On April 7, the day Shaukat Ali was assaulted and forced to eat pork for selling buffalo meat at his eatery in Assam, he had hidden the saucepan with the meat stew in a sack.
Earlier in the week, a few young men had come to his eatery in the biweekly market that convenes in Biswanath Chariali area of Biswanath district every Thursday and Sunday, and expressed their displeasure that he served “goru’r mangso”, the generic Assamese word for all bovine meat.
Kamal Thapa, one of the mahaldars (managers) of the market, had turned them away that day. “What is your problem?” Thapa had purportedly told them, and shooed them off.
On Sunday morning, four other mahaldars turned up at Ali’s eatery. They told him that the young men had returned the previous day and demanded that buffalo meat must not be sold in the market henceforth.
“They said that if I had brought any buffalo meat with me, I should send it back or throw it away,” Ali recounted.
Ali’s family, starting with his father, has been running this eatery for 40 years, serving among other things buffalo meat, which they made a point to always cook at home and never at the eatery.
Better to be safe than sorry, Ali heeded the mahaldars and hid the buffalo meat he had brought with him that day.
“That day I only served broiler [chicken] and fish,” he said.
But at around 3.30 pm, when the young men returned to the market and raided his tiny eatery, they found the saucepan of meat ensconced in the sack.
All hell broke loose.
“Bangladeshi, m***********r, you think this is Pakistan?” Ali recalled one of the young men asking him.
“Bangladeshi” is a commonly-used slur in Assam where the spectre of undocumented migration forms the centrepiece of the state’s identity politics.
The men, more than a dozen according to Ali, did not stop there. They went on a rampage: destroying everything they could find in his sparse eatery. “They broke all the desks and dumped the utensils and gas cylinders into a nearby ditch,” said Ali.
Ali then rushed to the mahaldars for help, but did not receive any. “They asked me to get out from there,” he claimed. “So, I decided to run as I was scared they would hit me.”
But as he tried to flee, he ran into one of the mahaldars on the road, said Ali. He claimed that the mahaldar accosted him, made him ride pillion on his motorbike, and then deposited him at a nearby shop.
The young men who had ransacked his eatery soon arrived and pounced upon him, he said. “They hit me with sticks, kicked me all over, then dragged me to a corner in the market and again beat me up,” said Ali.
The rest of the attack is on video, shot in all likelihood by one of his assaulters: Ali kneeling down in slush, surrounded by an irate mob, bombarding him with hostile questions: “Why are you selling beef?” “Do you have a license to sell beef?” “Are you Bangladeshi?” “Is your name in the NRC [National Register of Citizens]?”
Assam is currently updating its National Register of Citizens. Meant to be a roster of all the “genuine” Indian citizens living in Assam, the register is being updated for the first time since 1951.
Ali’s name does feature on the updated registry, said his family. “Everyone on our family is on the NRC [National Register of Citizens],” said his brother Abdul Rahman, who has an Assamese Bihu song as his caller-tune. “My great-grandfather was born here in Darrang district.”
Ali’s ordeal did not end there. As seen in the video, Ali was then force-fed pork, a meat that Islam forbids the consumption of.
When he hesitates, one of the assailants sternly instructs him to swallow the piece of meat.
Ali is now in hospital, nursing injuries all over his body.
But the humiliation far exceeded the physical pain, he said. “Fine, they beat me up,” Ali said. “But why did they force me to eat pork? We only sell buffalo meat because Hindus do not eat there.”
His brother, a teacher in a lower primary school, was equally distraught, often breaking down in the middle of conversations. “If they thought my brother was doing a mistake, they could have called the police,” Rahman said. “But why force him to eat pork? All of us have some kind of reverence towards our faith. After what he had to go through he might as well be dead.”
Cattle slaughter is not banned in Assam. Unlike many other Indian states, the law in Assam also does not distinguish between buffaloes and cows or bulls. The Assam Cattle Preservation Act of 1950 allows the slaughter of cattle over 14 years of age, or those incapable of work or for use in breeding.
The law stipulates that such cattle will be given a “fit-for-slaughter certificate” by a doctor of the state animal husbandry and welfare department, but in practice such certificates are rarely issued.
The police arrested one man on Tuesday and are on the lookout for the others seen in the video. “We will take action as per law,” said district police chief Rakesh Roushan, even as he insisted it was not a “not a matter of communal tension”.
Rahman said he hoped the incident does not take a communal turn. “We have been assured by the police that the culprits will be arrested, we do not want to blame all Hindus, we just want the guilty to be punished,” he said.
While Assam has always been fraught with ethnic tensions, the last couple of years has also seen Hindutva making a silent entry into the state, coinciding with the BJP’s rise.
The run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha polls and 2016 Assembly elections were marked by several beef-related incidents of violence in the state.
Biswanth, part of the Tezpur Lok Sabha constituency, votes later this week on April 11.
Ali said he was hurt that he was targeted for his religion in the place he grew up. “My father ran this eatery for 40 years,” he said. “Everyone knew, but no one ever objected. He died feeding people.”
Will he ever go back to running the eatery?
“The mahaldar has said I can, but I cannot sell goru’r mangsho,” he said. “That is okay, I will sell broiler [chicken] and fish.”