It was raining outside the Jai Prakash Narain Central Jail in Ranchi on Friday. Seven members of a lynch mob walked out of the gates; one had been released a day earlier. Convicted in March by a lower court for publicly lynching a man in Ramgarh on charges of carrying beef, the Jharkhand High Court, hearing their appeal, had ordered their release on bail last month.
A crowd had gathered to greet them outside the prison. A scramble ensued between two groups over who would drive off with the released men. One of the groups was made up of supporters of the former Bharatiya Janata Party MP from Ramgarh Shankar Chowdhary, the other was led by the Ramgarh district BJP president Pappu Bannerjee, who owes allegiance to Union Minister of State for Civil Aviation Jayant Sinha. The latter won out, and six of the released men were bundled into their waiting vehicles like a prize. They headed directly to Sinha’s bungalow. There, the minister greeted the six men with marigold garlands, shared sweets in celebration of their release on bail, and posed for photographs with the beaming men.
The scenes outside the prison in Ranchi bring back memories we associate with India’s freedom struggle. Political workers jailed for their principled, fearless struggles – mostly non-violent, on occasion violent – against British colonial authority would be detained, sometimes for years. On their release, they would be greeted as heroes, in the way the six men were honoured. But who were the heroes the Union minister chose to honour? What battle were they fighting? Whose blood had they shed, and why?
In our journey of the Karwan e Mohabbat last September, we met the family of the person for whose murder these men were convicted. Their victim, Amiluddin Ansari, was a small-time coal trader (not a meat trader, as many news reports claim erroneously). On the morning of June 27, 2017, he left his small three-room home in Manua village in his Maruti van and drove to the district headquarters in Ramgarh. There, he found his path blocked by a large crowd baying for his blood, accusing him of killing a cow and carrying its meat in his car. A man, later identified from a videotape as Nityanand Mahto, the district BJP’s media in-charge, dragged Ansari out of his car and handed him over to the burgeoning, feverish mob. A large pile of red meat had appeared mysteriously on the road, the size of a dead cow, around 200 kg. The crowd claimed this was the meat of a cow Ansari had killed (unable to explain why a man would carry 200 kg of meat in his car). They fell upon the man, thrashing him pitilessly. Others overturned his car, vandalised and gutted it. Some young men in the crowd filmed his lynching – you can see their laughing faces in the videos they circulated on WhatsApp, even as their hapless victim was being beaten to death.
One of those who received a video of the lynching on his smartphone was Ansari’s 16-year-old son Shahban, who was alone at home at that time. It is gruelling even to imagine his horror when he clicked on his phone to see a videotape of his father being lynched, just at the time when the mob was still attacking him, when he was close to death. He jumped on to a two-wheeler parked in his home, which he did not know how to drive, in a desperate and hopeless bid to save his father. But he could not drive far as he crashed his scooter. Injured, he called his mother and brother Shehzad, older by a couple of years. By the time they reached Ramgarh, Ansari was dead. It was an agonising trial for the family even to claim his savaged body from the police for his last rites.
When we met Ansari’s widow Mariam Khatoon in her home, we found her in immense grief, but composed and determined to fight for justice. Fortunately, the police conducted a fair investigation, arrested and charged 11 men – including workers of the BJP and the Hindutva group Bajrang Dal – for the murder, and there was an exemplary swift and fair trial in the district court. The supporters of the accused men tried to intimidate the witnesses. In one of the hearings, the wife of a key witness left the court with Ansari’s son on a scooter to photo-copy a document. A truck rammed the scooter outside the court and killed the women. Despite all these odds, less than a year after the murder, the judge convicted the 11 men and sentenced them life in jail. This was the first major conviction in the current rash of murders by lynch mobs. Khatoon expressed satisfaction with the justice that was secured, and with exceptional grace and compassion for one whose husband had met such a horrendous end, she declared that she did not wish for the men to be awarded the death penalty. She sought justice, she said, not revenge for her husband’s killing.
Fight for credit
But her satisfaction was to be short-lived, as the Jharkhand High Court granted the convicted men bail on June 29. Among the most influential supporters of the men during the trial and appeal was Jayant Sinha. Ramgarh district BJP leader Pappu Bannerjee claims with pride that the minister raised resources for their legal defence. But the former MLA Chowdhary claims he did more to assist the men than the Union minister. A report in The Indian Express points to the irony that the photograph of the minister with the released men has spurred turmoil within the party, not because any party leader was dismayed by the propriety of the minister’s validation of men convicted of lynching an unarmed man. On the contrary, the tussle was over who deserved recognition and acclaim for getting the convicted men bail. The faction led by Chowdhary was reportedly peeved that the minister was “trying to take credit” for the release of the men. In defence of Sinha, Bannerjee claimed the “perception that the minister came into the picture at a later stage is wrong”. The report quoted him as saying that the minister “was keeping an eye on the whole thing. We never expected the kind of judgement that was delivered by the trial court. We realised we had to fight the case in the High Court strongly. So, Sinhaji met the advocate who was fighting the case and took things forward from there”.
Social media exploded with outrage at the fact that a man of Sinha’s education and privilege could extend support to men convicted of lynching. Sinha was raised in privilege and educated in some of the world’s most reputed institutions. Born in Giridih in Jharkhand, where his father Yashwant Sinha then served in the Indian Administrative Service, he graduated from the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, in 1985. Later, he enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania for a Master of Science in Energy Management and Policy, and went on to obtain an MBA from Harvard Business School. He worked in McKinsey and Company in Boston, where he became a partner, followed by leadership positions in other information technology and hedge fund companies, before he returned to India to join politics.
The leader of the Opposition in the Jharkhand Assembly and Jharkhand Mukti Morcha leader Hemant Soren – Ramgarh is part of his constituency – described Sinha’s endorsement of the convicted killers as “despicable” in a tweet in which he tagged Harvard University:
In the doublespeak that his party is well-known for, Sinha replied that he was only honouring the due process of law, and that the men released on bail were innocent. What he papered over was that these men were not just accused but convicted of the crime of murder by lynching. They were released on bail by the High Court, not acquitted of their crimes. He never once expressed grief at the suffering of the victim or visited or supported his family in any way. His father, Yashwant Sinha, for long a senior leader of the BJP who has in recent times been a vocal detractor of the party, criticised his son’s action after the social media storm rose.
But his censure carries little credibility, because he could not have been unaware of his son’s support to the alleged killers over the past few months, yet he did not find it necessary to distance himself or criticise his actions until public anger called to question the credibility of his own revolt against the BJP. He too never extended support or sympathy to the family who lost a husband and a father to hate violence. The elder Sinha was a member of the BJP for decades, before finally resigning from the party in April, and never had any problems with its anti-minority politics and the role of the Sangh in fomenting hate violence in the past. The columnist Apoorvanand has written of the openly communal incitement to communal violence father and son resorted to in Hazaribagh in the not too distant past.
In a long line
Jayant Sinha is not alone in his cabinet, and indeed in his party, for publicly honouring people charged with murder by lynching of Muslim men. His cabinet colleague Mahesh Sharma wrapped in the national flag the body of a man accused of being part of the mob that lynched Mohammed Akhlaq in a village in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh, in 2015 over rumours that he had stored beef in his kitchen. The accused had died of illness in prison. A Rajasthan BJP minister and a parliamentarian were part of a WhatsApp group that hailed Shambhu Regar, who had choreographed his murder of a Muslim man Afrazul in Rajsamand, as “Sher e Mewar” (lion of Mewar) last year. The group raised Rs 3 lakh for Regar’s legal defence in three days. The Rajasthan home minister declared dairy farmer Pehlu Khan, who was lynched by a mob near Alwar in 2017, a cattle smuggler. This year, BJP supporters protested the arrest of men charged with the gangrape and murder of a child in Jammu’s Kathua district and an impoverished goat trader and marginal farmer in Hapur. The list is endless. And through all of this, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has never once expressed compassion, even less regret, about the lynching and bludgeoning of Muslims.
Those who lynched Amiluddin Ansari on the streets of Ramgarh are criminals deserving severe punishment under the law of the land. But make no mistake. The crime of Jayant Sinha and others in his cabinet and his party, who have cynically and perilously created this permissive environment for hate, is far graver. Sinha’s public garlanding of men convicted of publicly murdering an innocent man is part of a massive ongoing project of the BJP-Sangh to legitimise, even valourise, hate violence targeting Muslims.
It is for this reason that I describe the hate violence swirling through our land as “command hate”. It is not my claim that BJP leaders – Amit Shah, Mahesh Sharma, Jayant Sinha and many others, and in the last resort their ultimate leader Prime Minister Narendra Modi – are actually organising lynch gangs. What they are doing instead is to encourage, and even on occasions like this, lionise hate killers when the targets of their violence are Muslims. By this, they paint Muslims as the permanent and dangerous enemy within, which is at the core of the Sangh worldview. Therefore, any attack on them – the violence of the lynch mob or the Twitter troll – is portrayed as nationalist and heroic. It is this moral messaging that spurs lynch mobs in every corner of the country to turn upon their victims with the cruelty and loathing that has penetrated the souls of young people, even children. My colleagues in the Karwan e Mohabbat and I recently returned from Hapur, where a call from the temple drew even boys of 12 and 13 to attack their two impoverished Muslim neighbours with anything they could find, even screw-drivers and pens.
When the history of these times is written, let it be said that the crime of Jayant Sinha and his ilk is to have poisoned India’s bloodstream with a toxic hate. Their felony is more grievous, more dangerous, more horrific than the bloody acts of public violence and terror, because these are annihilating India’s moral core.