On the night of April 21, a Hindu mob attacked a family of nomadic herders in Jammu’s Reasi district, accusing them of transporting cows illegally. The next day, a video of the mob’s brutality went viral. They spared neither a nine-year-old girl, nor a 65-year-old silver-haired man, battering him to the ground.

When I landed in Reasi three days later, the town was engulfed in an unnatural silence. I checked into the first hotel I spotted and dashed off to the police station, where I was told I would find both the attackers and their victims.

The station was as noisy as the town was still. Near the gates, I recognised a policeman from the video of the attack: the footage showed him being heckled. In the compound, the victims were being escorted into a police vehicle to be taken to their village some 10 kms away. They were being watched silently by the relatives of the 11 men arrested for the attack. A man with a saffron tilak on his forehead sprang into action to deal with the officials on behalf of the relatives of the attackers.

As I was interviewing the victims and the officials about the incident, I received a text message from a senior police official saying I had been noticed by the local administration. “Don’t take extra risk,” he advised. I did not take his advice lightly. My experience reporting in Kashmir on situations mobs or security forces or both has taught me to avoid getting caught in the middle. Very often, crowds see journalists in the region as “agents of the state” while some officials view reporters as being sympathetic to troublemakers.

Two hours later, I headed back to the hotel, which had already downed its shutters even though it was just 6.30 pm. The hotel staff were unsure of what might happen in the morning. One of them told me that members of organisations associated with the Sangh Parivar had made the rounds of the town on motorcycles earlier, announcing a shutdown. As I reviewed my notes in my hotel room, I received another text message from the police officer: leave town and get back to Jammu, where it was safer. I had spoken to the victim’s families briefly and could not speak to the main accused in the attack. I decided to stay the night. I fastened the bolts on my door and pushed a glass-topped table against it.

Sabir Ali (front), Abida Bibi (left), and Naseem Begum being escorted to their home in a police vehicle. Credit: Rayan Naqash

The next morning, Reasi was even quieter. The police had put up barricades on the road to the station. A spool of concertina wire was stretched over locked iron gates. I heard a noise in the distance. A crowd had gathered at the bus stand and was shouting slogans denouncing “gau taskari”, or cow trafficking. The sight of dozens of men in saffron scarves made me conscious of my Muslim identity. Being Kashmiri felt like an added disadvantage. I dared not approach them.

An hour later, the crowd assembled under a tree, close to a signboard declaring all gatherings were prohibited. A group of security personnel stood close by. A young bearded man made an angry speech to the crowd. After he finished, I asked to interview him.

Raghav Sharma, a member of the Bajrang Dal, spoke to me courteously. But as we spoke, a crowd started forming around us. My eyes searched nervously for members of the security forces but with each word that Sharma spoke, they seemed to recede further away. I felt suffocated and started sweating. Suddenly, a man from the crowd pushed himself to the front.

When he came within arm’s length of me, he shouted: “Aap kaun hai? IB walon ko pata hi nahi Scroll kaunsi media hai. Ye kya tareeqa hai interview lene ka?” Who are you? The Intelligence Bureau does not even know what kind of publication Scroll is. What kind of interview is this?

Sharma managed to calm the man down.

I decided to take a taxi to meet the families of the attackers and their victims in their villages. Despite myself, I immediately registered the fact that the driver was Hindu. But as he drove a along the bumpy road, I calmed down. Pawan turned out to be a happy-go-lucky gent and we spent the six hour long journey talking about life, the easy-going pace of Jammu, and the hypocrisy behind the events in Reasi.

After meeting the victims’ family, we turned towards Gan village, less than a km by foot but about three or four kms up a winding and dusty hilly road. There, the reason for the attack became clearer. It was not so much about gau raksha, or cow protection, as it was about settling personal scores. The main person accused of leading the attack was a shopkeeper who was owed money by a member of the victims’ family. The day his supporters had enforced a shutdown in the town, his shop had remained open.

Sometime later, I spotted Sharma again. He was leading a rally of at least four dozen motorcycles and twice as many men towards the nomad settlement. “Bharat ke gaddaron ko, goli maro salon ko,” they shouted. Traitors to India, shoot them. Seeing me, one biker stretched out his arm towards me, his thumb raised and two fingers pointed at me, shooting at me with his mock gun.

The following evening, one of the hotel staff who arranged the taxi, called me to say that the Hindu group had come looking for me and asked him where I had got down in Jammu. Though he assured me that he had not disclosed the name of the hotel I had checked into. I switched hotels the next morning.

Three days later, I was in a taxi headed back to Srinagar, thinking about how easily I had been made conscious and insecure about my identity. It doesn’t take much to feel suspicious about a stranger based on a mark on their forehead or a beard – but sometimes, all it takes to break through that prejudice is a conversation.

Read Rayan Naqash’s story on the violence in Jammu here.