Harsh Mander: When our caravan of love defied threats of violence to pay tribute to Pehlu Khan

On September 14, the Karwan-e-Mohabbat was threatened not to visit Behror, where the dairy farmer was killed in April.

On September 4, a group of activists set out on a month-long journey across India, called the Karwan-e-Mohabbat or the caravan of love, to spread the message of love and peace to counter a growing wave of intolerance across the country. Harsh Mander chronicles eventful moments of the journey, which ends at Porbandar on October 2. You can read more about their mission here and here.

On the 10th day of the Karwan-e-Mohabbat, as we met bereaved and grieving families – Muslim families that had lost their loved ones to cow vigilantism or police aggression – in five villages of the Nuh district of Mewat, we got news of anger and hostility to the advance of our peace caravan to Behror in Alwar district. This town, on the highway crossing between Rajasthan and Haryana, was where dairy farmer Pehlu Khan had been lynched by a mob on April 1. Khan, who was on his way back to his home in Nuh district after buying cows from Jaipur, was accosted by a group of men claiming to be gau rakshaks. They accused him of stealing the cattle even though he reportedly showed them documents saying the animals had been purchased legally.

Earlier that day, it had been reported that the police had closed investigations against the six people whom Khan had named as part of the murderous mob that attacked him before he succumbed to his injuries. They cleared the six after employees of a cow shelter in Alwar said the accused had been at the shelter when the lynching took place.

The Karwan had resolved to place flowers at the site of Khan’s lynching on September 15 in his memory and the memory of others like him who fell to hate violence. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the Hindu Jagran Manch and the Bajrang Dal announced that they would not allow the Karwan to enter Behror and pay our tributes at the site of the lynching. The local organisers were told we would be met with sticks and stones if we entered. The owners of the hall where we were to hold a peace meeting cancelled on us and no one was willing to give us a venue.

We in the Karwan resolved that we would proceed to Behror to remember Khan despite the mob opposition. In Alwar, where we arrived to spend the night, senior police and administrative officials tried to persuade us to bypass Behror. We courteously but firmly refused, and said we would visit the police station in Behror to express our disappointment about how the police had let off the men mentioned in Khan’s dying declaration as well as the criminalising of Khan and his sons. We would then place flowers at the site of his lynching. The police officers said no one had been allowed to do this so far. We argued – how can an administration block a Karwan that has set out to try to offer a little solace to families bereaved by hate lynching from paying tribute to a lynched man’s memory?

Blocked at Behror

Friday, the 11th day of the Karwan, became one of unexpected confrontation and tension.

The Alwar district administration again tried hard to persuade us to bypass the site of Khan’s lynching in Behror. They had agreed to my request to visit the Behror police station and ask the police a few hard questions about their investigations into the lynching, but they were resolute to not permit us to place flowers at the site at which he was killed by the mob.

The district officers who met me said that violent mobs had gathered with stones to block our passage. I remained determined. I told them that I was convinced that we could not allow a mob to violently block a small mission of love and solace.

I spoke to my fine members of the Karwan. All the participants unanimously supported my decision to defy the orders of the administration and place flowers at the place where Khan had been lynched. However, I was unwilling to put any of them in any danger, except the unavoidable possibility of the stoning of our bus. I, therefore, insisted that they remain at the bus, while I alone would go the site to place the flowers on behalf of the entire Karwan.

There was both tension as well as cheer and determination among my co-travellers in the Karwan. Before we reached the police station, a small group of villagers in Barod village blocked our path. We found that this was a group of people who had gathered at an early hour to greet us with rousing slogans, flower garlands and steaming morning tea. At that fraught moment, their gesture was all the more welcome, They, including the Hindu Sarpanch, made a few impromptu stirring speeches, about the importance of fighting the politics of hate that divide us.

We then drove to the police station. The additional superintendent of police and additional district magistrate were present there to answer our questions. The closure of cases against men mentioned in Khan’s dying declaration, they said, was a decision by the state CID, and they could not comment on it. But I told them that it was they, the local police, who registered criminal cases against the victims of the lynching, dubbing them criminals, immediately after they had been brutalised by a hate mob. I said that it is the duty of the police to defend both the victim and truth. Why did they let them down so badly? They had no answer.

Guns and roses

After we emerged from the police station, the administration again tried to dissuade me from the small journey of a few hundred yards to the spot at which I would place the flowers. They said that a furious mob had gathered there with stones and sticks and would cause me harm. I said I was prepared for it, and would not agree to discarding the plans of a floral tribute. I said I would go there alone as I did not want to risk any of my Karwan colleagues being attacked or hit by a stone.

I told the policepersons that from my years of experience as a district officer, I knew that it would have been simple to prevent or disperse the small crowd of protestors armed with stones. The senior police officer answered me hotly, saying, “They have the constitutional right to protest”.

I answered, “I am not sure that anyone has a constitutional right to protest with violence. But even if you so believe, then surely I have at least the same constitutional right to protest armed with nothing other than flowers.”

I began to walk to the site, but the police blocked me. I then sat on the ground in a spontaneous dharna. They would have to either arrest me, or allow me to walk to the location and make my floral tribute. I sat for about half an hour, as they confabulated.

Finally they relented.

With two fistfuls of marigold flowers, and surrounded by a few police officials, I walked the couple of hundred yards to the spot where the ageing Khan had been cruelly lynched. It was a dirty, nondescript stretch of a sidewalk. I knelt down there, and said, “I am not a believer, so I cannot pray. But I believe in insaniyat aur insaaf humanism and justice. Therefore, for humanism and justice, I place these flowers here. In memory not just of Pehlu Khan, but of hundreds of others like him who have fallen to hate violence across our land.”

I returned to the bus, and the police bundled us in rapidly. As we drove past, the protesting men threw a few stones at the bus.

On the way, people of the small town of Kothputli had planned a small welcome for the Karwan. But in the presence of the police, a bunch of young men arrived, tore down the banners and threw away the flowers, The police said they were helpless to stop them. The police then asked just two organisers to meet the bus outside the police station. I emerged with a couple of colleagues, and the policemen said we had only a couple of minutes. They handed over packets of packed breakfast, and a few men gathered. One of them took off his shoe to throw (at us) as the bus drove away.

The Karwan now had police escort vehicles both ahead and following the bus. It was only with this that the state administration would allow the Karwan to travel through Rajasthan. A sad day when a caravan of love can travel only with the protection of the police. We don’t need or deserve protection. It is the bereaved families we have met in these days of our journey whom the police should protect but have failed so profoundly.

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