised, burnt and murdered their Muslim neighbours in town after town of communal frenzy were described benignly in the press and political speeches as Ram Bhakts, or worshippers of Ram. The felling of Pehlu Khan on April 1, 2017 on NH8 near Behror, Alwar, by self-styled cow vigilantes, had as little to do with the love of the cow as the annihilation of the Babri Masjid had to do with the love of Ram.

This rationalisation for the hate crime echoed in many television debates. The studied refusal of the chief ministers of Rajasthan, where the crime occurred, and Haryana, which is home to the dead man, as well as the otherwise voluble prime minister to express any outrage or public regret for the killing reflects the same implied validation. No one from the Haryana state administration has visited Pehlu Khan’s home. Alwar’s Superintendent of Police Rahul Prakash categorically told’s Prasanna D Zore that the 15 men from Mewat, including Pehlu Khan, who were beaten up by a mob in Alwar on suspicion of smuggling cows had no verified documents to prove they were in the dairy business and not cow smugglers, and therefore, “hundred per cent they were cow smugglers; there is no doubt about that”. But he was reluctantly prepared to admit: “I don’t know if they [the attackers] knew for sure if they [the victims] were cow smugglers or not, but according to the police version they were cow smugglers.”

Before any criminal cases were filed against the lynch mob, the Rajasthan police first registered a First Information Report against Pehlu Khan and the young men with him under the Rajasthan Bovine Animal (Prohibition of Slaughter and Regulation of Temporary Migration or Export) Act, 1995. I have a copy of the FIR. It mentions that they are charged under Section 5 of the Act. According to this section, “No person shall export and cause to be exported any bovine animal himself or through his agent, servant or other person acting in his behalf from any place within the State to any place outside the State for the purposes of slaughter or with the knowledge that it may be or is likely to be slaughtered.” The men were transporting five milch cows that had only recently delivered and carried papers to prove their purchase from the cattle market on Ramgarh Road in Jaipur. The only cattle that are taken to slaughter are too old or diseased to yield milk. Why would any person transport expensive high-milk yielding cows for a slaughterhouse that would pay them a small fraction of what they would earn if they were sold as productive milch cows? And to transport milch cows for dairying no papers or permission are required by the law.

A videograb of the attack on Pehlu Khan and others in Alwar.

Therefore, there was no ground for any presumption by the police (nor by the vigilante mob) that the men were cattle smugglers. Even so, criminal cases were registered against them for crimes that could confine them behind prison walls for 10 years. They were also charged under Section 9 of the Rajasthan Bovine Animal (Prohibition of Slaughter and Regulation of Temporary Migration or Export) Act, 1995, which makes it illegal to cause bodily pain, disease or infirmity to a bovine animal. The claim was that the cows were being treated cruelly because two or three were packed with their calves in the back of a pick-up van. I wondered if the policepersons had ever travelled in an unreserved train compartment, a state transport bus, or seen casual workers transported in the back of trucks.

By contrast, the police registered cases against the six men named in the FIR, and 200 others, only after the men who had been assaulted were charged. Their attackers were charged under relatively mild sections of the Indian Penal Code – Sections 147 (rioting), 143 (unlawful assembly), 323 (voluntarily causing hurt), 341 (wrongful restraint), 308 (culpable homicide), and 379 (theft). On April 3, Section 308 was changed to that of murder (Section 302) after Pehlu Khan died in hospital around 7.30 pm. Until the time of writing, none of the men mentioned in the FIR and in Pehlu Khan’s dying declaration have been arrested. Saddam Hussain, president of Mewat Yuva Sanghtan, alleged to the Hindustan Times that the police were unwilling to arrest the named accused because of their affiliation with right-wing Hindu organisations, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Hindu Dharma Jagran and the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad. “Either there is pressure from the government to not arrest them or police are not trying hard enough,” he said.

There are echoes here from the earlier case of lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq in Dadri by his neighbours over the rumour that he stored beef in his refrigerator, which also stirred public conscience. Despite country-wide outrage, criminal cases were registered against Akhlaq’s family whereas a man charged with his murder who died of an illness in prison was cremated with his body wrapped in the national flag, in the presence of a Union minister. Any Muslim or Dalit victim of mob lynching is somehow criminally guilty, and the killers are nationalist Hindus understandably outraged because the sacred cow has been threatened or killed.

The lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh, in 2015 triggered country-wide outrage. Image credit: AFP

I return to our visit to Pehlu Khan’s village Jaisinghpur, with my friends Farah Naqvi, Mohsin Khan, Zafar Eqbal and Rubina Akhtar, on April 18, 2017. The village is indistinguishable from many others in the district Nuh, earlier known as Mewat or the home of the Meo Muslim, who constitute 80% of this arid and water-scarce, impoverished district. We approached their home with trepidation. We had made the journey because we felt compelled to offer solidarity in a small personal way, in the times that we live in, which I can only describe as times of command bigotry, hate led and spurred from the top.

But we did not want to intrude in their time of grief, which was already far too public. However Ramzan Chaudhary, the large-hearted and courageous lawyer (and a self-appointed spokesperson of the Meo people) who accompanied us, assured us that our visit would be welcomed by Pehlu Khan’s family because he felt we were “not the same” as many of those who had descended on their home in the past two weeks. But we still arrived there with unease.

Theirs was a small modest village brick home. A green cloth canopy had been erected outside the house as the family could not accommodate the visitors who streamed into their nondescript village every day after Pehlu Khan’s lynching hit the headlines. There had been before us some journalists, many local politicians, some religious leaders, and members of the Kisaan Sabha affiliated with the communist parties. Farah and Rubina were led into the inner rooms and came back to us an hour later, harrowed. Pehlu Khan’s mother, a wizened old woman now completely blind, and his widow and daughters were inconsolable. Pehlu Khan was an only son. He in turn had eight children. Some were married, including Irshad, who is in his twenties. The teenaged Arif was also beaten up with him at Alwar. His daughters and daughters-in-law cannot make sense of why he was killed. His other sons and grandchildren are too young to understand what has happened.

Outside, where I sat with the men, the mood was sombre. More and more men gathered in the hours that we spent there. The elders sat on benches, the young men squatted on the ground, deferential to age. I opened the discussion by saying, “We hesitated to come but at the same time we could not stay away. Because we want you to know that we share in your grief and in your anger against the injustice that has been done to you.” They accepted our awkward words with grace, and insisted that we must first accept their hospitality and only then talk further. We protested but to no avail. “We have been taught by our ancestors about how we should treat our guests, even at times like this.” After much persuasion, we still had to accept some sweetened soda before we began to talk.

The story of what transpired with them is well known but as Pehlu Khan’s older son Irshad and others who were part of this traumatic journey – nephews, neighbours – spoke, the horror for us became even more palpable. The family owns barely an acre of land, which yields little for the family. So, they have always raised milch cattle – cows or buffaloes – and they sell the milk in the village or to richer landowners in the surrounding villages. They also buy milch cows from the cattle markets of Rajasthan, sell their milk for a while and resell them at a slight profit of a couple of thousand rupees. This helps feed the family. The sons helped out the father and when they could, drive a pick-up van or a jeep taxi. Pehlu Khan took even his younger son Arif with him because he wanted him to learn the cattle trade early.

Members of Mewat Yuva Sangthan take out a silent march in Alwar to demand the arrest of Pehlu Khan's killers. Credit: HT Photo

The month of Ramzan is a good one for milk sales, the best time of the year. People buy milk and curds for the pre-dawn Sehri or the evening Iftar. Pehlu Khan took a loan as he always did from richer neighbours, many of them Hindu Thakurs, at an interest rate of 5% per month. They hired a pick-up van from a neighbour, loaded on it their buffalo that had stop giving milk to sell, and with Irshad at the wheel, and Arif, a nephew and some neighbours in the back, they set off for the weekly cattle market on Ramgarh Road near Jaipur.

This was a market they visited frequently. The cattle traders knew Pehlu Khan well. He had initially set his heart on buying a buffalo to replace the one that he sold. But he was offered a cow that had recently delivered a calf at a lower price. The cattle seller milked her in his presence and she gave 12 litres of milk. It was a deal. Other villagers also made their purchases. Together, they hired one more pick-up truck from the market. Pehlu Khan sat in the hired truck, with two cows and two calves. Irshad carried three cows in his pick-up van and drove with his neighbour and friend Asmat. All the cows were beautiful, healthy, with young calves and bountiful milk yields. In their villages, they describe pregnant and milk-giving cows as biyahi, or married.

At the Jaguwas crossing in Behror, Alwar, the pick-up trucks were stopped by an ugly crowd of about 50 men. They dragged them out, slapped and heckled them, claiming they were cow smugglers. Irshad says he showed them the receipts of the cows from the cattle market but they tore those up. (Fortunately, he was able to get copies from the cattle market later. He showed us these copies.) They asked the driver of the truck Pehlu Khan had hired from the cattle market his name. It was a Hindu name. They slapped him and told him to run away. The other terrified men tried to run away as well but the crowd caught them easily. Pehlu Khan was the oldest among them and received the harshest blows. He tried to pick himself up weakly but the men rained blows on him again. Asmat was beaten on his back and spine, Arif was injured in his eye. The mob vandalised the trucks, twisted the bonnet, and threw rocks on the windscreen and the engine. They snatched their wallets, watches, mobile phones and all their money. Irshad had Rs 75,000 left from the loan. They snatched this as well.

The crowd swelled. More men joined in the lynching; some vandalised the trucks as though for sport, some watched, a few took videos on their mobile phone cameras, some walked past looking at the screens of their mobile phones as though nothing was amiss around them. No one came to their aid.

They lost track of time as the beating continued – with sticks, stones and belts – and one by one all the men fell, lying on the road or pavements in twisted inert heaps, almost unconscious. They guess some 20 minutes had passed when the police arrived. “They would have set us all on fire had the police not come.”

The police confiscated their cows and had sent them to a private gaushala. They took Phelu Khan and orders to a nearby private hospital, Kailash Hospital, in Behror. It is there that Pehlu Khan died on April 3. The doctor who did the post-mortem on him told The Indian Express, “Injuries were the main cause of death. As said in our post-mortem report, the (thoracoabdominal) injuries were ‘sufficient cause of death’. The heart attack was secondary.”

Irshad spoke to us haltingly, in a low monotone. He was still visibly traumatised, and in mourning. Besides, young people do not talk loudly in the presence of their elders. The older men spoke of how the families were ruined. How will they repay their loans? Will they ever get back the cows they had bought? Even if they ultimately did, would they still be the beautiful milch cows that they had bought? They would get back some useless scrub cattle, if any at all. The remaining cash they had taken on loan at 5% interest, compound per month, had been stolen from them. They would also have to pay for the vandalised pick-up truck they had borrowed. Their father had taken all the decisions but he is not there to guide them anymore.

We also visited Pehlu Khan’s neighbour Azmat Khan. The young man, father of an infant girl, lay on a cot, wrapped in an old nylon sari converted into a sheet. He was still in pain, not yet recovered from his spine injury. He held my hand for a long time as I sat by his bedside. We looked at his medical papers from the private hospital where he was being treated. They did not look good. “I hope he will be able to walk again,” I whispered in English to my colleagues. He too had taken a loan to buy a cow for selling milk in the Ramzan month of fasting and prayers.

Outside virtually every house in the village is tied a cow or two, or a buffalo. “Our children rarely drink milk. We have to sell every drop to repay our loans and bring home food. But now they are terrified about what the future would hold for them. Anyone can come into our houses and claim that we are raising the cows for slaughter.” They have few other options. The land is dry and infertile, and the rains fickle. Education levels are low. Thousands of young men are drivers but getting a driving licence for heavy vehicles from the notoriously corrupt district transport office is difficult. Young men over the years got licences from far corners of the country, probably because they had to pay smaller bribes. But over the last two years, these licences have been suddenly derecognised by the district transport authorities. Ramzan Chaudhary alleges this was done out of spite in this overwhelmingly Muslim district, rendering an estimated 75,000 drivers out of work.

Gau Raksha Dal members out to inspect trucks on a highway in Taranagar, Rajasthan. Image credit: AFP

A few thousand men opened biryani stalls on the highways but in 2016 raids by police checking if the meat they used was of cows or buffaloes caused them to shut shop. Today, you see a small number of such shops, and they hasten to tell you that their biryani has chicken and not beef.

And now even dairy farming has become a dangerous vocation. They do not know what the future holds, how they will feed their children. We asked how they will manage. “Bardashth karenge, aur kya?” some of them replied, dully. “We will bear it, what else?” “Bhuke marenge”, said a few others even more dismally. We will die of hunger.”

Some of them, though, are planning an unusual if heart-breaking act of civic resistance. They plan to take their cows to the district collector’s office and tie them to the gate, leaving it to the government to do what it will with them. “You do not trust us with the cow, and we are no longer safe in tending them. Let the government then take them over!”

As we sat with a large group of men under the makeshift canopy outside Pehlu Khan’s house, the talk returned over and over to their anguish about the new climate of hate and suspicion against Muslims that they found surrounded them. It was never like this, they said. Hindus and Muslims have always lived together like brothers and sisters. But in the last two or three years, everything has changed. “We are watanparasth, true nationalists. Our ancestors made so many sacrifices for our country. They fought against Babur’s army on the side of Rana Sangha.” We wanted to stop them: please, you don’t have to do this. Why must you feel you have to prove your love for your country? But the words got stuck in our throats as they went on insistently. And they would also ask, “Who loves the cow more than us Meo Muslims?” Go to any Meo village home and see how much they love their cows, like they are members of the family. Any evening, see how lovingly they bathe their cows. And yet we are being called cow-killers”.

By strange coincidence, the driver of the taxi we had hired from Delhi to travel to Nuh, a young Dalit Sikh, turned out to be a man who loved cows. He stopped the taxi on the way and took out rotis from the car and fed them to stray cows. He said he had worked as a driver for the owner of a gaushala, and in that time had come to adore cows. When he is off duty even today, he volunteers to tend stray cows in a gaushala. Returning from Jaisinghpur, our souls weighed down by all we had seen and heard, we gave him our leftover sandwiches to feed the cows. I joined him in feeding them, and as the cows nuzzled on my fingers, I realised afresh that what had transpired on the highway at Behror had nothing at all to do with the love of this gentle animal. Nothing at all.

The words of the villagers in Nuh echoed in our ears. What is our place in this country, they asked us over and over again. A country where our life values less than a cow’s?