Most Bakerwals, the nomadic pastoralists who inhabit the higher reaches of Jammu and Kashmir, move towards the cooler, upper reaches to protect their livestock from the hot summers. Members of the Ali family from Malel village were in the process of their annual migration when they became victims of brutal attack by a frenzied mob.

On Tuesday evening, April 25, Sabir Ali struggled to adjust his turban with one hand while his other arm, wrapped in bandage, hung from his neck.

Sitting on a charpai outside his one-room residence at the family’s winter retreat in Sindhi nallah in Malel village, some 10 kms from Reasi town, Ali stroked his white beard and heaved a sigh of relief, while recalling the events of the evening of Thursday, April 21. That is when he and his family were ruthlessly beaten by a mob at Zero Morh in Talwara, seven kms outside Reasi town, between 8 pm and 9 pm.

They were accused of smuggling cows.

Sabir Ali along with his brohters. Naseem Begum is seen sitting on the porch behind.

During the attack, Ali and his 40-year-old daughter-in-law Naseem Begum suffered arm fractures while Ali’s 22-year-old niece Abida Bibi, and 40 year old nephew Nazakat Ali, sustained minor injuries. Nine-year-old Saima Bibi was the youngest victim of the mob violence.

“You should thank god for being alive,” relatives and friends gathered around him said.

Sabir Ali and his family alleged that the main instigator of the mob violence was a man named Shankhar Singh, the shopkeeper from whom they buy their rations. Singh is among the eleven named in a police first information report for attacking Ali and his family. Police officials estimated the crowd size to have been between 150 and 200 persons.

But, here’s the catch. While the mob attack resembled the recent attacks by cow vigilantes across India, Singh’s concerns did not have anything to do with bovines of any nature. The incitement to violence was a debt accumulated by a member of Ali’s family for purchase of rations on credit during the winter.

‘They will not spare us’

At around 8 pm on Thursday, April 21, Nazakat Ali, Naseem Begum, Abida Bibi and Saima Bibi approached the Zero Morh checkpost, shepherding a herd of cows and horses. Their uncle had already shepherded the flock of sheep past that point. At the checkpost, the victims said, they were stopped by men led by Singh, who himself had demanded to see their permit papers as he declared them to be cow smugglers.

Forty-year-old Nazakat Ali said that while the policemen at the post were examining their permits, the frenzied mob attacked them. “All young men gathered around us. We were being slapped from all sides,” he said. “The policemen pushed us into the chowki (the police post).”

Sabir Ali received a distress call from Begum, and rushed to the spot.

A chilling video of the attack shows the violent mob surrounding the police post, kicking and attempting to tear it down while the outnumbered policemen made futile attempts to stop the madness. Stones were being hurled as frightened Naseem Begum and Abida Bibi wailed, while the structure nearly collapsed over their heads. Sixty-five-year-old Sabir Ali is seen falling to the ground, unconscious after being dragged and beaten by the mob. Not satisfied, the mob later destroyed the police post

“We folded our hands begging them not to beat us and asked them to take away the livestock instead,” Bibi said. “We only tried to save our honour. They groped us. They did not even spare the nine-year-old girl.”

The mob, the victims said, shouted religious slogan. “Bum Bum bhole, and then hai hai…something,” Ali said. “I was too terrified to remember what exactly they were chanting.” The Jammu and Kashmir police personnel who arrived on spot, too, found themselves overwhelmed by the ferocious mob.

The mob blocked the road and agitated till as late as 1 pm the next day, police officials said. However, Sabir Ali and his family were removed from the spot within half an hour and placed in the house of a sarpanch nearby, before being taken to a hospital. “We only wanted to save our lives. It felt like a never ending ordeal,” Sabir Ali said.

“It has been five days since the incident happened but we are still terrified. Our hearts start pounding if we hear a loud noise outside,” said Abida Bibi. Naseem Begum ominously added: “They (the attackers) will not spare us”.

Sabir Ali (front), Abida Bibi (left), and Naseem Begum were escorted to their home in a police vehicle on Monday.

‘What Law?’

“They beat us up because we said give us and our animals to the law,” Sabir Ali said. “What law?” the mob shouted back at them. “Don’t talk to us about law,” they said. Sabir Ali produced the digitised permits to move his livestock detailing the number of each animal and its progeny in the herd.

The cows were not meant to be sold, Sabir Ali said. In the Bakerwal social structure, cows are prized possessions, shared among the clan and given as dowry in marriages. “We had 60 cows amongst us brothers, at one time. We sell 20 manns of makhan [800 kgs of butter]. Rearing cows is our livelihood,” Sabir Ali said, pointing out their long traditions of rearing bovine livestock for commercial by-products.

The police is investigating the role played by Singh. Apart from Singh, 10 others were arrested for the mob violence. The arrested persons have been identified as Balbir Singh, Onkar, Sujivan Singh, Satpaul, Jagdev Singh, Lal Singh, Sunil Singh, Rakesh Kumar, Bhagwan Dass and Surinder Singh.

Under pressure from Hindu groups a counter FIR was filed against Sabir Ali and Nazakat Ali for not having a permit to move their livestock. Both parties, however, have been bailed by the court which also directed the police to restore the victim’s livestock.

The Senior Superintendent of Police in Reasi, Tahir Bhat, said the family had been provided security after the incident. However on Monday, April 25, a police truck transporting the cows, seized on the night of the attack, was again attacked by goons in Salal, 20 kms from the site of the Thursday attack. This time the goons accused the police of smuggling. Locals said the vehicle was damaged by the goons and its driver, a policeman, was beaten up.

Bhat, however, refuted the claims. “Only a tyre of the vehicle was deflated,” he said. “We assured them that it was the same livestock we had seized and are now returning” to the Bakerwals. Police officials who were privy to the incident added that the goons, adamant on release of the cows, had finally dispersed when they were asked to tend to the cows overnight while a consensus was reached. “They just disappeared hearing that,” the police official said.

Counter offensive

The town of Reasi was visibly tense on Wednesday, April 25. A shutdown was called for by Hindu groups. Tyres were burnt in chowks leading to the town. A modest gathering in the main market reverberated the area with forceful slogans.

The protestors shouted slogans such as “Gau mata ki jai” and “Bharat mata ki jai”. The senior and deputy superintendent of police were not spared either: “DSP murdabad!”, “SSP murdabad!”

Reasi is home to some 36,000 people, where normally no more than two odd dozen policemen are deployed. But on April 25, it had more than 300 police personnel in the market area, the chowk leading to the town, and near administrative buildings.

Leading the protest was a calm and composed Raghav Sharma. He echoed a narrative akin to that in the region across the mountains, in restive Kashmir. “This is a youth movement. It’s not like the movements before. We will not stop till the FIRs against our people are revoked,” he told those gathered. “We do not support violence,” he said. “But it is only the last stage of the protest when no other way is left.”

“Cow smuggling is going on with the help of the administration,” Sharma told “At 10 pm in Kotli, 16 cows were being transported. It is not allowed to transport 16 cows in a truck,” he said, referring to the police returning the seized cows in a police truck. “Even if they had permission, why go after 6 pm? Why not in the day? This is because they wanted to take cows out of the town and remove all links to cow in this incident,” he said.

“We are peaceful people. Our beliefs are linked to gau mata,” Sharma added. “Why is the administration playing with our beliefs? We want the SSP and DSP, all who are involved to be suspended and replaced with people who will listen to us,” he said, complaining of an “unnecessary and unilateral action against Hindus”.

Sharma alleged that slogans of Pakistan Zindabad had led to the mob violence on April 21. “We condemn the violence but why is no one talking about why the incident happened?”

Sharma further claimed that many of the eleven named attackers were not present on the spot of the attack. “It is surprising that the girl [one of the victims at a press conference] named people who live far from her. It is clear that she was being told what to say. Some people want to vitiate the atmosphere in the state,” Sharma claimed. “This was pre-planned to divert attention from cow smuggling. Police did it to divert attention from the whole issue. Probably they have a link in all of this.”

“We, Hindus, are being hounded because we are a minority in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. They are trying to lower our morale so that we also leave Jammu, like in Kashmir.” Reasi, as it happens, is overwhelmingly Hindu.

If the FIRs are not quashed and all senior policemen not suspended, Sharma said, “the agitation would continue”. Before Sharma could respond to which organisation had called for the shutdown and organised the protest, a supporter shouted, “IB walon ko pata hi nahi Scroll kaunsi media hai” (“the Intelligence Bureau does not know what sort of media Scroll is”). Sharma was whisked away by the supporter.

Protestors at the fringes of the gathering, however, said they were affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Hours later, close to 6 pm, Sharma along with more than three dozen bikers, took out a rally, shouting slogans – “Bullets for India’s enemies!” – as they moved towards Talwara.

By evening the roads were covered in black soot. Goons still enforced a shutdown in the main market area even though private vehicles were allowed to move normally. In Singh’s village, Gan, however, shops remained open and no protest or resentment was visible. Singh’s shop was manned by his minor son who said Singh himself had gone to Reasi.

Singh could not be reached for a comment.

A friend of Shankhar Singh is pictured inside Singh's shop.

Communal tensions

While tensions over alleged cow smuggling are not new to the town or the Jammu region, the recent attacks on the Bakarwals has led to a ripple effect, with the Hindu groups not only intimidating the scattered but significant number of Muslim nomads but also causing deep resentment among the police establishment.

On Monday, April 24, scenes at the Reasi police station were calm but tense. Unnerved policemen stood on their feet, anxiously hovering around both parties as they spoke to reporters. In hushed tones, policemen pointed out presence of fringe Hindu groups and the volatility of the situation.

Police officials pointed out that despite the presence of Hindu groups and communal polarisation in the region, matters did not escalate to such violence in the past. “They [Hindu groups] are aghast at why the Bakerwals were provided security, and why the police took action against the attackers,” a police officer said. “In the present situation it doesn’t matter what we do. Whether we act, or don’t, we have become the villains.”

The official added that “there are many external pressures playing out in this incident”. He refused to elaborate on these external pressures.

“Both sides are using this incident to fan the flames. While one side is exploiting the Hindu sentiment, the other is manipulating the victims of the incident (for political leverage),” he said.

The present dispensation, police officials said, had emboldened the rightwing groups – the RSS and its affiliates. “They have brought the fringes into the mainstream,” said another police officer in the region. The polarisation, locals and lower rung policemen pointed out, was being targeted against Muslim police officials in Reasi.

Zero Morh, near which the mob violence against the nomads took place.

At the police station was an unidentified person who blended with the relatives of the arrested attackers. The next day the same person shared the stage with Sharma and other rightwing activists during the protest. He denied that he was present at the police station and also refused to identify himself or his organisation.

Earlier, during a sit-in, a day after the mob attacked the Bakerwals, the man leading the gathering spoke about how the Gujjar Bakerwal community was integral to the state and India. “As long as the Gujjar Bakerwals are with you (India), Jammu and Kashmir is with you. The day this community turns, Jammu and Kashmir will slip out of your hands,” the speaker warned. Videos of the sit-in are being shared among the more influential and prosperous from nomadic communities.

Meanwhile the victims alleged that a 10-year-old child had gone missing from the scene of the attack. Police officials, however, said the boy had been taken away by a relative. “The victims are doing this to build pressure,” said one police official, adding that the family had neither filed a missing complaint nor have they called off their migration.

Regardless of the actual facts, perceptions spun around the incident have led to more polarisation in the region. At Singh’s village, Muslims are being despised as “frauds” and “oppressors”, leading to an an existential dilemma for the Bakwerwals who were witness to the attack.

“We are all Indians,” said Ishitiaq Ali, a relative of Sabir Ali. “And we were very happy with life here. We cast our votes each time, sometimes returning from very far off places. Why did this happen to us?” he asked, looking at Naseem Begum, who stood with her fractured arm, at some distance.’

For 75-year-old Bakerwal Mohammad Sidiq, a resident of Talwara during the winters, the incident brought to life stories of partition. “It was like 1947 playing out in front of our eyes,” he said. “The whole settlement here fled their homes when the violence began. There was ferocious thundering when they began attacking the tinned police post.”

Denying that Sabir Ali or his family shouted pro-Pakistan slogans, Sidiq said that the victims, in distress, screamed “Allah-u-Akbar – Allah is greatest” – whose meaning and context the mob probably did not understand. It was merely remembering God in a difficult situation.

“We go to areas of Kashmir, where we face threats from militancy in the jungles and the mountains, and live discreetly to save our lives. Here, we have to face these people now. Where do we go now?” asked Sabir Ali. “The government should give us security or weapons so we can protect ourselves.”