“These are the rules of combat – if the men are bigger, if they outnumber you, the best solution is to run,” Krishna, 16, told his brother Balram.
“But Junaid and his brothers did try to run, bhai,”said Balram, 15. “Those men wouldn’t let them get off the train.”
Krishna fell silent. He had studied in the same class as Junaid in junior school, and the two became friends over their shared love of volleyball. After Junaid left Khandawli village in Faridabad, on the outskirts of Delhi, to study at a madrassa in Surat, they met less frequently, exchanging small talk when they did. But they still made sure to play at least one game of volleyball every year.
Last week, with Ramzan drawing to a close, Junaid came home from Surat. It was to be a special Eid. He and his brother Hashim had learnt to recite the Quran by heart, and as a reward, his parents had given them money to go to Old Delhi and buy themselves new clothes.
A few hours after Junaid, Hashim, their bother Shaqir, cousin Moeen, and friend Mohsin set out from home on Thursday, Krishna and the young men of Khandawli began to receive WhatsApp messages that showed Junaid’s stripped and bloodied corpse on a railway platform. The images of his body, and then a video of train’s compartment, drenched in blood, were forwarded without comment or explanation.
The men were only able to piece the story together once Junaid’s cousin, Shakeel, went to Delhi and called them to relay the news. As the boys were taking the train home in the evening from Delhi to Faridabad, an altercation over a seat had turned violent. A group of men had attacked Junaid and the others. Junaid suffered multiple stab wounds and died. Hashim and Shaqir were admitted to a hospital in New Delhi.
“If I had been on the EMU [Electrical Multiple Unit train], I would have taught those men a lesson,” Krishna said. “I’m not surprised the crowd didn’t help, a crowd is loyal to no one, especially when there is a knife involved.”
On the eve of Eid, at the heart of the village, Junaid’s parents were separated from each other in their grief, each consumed with private regret at having sent their sons to the city. His mother, Saira, sat stunned with shock, silent in a dark, closed room full of wailing women. Men streamed into the mosque to see his father, Jalaluddin, discussing the health of his surviving sons, the lack of government response, and whether the police had made any progress in finding the criminals.
Outside these demarcated spaces of mourning, on street corners and charpais in the shade, there was confusion, anger and sadness among the young men of the village.
Surrounded by the sprawl of Faridabad, Khandawli is a mere hour away from the National Capital. Its residents, the majority of whom are Muslim, travel to Delhi every day to attend college and work as telecom engineers, tele-marketers, drivers, or sit in the offices of the Delhi Jal Board.
The New Delhi Metro’s violet line stops at Escorts Munjesar, a station few kilometres short of Ballabhgarh district, in which Khandawli is located. But for most residents of the village, the EMU is a cheaper option – tickets cost between Rs 10 to Rs 12, while a Metro ticket to Old Delhi from Escort Munjesar is Rs 50. This, the men reasoned, was probably why Junaid and his brothers had chosen to travel on the EMU to get to Old Delhi.
But the EMU’s cheap seats come at a price: the train has no reserved seats, is usually at least ten to 20 minutes late, and is crowded with the kind of people Khandawli’s residents described as “anti-social elements” from the neighbouring Palwal district – “Men who gamble, smoke and regularly abuse everyone,” said Shakeel, Junaid’s cousin.
He explained: “One time I took my younger sister on the EMU and realised how unsafe it was. After that I just started avoiding it altogether…maybe Junaid didn’t know, or maybe he forgot.”
The reason his brothers were attacked, Shakeel realised later, had nothing to do with a shortage of seats. It was only when Shakeel heard Hashim recount everything that he realised the fight was an “identity attack”.
“The men pulled his cap off his head and threw it on the floor, they pulled at Hashim’s beard, called them circumcised, cow-eaters, Pakistanis,” he said. “All words to attack our faith.”
On their way home to Khandawli, Junaid and his brothers had been carrying the new clothes, perfume and shoes they had bought in Old Delhi for Eid, but no beef. In fact, Hashim had made no mention of beef in his statement from the hospital, apart from recounting all the slurs the crowd had used against him and his brother.
Shakeel was still in shock at losing Junaid, when he first saw the news stories about what happened on the EMU. The story in the nation’s widest-read daily had transformed the violent assault and lynching of his brother into a scuffle over “beef” – as if that somehow justified his death.
‘Our murders have become routine’
In Khandawli, no one believes the news channels anymore.
“Who told you the man that killed Junaid was drunk?” the crowd demanded. “Which channel was it?”
Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter – Khandawli’s residents believe all forms of social media are more trustworthy than the news channels. In fact, they blame the mainstream news media for the rise in hate crimes against Muslims.
“We thought Times Now was keeping Arnab Goswami under control, but now they are even worse,” said Shabir Khan, a 32-year-old clerk. “No one does ground reporting anymore. All the channels want is to put beef on their ticker, call [Bharatiya Janata Party spokesperson] Sambit Patra for a discussion and then move on to the next dead Muslim. The papers follow that same route.”
Said the murdered boy’s brother, Shakeel: “The man who killed my brother was not drunk. None of my brothers ever said anything about him being drunk. This is just something his lawyers are cooking up, and the media is running with the story, like they did about the rumours of beef.”
Mohammed Asruddin, a college student who was visiting home from Sonepat, asked why the media treated the murders of Muslims as exceptional events when they had actually become routine. “Has the media not noticed that there are Muslims being killed everyday?” Asruddin asked. “Why does no one link these deaths – Mohammed Akhlaq [who was lynched by a mob near the town of Dadri in Uttar Pradesh district in September 2015 after rumours that he had beef stored in his fridge], Pehlu Khan [a cattle trader who was beaten to death by a mob in Rajasthan in April], that boy in Jharkhand, the imam in Madhya Pradesh, now Junaid? Why don’t our names ever come on Narendra Modi’s Twitter, or his radio address?”
Words on the wall
Between the Metro stations of Old Faridabad and Escorts Munjesar, graffiti marks every metro pillar: “Jai Gurudev, turn vegetarian, give up eggs, meat and fish”, “Jai Gurudev, only animals eat animals”, “Jai Gurudev, save the cows”, “Jai Gurudev, make the cow our national animal”.
Khandawli’s residents say the graffiti has only appeared sometime in the last three years.
“Of course no one denies that there is Islamophobia in the world,” Shakeel said, dismissing the graffiti with a wave of his hand. “But not here, we are so close to Delhi, here no one has the time to think like this.”
Not everyone agreed. “Do you know what Negative Hinduism is?” Asruddin Khan asked, before going on to answer his own question: “Don’t worry, most Hindus don’t either – they don’t read their own books properly. It’s from MS Golwalker’s Bunch of Thoughts.”
When he first joined the Deen Bandhu Chhote Ram University of Science and Technology, Asruddin said he had heated debates on religion and politics with a classmate who wanted to join the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Much like young Junaid could recite the Quran verbatim, in college, Asruddin learnt Golwalker’s Bunch of Thoughts, a book explaining the RSS’s ideology by heart.
“Golwalker says ‘Some Hindus, are not Hindus not out of conviction, but out of reaction.’” Asruddin continued his mini-lecture, as young men gazed at him with a mixture of fascination and exasperation.
“In Bunch of Thoughts, RSS workers approach a Hindu leader demanding ban on cow slaughter. Their leader says: ‘What is the use of preventing the slaughter of useless cattle? Let them die.’ But then he agrees and says, okay, if you want my signature because Muslims are bent on cow-slaughter and we should make this an issue, I’ll give you my signature.’”
He went on: “What Golwalker tells us is that there are certain Hindus who protect the cow not because the cow is sacred to them, but because the Muslims kill it. This is Hinduism born out of reaction, a kind of ‘negative Hinduism’ It is in the RSS’s own book!”
Shabir Khan shook his head impatiently. “These are old ways of thinking,” he said. “Once the Metro comes here to Ballabhgarh, we will all be safer.”
Asruddin disagreed. On his daily Metro ride to Saket in South Delhi, he said he frequently got strange looks. People would refer to him as a “mullah” within earshot, refuse to share seats with him.
Since Junaid’s death, the boys in the village received worried phone calls every half hour, usually from elderly relatives dispensing advice: if someone slaps you, walk away. If someone tries to pick a fight, or insults you, just ignore them.
“Don’t lose your cool if someone comments on your cap or beard,” Shakeel’s mother told him, “I know you are hungry, and the weather is bad, but remember the point of your roza – it is restraint. Stay calm.”
Others, like Asad have been considering changing their appearance to look “less Muslim” – not wearing their skullcaps outside the village, or shaving off their beards, leaving the house as little as possible. Everyone looks uneasy when Asruddin points out that a simple “salaam” on the phone could give them away.
“That is how hate wins, isn’t it” Asruddin said. “They have managed to make anyone with a beard and a skull cap seem like the enemy. If I cannot wear what I want, pray in peace and go where I like, then how is this country independent?”
He took his beeping phone out of his pocket. On the line was his mother.