As Madhya Pradesh gets ready to elect its next government on Wednesday, several troubling questions loom before the electorate – the distress of farmers, the macabre piling of bodies of witnesses in the Vyapam corruption scam, continuing malnourishment and hunger, job creation failures, mounting violence against women and girls, and the inevitable anti-incumbency sentiment against a three-time chief minister.
All of these are animatedly debated at street-corner tea stalls and in the election rallies of Opposition parties. What is less discussed is that over Madhya Pradesh – like in many Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled states – a dark shadow has fallen in recent years, of hate stirred and fostered by Hindutva formations close to the ruling establishment. This erupts sometimes in lynchings and targeted violence. For the greater part, it has coloured the social fabric with foreboding and ever-lurking fear among the state’s religious minority residents – Muslims and Christians.
It was this shadow of cultivated communal hate and fear that the Karwan e Mohabbat encountered everywhere on its journeys through Madhya Pradesh this year. Attacks on Muslims over rumours of cow slaughter and smuggling, assaults on Muslim women and men in trains, and on Christians priests, nuns and ordinary worshippers based on allegations of forced religious conversions, all of these have become normalised in the social and political life of Madhya Pradesh. Newspapers and television channels in the state are either silent on this rising hate or uncritically broadcast the official majoritarian version of these events in which the victim is always guilty and the attackers righteous.
It is precisely this version that most newspapers carried of the attack this summer on two men in Satna district in which one died and the other survived with painful, permanently disabling injuries. According to news reports and the police, the predominantly Adivasi village of Amgar was unsettled and distressed by repeated incidents of cow theft and slaughter in recent months and years. On the night of May 17, some of the villagers chanced upon a group of men slaughtering bulls in the shadows of a pit adjacent to the village. They quickly gathered other villagers, and just after midnight, a crowd surrounded the pit. They caught two of the “cow killers”. The furious throng fell upon them, killing one and seriously injuring the other. They then telephoned the police, who reported that they had found in the pit two slaughtered bulls, one with his head severed. Another bull was tied close by for slaughter. The police also located in the hollow sacks full of beef.
The Karwan e Mohabbat team met the families of the two men in their homes in Maihar town. The man killed by the lynch mob was a 45-year-old tailor, Shiraz Khan, whose tiny shop stood near his small rented tenement. He had four children, and earned barely enough to feed his family.
He had left home that evening with his friend, 38-year-old Mohammed Shakeel, sometimes a truck driver and an assistant in a cycle repair shop. Khan’s wife assumed he had gone to buy supplies for the family as the Ramzan fast was to start the next day. When he did not return that evening, she began to worry. She knew that whenever he was delayed, he always called. But she could not get through to his mobile phone.
She spent a troubled night. The next morning, some neighbours came to her home and told her that her husband had been lynched. Within an hour, a large police posse surrounded their locality. The policemen drove her to the Jabalpur Metro Hospital, where she was handed the corpse of her husband. His body had been savaged, with wounds on every limb. The police wanted her to bury him as soon as possible. His companion, Shakeel, was gravely injured and admitted in the hospital’s intensive care unit, she learned.
The police first registered cases against the dead man and his friend, the victims of the attack. They were charged under various sections of the Madhya Pradesh Agricultural Cattle Preservation Act, 1959, and the Madhya Pradesh Cow Slaughter Ban Act, 2004. The police did this without any forensic testing of the meat they claimed to have found at the place where Khan was lynched. Satna Superintendent of Police Rajesh Hingerkar said the district’s civil surgeon had confirmed the meat was beef. However, the civil surgeon is not technically equipped to make such an assessment, which requires sophisticated DNA testing. A forensic expert from the Nanaji Deshmukh Veterinary Science University, Jabalpur, confirmed to News Click that it is impossible for anyone to identify a piece of meat without conducting proper tests, which would take at least three to four days in a specialised laboratory.
The police later filed criminal charges against the alleged attackers – Pawan Singh Gond, Vijay Singh Gond, Phool Singh Gond and Narayan Singh Gond. It was Pawan Singh Gond who had filed a police complaint against Khan and Shakeel for cow slaughter.
A fact-finding team led by human rights worker Asha Mishra, along with many Left activists of the state, raised doubts about the police version after they visited the village days after the lynching. The slaughter of three bulls is a massive and perilous operation in today’s political and social climate. Why would people choose to undertake this dangerous enterprise so close to the village and the highway (barely 100 metres away), where the cries of the animals would be easily heard? And why would a tailor with no experience of this work be recruited to slaughter the bulls? The activists also found that local units of the Bajrang Dal had for several months been spreading messages via WhatsApp and public meetings that Muslims were stealing and slaughtering cows and bulls, thus keeping the area on the boil. They had turned many villagers against the Muslim “cow-killers”. Bajrang Dal workers also routinely stopped vehicles carrying animals and extorted money from the transporters. Several villagers testified that Bajrang Dal activists had gathered at the site of the lynching even before the police got there, and had then worked closely with the police. The villagers were convinced the lynching was part of a planned conspiracy.
The Karwan team also met the survivor of the attack, Shakeel. He was still in great pain, barely able to walk. The x-rays of his hands showed multiple rods and screws – it seemed unlikely that he would be able to use his hands again.
He was anxious about his fate: what work would he now do as his hands could neither hold the steering wheel of a truck nor repair cycles? Besides, the police had filed criminal charges against him for slaughtering bulls – charges he rejected, claiming he had never touched the animals.
Shakeel told us he had accompanied Khan that day to help him collect money he had loaned to some villagers. They also wanted to meet a prospective groom for a young girl in the family. On the way back, the two had got off a bus to walk some 2 km to the road from where they planned to stop a truck and get a lift home. This was when they were accosted by a group of young men who asked them their names. “We told them our names,” Shakeel recalled. “They said these two are Muslims, and started beating us up.” Shakeel and Khan collapsed. One of the assailants called the police, apparently reporting an accident. Two police vehicles came. Shakeel said both he and Khan were in the same vehicle, but he soon lost consciousness. When he regained consciousness, he found himself alone in the vehicle. There was no sign of Khan. Shakeel was driven to the Satna hospital, where doctors told the police that he needed expert treatment in Jabalpur. There, he was admitted to a private hospital where surgeons worked over several days to pin his hands back into shape.
Shakeel does not know whether Khan died on the spot or was alive when the police reached him. The civil surgeon who conducted the autopsy has recorded that Khan had multiple bruises over his body, injuries to his internal organs and intensive internal haemorrhage. Khan had fallen into a state of shock because of the blood loss. Cardiac arrest led to death. Khan’s teenaged son Imran, who bathed his father’s body before burial, said his left eye had been gouged out and his neck broken, as were his wrists.
Recording the collateral costs extracted by the lynching, my Karwan colleague John Dayal said Khan’s widow, Saida ul Nissa, “has no means of livelihood and is currently living in a room given [to] her by her brother. She has aged and looks older than her 40 or 42 years. With four children to look after, she has no financial reserves. She has closed her husband’s tailoring shop. She in fact can stitch clothes and used to help her husband. No one in the government has offered help or rehabilitation. There is no talk of any ex-gratia grant”.
He added, “Then, there is Shanno Bano, perhaps in her 20s, with two children, whose husband Mohammed Shakeel miraculously survived a murderous attack by a lynch mob. Hers is a story very different from most. She had apparently separated from her husband, everyone had told us. Till she got a phone call telling her that her husband was lying near dead. Without locking her door, she rushed to the Satna hospital. ‘It is Allah’s mercy he is alive, there was no hope,’ she said. She had to be a nurse to her husband around the clock. From feeding him to everything else that needs be done for a man who cannot use his hands.”
Two days after the Karwan e Mohabbat team visited his home in Satna, we got news that the police had arrested Mohammed Shakeel. Barely able to walk or use his hands and still in crippling pain, he was now in prison. His attackers, meanwhile, have walked free from prison. This is the justice of the majoritarian Hindutva state of Madhya Pradesh. The people of the state will have to choose if this is the government they seek.