At 3 am on Wednesday, Meenu Begum woke up to loud banging. She hurriedly opened the door of her home in Khailia Kalyanpur village in Bulandshahr district of Uttar Pradesh. It was the police, asking for her husband Banne Khan. They yelled from outside, asking if Khan could help them with directions to a neighbouring village. No sooner had the 42-year-old construction worker wrapped a shawl around himself and stepped out of his brick home, he was dragged to a police jeep that drove off right away, according to his wife.

Around the same time, 45 km away in Dilli Darwaja Mohalla in Bulandshahr’s Aurangabad town, another police team stood outside the home of Asif, 24. They, too, came looking for directions. When Asif’s brother Alam offered his assistance, the police insisted it had to be Asif. Seconds after Asif emerged from his room, where his wife and children still slept, he was whisked away in a police van, said Aslam, who owns a dairy. Asif lives with his family in Mumbai, where he owns a watch repair shop, and had come home on November 27 to attend the Tablighi Ijtema, a three-day congregation of Muslims, his relatives said.

Both Banne Khan and Asif were arrested on allegations of illegally slaughtering cows in Mahaw village on Monday morning. The discovery of the carcasses in a field had led to mob violence in Chingrawathi village, 4 km away, in which a police inspector and a 20-year-old student were killed.

Strikingly, Khan’s village is 75 km from Mahaw while Asif’s village is 20 km away in another direction. Two other men were arrested from Nayabaans village, some 7 km from Mahaw, on Friday. The police claim the four men from three villages, situated far away, met in Mahaw to slaughter cows. The police have so far neither traced the vehicle in which the men allegedly transported the cows, nor recovered any instrument with which they might have slaughtered the animals. There is no clear evidence of a fresh slaughter other than a complaint.

That complaint too has a problem. It was filed at the Siyani police station on Monday by Bajrang Dal activist and Nayabaans resident Yogesh Raj – who is the prime accused in a second case filed in connection with Monday’s mob violence and is absconding. In his complaint, Raj says he saw seven Muslim men slaughter cows while he was out on a morning walk. But in a video statement on Wednesday, he contradicted his statement to the police by saying he rushed to the spot where the carcasses were found after he was informed of their presence.

Added to that is the testimony of Siyana Tehsildar Raj Kumar Bhaskar, who saw the carcasses on the day they came to light and thought them to be several days old. Bhaskar also raised the question that has remained unanswered so far: “Dead cow meat was hanging in a sugarcane field. Head and skin of a cow hung as if they [were] clothes on a hanger. It is strange because anybody who would indulge in cow slaughter would not put it out for display, knowing the situation in the state. It was visible from far away.”

One of the two men arrested from Nayabaans, Sarfuddin has a personal conflict with Raj, the arrested man’s brother Mohammad Hussain and fellow villagers claimed. Hussain, a Samajwadi Party worker, said the conflict stemmed from Hindu-Muslim discord over a mosque in the village that broke out over three years ago. Sarfuddin was among those entrusted with the management of the mosque. Hussain pointed out that the trouble had started as the Bajrang Dal gained prominence in the area.

The mob violence on Monday left a police inspector and a student dead. (Credit: Abhishek Dey)

Police claims

Following the events on Monday, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath set up a Special Investigation Team to look into the mob violence. However, matters soon took a controversial turn with the Uttar Pradesh Police chief OP Singh alleging a “big conspiracy” in the entire episode and a senior police officer in Bulandshahr suggesting the investigation into the cow slaughter case be given priority over the mob violence case, justifying that doing this would automatically help solve the second other.

To get clarity into the matter, interviewed Superintendent of Police (Bulandshahr city) Praveen Kumar Singh, a member of the Special Investigation Team, on Friday. This is what he said:

Were those actually cow carcasses that were recovered from the field in Mahaw?
Prima facie yes. The final report is yet to come from the forensic laboratory.

How many carcasses were recovered?
We recovered three heads. So, for now, we shall go with three.

How did the carcasses reach the field?
The accused took the cows there for slaughter.

Do you see any conspiracy here?
No. It was carelessness on the part of the accused, who left the discarded remains in the field and fled.

How old were the carcasses?
Only the forensic report can answer that.

Did you recover any meat?
No. The meat acquired from all three cows was consumed.

Consumed in one day?
We cannot comment on that.

How did the accused bring the cows to the field in Mahaw? Did you recover any vehicle?
We are looking into that. No vehicle has been recovered so far.

Did you recover any instrument with which the cows were slaughtered?
No. Teams are looking out for that.

Where did you arrest the four persons from?

Are they related?
They knew each other.

What were they doing in Siyana when they are not residents of Siyana?
Cow slaughter.

Where did they get the cows from?
We have not been able to ascertain that yet.

Usual suspects

Some striking similarities and unsettling patterns have emerged in the arrest of the four men mentioned above.

Both men from Nayabaans, 36-year-old Sarfuddin and 26-year-old Sajid, surrendered at the Siyani police station on Tuesday morning, hours after the police sent word to their homes, their families confirmed. Sarfuddin owns a fabric shop while Sajid, who left the village 10 years ago, runs a cigarette kiosk in Faridabad, Haryana.

Both men also attended the Tablighi Ijtema at Dariyapuri mosque 40 km from their village. Their relatives said they know each other simply as fellow residents of Nayabaans and had met at the Ijtema after years. Sarfuddin was in charge of managing bus parking at the Ijtema, a volunteer pass he had left at home showed. His relatives said he left home on November 30 and returned early on Tuesday.

Asif and his family also participated in the Ijtema but his relatives said they were not familiar with any residents of Nayabaans. Khan, meanwhile, was in a neighbouring village working on the renovation of the village head’s house. He did not attend the religious congregation, his relatives said.

The police have so far evaded questions on how the four are connected to each other.

Several police teams were deployed at the three-day congregation. The roadblock on Monday also demanded urgent police intervention as the Ijtema procession was to take that route. The route was later diverted, the district administration said.

Sarfuddin and Sajid do not have past criminal records but Banne Khan and Asif do, according to the police. And their police history has led to more questions.

Sarfuddin's family claims his police record makes him an easy target. (Credit: Abhishek Dey)

Khan was detained in Ahmedgarh village in Bullandshahr three years ago for killing a nilgai. “A Jat farmer facing trouble from nilgais destroying his crop called him for help,” his wife Meenu Begum said. “My husband was hired to chase away one of them and the animal was hit by a car while running towards the road. He [Khan] was taken to the police station and his name marked in the police books.” A senior officer at the Ahmedgarh police station confirmed Khan was a “miscreant” in their books. Given his history, his family claims Khan is an easy target for the police to frame in a cow slaughter case.

Asif was arrested in 2015 for renting out his minitruck for transporting a cow without adequate documents, his brother Aslam said. Police intercepted the truck with the cow, which was on its way from Siyana to a dairy in Garh. The driver called up Asif and he was arrested. Asif later jumped bail and, therefore, did not get back his confiscated vehicle. In the same year, he moved to Mumbai with his family.

Apart from Asif, the police arrested two other men, Alim and Zubair, from the Dilli Darwaja Mohalla on Wednesday in connection with the cow slaughter case. Police records show the two are also blacklisted individuals. A police officer said knives were recovered from their possession and they suspect these were used to threaten people and carry out thefts.