On June 18, as the newly elected Lok Sabha began its term in Delhi, a slogan rang out in Parliament: “Jai Shri Ram”, Victory to Lord Ram. Legislators from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party lobbed this slogan at members of the Opposition, particularly Muslim MPs, as they took oath.

Just ten days later, in Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh, 17-year-old Mohammed Taj was returning home in the evening from the madrassa where he studied when a group of motorcyclists blocked his way. They asked him to chant “Jai Shri Ram”, he said. When he refused, they assaulted him and snatched his namaaz cap, he alleged.

More than 1,000 km away, in Aurangabad, Maharashtra, 28-year-old Imran Patel gave in when he was similarly accosted by a hostile group on July 19. He said “Jai Shri Ram” four times. Despite this, the men hit and kicked him, he alleged. They even raised a brick in the air, according to an eyewitness, who raised the alarm, causing them to flee.

“Jai Shri Ram” became the slogan of Hindu nationalists in the late 1980s when a movement gained force to build a temple for the Hindu god Ram at the site of a mosque in Ayodhya, four hours east of Kanpur. The slogan was used to rally Hindus, and the mosque, Babri Masjid, was eventually demolished by a mob on the afternoon of December 6, 1992.

In May this year, after the BJP won the Lok Sabha elections, the slogan returned to the national limelight, acquiring a more menacing edge: several Muslims alleged they were coerced into chanting it, through the use of verbal abuse and physical violence.

The alleged assault on Mohammed Taj was the fifth such instance reported in the media after the slogan-shouting in Indian Parliament. Since he was attacked, another 13 instances have been reported. The police have filed cases and made arrests in some of them.

Not much is known about the cases, however, beyond their basic outlines. Who are the alleged assailants and what motivated them? How did the Muslim men become targets? How exactly did the slogan gain currency?

Scroll.in travelled to two cities – Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh and Aurangabad in Maharashtra – to examine the total of four cases reported there.

In three of the cases, the police said they doubted that the slogan even featured in the incidents. In Taj’s case in Kanpur, a police officer acknowledged the slogan was invoked during the assault, but claimed the attackers only “shouted it while running away to raise their spirits”.

In Aurangabad, one of the Muslim men assaulted accused the police of pressurising him to dilute his statement, while in Kanpur, a Muslim family is facing the ire of their neighbours for denying that “Jai Shri Ram” played a role in the attack on their son.

The only thing certain is that most of the men on both sides – Muslims and Hindus – belong to poor, working-class families, whose lives have been thrown into fear and uncertainty, as a new weapon has entered an older arena of communal friction.

A lane in Nai Basti area of Kanpur. The neighbourhood has seen friction over the slogan 'Jai Shri Ram'. Photo: Shoaib Daniyal

Fear and shock

Aurangabad, 350 km east of Mumbai, has seen occasional bursts of communal violence since the 1980s, most recently when a dispute over a water connection led to riots in May 2018, killing four people.

But the residents of Muzaffarnagar, a small settlement of around 60 Muslim families in the city, do not recall experiencing communal trouble, even though they are surrounded by Hindu neighbourhoods.

Imran Patel lives in Muzaffarnagar, with his 10-member family. His father cultivates their family farm 11 km from the city, while Patel used to work as a waiter in a small restaurant.

On the night of July 19, he was returning from work when a group of seven or eight men forced him to stop his motorbike as he entered his neighbourhood. His skull cap, he said, was a clear sign of his religious identity.

“I don’t know if those men were drunk, but they took away my bike keys and asked me to say ‘Jai Shri Ram’,” 28-year-old Patel told Scroll.in. Afraid, Patel first said the words in a feeble voice. “They told me, ‘jam ke bolo’ [say it with vigour], so then I said ‘Jai Shri Ram’ loudly, three times.”

At this point, instead of letting him go, Patel claims the men began to hit and kick him. The shouts woke up Ganesh and Savita Kale, a couple living near the spot. “When we stepped out, I saw a group of young men about to hit Imran with a big cement brick,” said Ganesh Kale, who runs a canopy decor business. He knew Patel by face, as a resident of Muzaffarnagar.

As Kale began yelling at the attackers, they returned Patel’s bike keys to him and dispersed. The Kales claim they recognised one of the young men assaulting Patel – he was the son of Sonawane, a bhajiya vendor in a neighbouring area, they said.

The next day, the police arrested Kunal Sonawane, who drives an auto-rickshaw for a living. He was released on bail one week later, as was another accused, also arrested by the police. Three other men accused in the case are still absconding, senior police inspector Sachin Sanap told Scroll.in, but refused to divulge their names. “We are not allowed to give out their names until they are convicted by a court,” he said. However, there is no such legal requirement in India.

While Sanap claimed that his team is investigating the case, he also discouraged “blowing up” the case in the media. “Except for the complainant’s statement, there is no proof that he was made to say ‘Jai Shri Ram’,” the policeman said.

Imran Patel in his home. Photo: Aarefa Johari

When Scroll.in met Kunal Sonawane, he vehemently denied all of Patel’s allegations.

“I was just a witness in this case, but the police jailed me for seven days and turned me into a sacrificial goat,” said Sonawane, a short, skinny man with several tattoos on his arms and floppy hair dyed brown in the front.

He claimed that on the night of the attack, he was out driving his auto in the area near Muzaffarnagar when he saw a group of people fighting with Patel. “I didn’t know who they were,” he said. “I just went to see the fight. I heard them use abusive words, but I did not hear anyone saying Jai Shri Ram.”

He continued: “If a man was really being forced to say that, wouldn’t he have called people from his community to beat up his abusers? And wouldn’t he have gone to the police immediately, instead of waiting for the next day?”

Kunal Sonawane’s parents claim they have faced hostility from neighbourhood Muslims ever since their son was named in the case.

“All these ‘Jai Shri Ram’ cases are being reported around the country only because the Muslim community does not like Modi,” said Kunal’s father, Ganesh Sonawane, who sells bhajiyas and tea from a cart. “In Madhya Pradesh, I have heard that the Bajrang Dal exposed how these are false cases. But here, no group or political leader has come to help us.”

Kunal’s mother, Pratibha Sonawane, works as a sweeper in a government hospital. She is an active member of a labour union associated with the Centre of Indian Trade Unions, an affiliate of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). “Since this incident happened, we had to sell Kunal’s auto and I have been too afraid to let him go outside and work,” she said.

In the Patel household, Imran Patel’s mother shares the same fear. As a waiter, Patel used to earn up to Rs 10,000 a month. “But my mother is too scared for my safety now, so I quit,” said Patel, who now earns Rs 7,000 a month as a sweeper in local mosques.

Imran Patel with Ganesh and Savita Kale. Photo: Aarefa Johari.

Assault in Kanpur

In Kanpur, on the night of July 4, as Mohammad Atib was going home to park his father’s auto rickshaw, he was hailed by three men who insisted he drop them to another part of the city. When Atib refused, things got ugly. The group assaulted him, dragging him to public toilet to continue beating him.

Till now, this is a tale that is almost mundane for Kanpur, a city of more than 5 million people with shrinking industrial prospects, almost no civic infrastructure and a standard of living so poor, it was named by the World Health Organisation in 2018 as the world’s most polluted city.After Atib’s assault, however, matters took a communal turn.

Soon after, a crowd gathered at the spot, assembled by an electric allegation: Atib was beaten for refusing to chant the slogan, ‘Jai Shri Ram’. “The crowd also assumed that he had died,” Amit Tomar, Station House Officer of Babupurva police station

Kanpur has a bloody history of communal riots. As the situation grew tense, police reinforcements were rushed in, and officials scrambled to put out a different narrative of events. Tomar showed Scroll.in videos of Atib and his father denying that the slogan ‘Jai Shri Ram’ had played any part in the fracas. “We sent these to the media,” said the station house officer.

Atib’s home is located in an impossibly narrow lane overflowing with sewage in the Nai Basti area of Kanpur, just a few hundred metres from where the assault occurred. At the house, his mother Mehmoona Khatoon was worried about the health of her son – but also accusations from her neighbours that she changed her statement in exchange for a bribe. “They say I took Rs 7 lakh to change my statement about Jai Shri Ram,” she exclaimed. “Is it possible?”

Atib is out and about but still suffers from the aftereffects of the attack. “He can’t stand loud noises,” said his sister, Wasima.

Atib's mother, Mehmoona Khatoon. Photo: Shoaib Daniyal

Just a 10-minute walk from her house is the mud house of one of the accused, Shiva Kumar, a young unemployed man. His mother, a domestic worker, is distraught that her son has been charged under Section 308 of the Indian Penal Code – an attempt to commit culpable homicide. “How long will he be in jail?” she asked. “I am ready to apologise to the family [of Atib] but will he be let go? How will a poor person like me fight the case?”

Along with her son Shiva, his friend Rajesh too has been arrested for the assault. The prompt, strict action was driven largely by the riot-like situation that developed on the night of the assault.

In the Babupurva area, however, there seems to be a widespread impression that no matter the denials by Atib and his family, religious slogans did play a part in the assault that night. “The family changed their statement once the police got involved,” said one of Atib’s neighbours, who declined to be named. “We all know what happened.”

In spite of the neighbour’s confidence, however, he himself did not witness the assault. Yet, his belief in the ‘Jai Shri Ram’ narrative is echoed by most Muslims in the area.

Shiva's mother, outside their house. Photo: Shoaib Daniyal

Pressure and politics

On July 21, two days after Imran Patel was accosted in Aurangabad, two Muslim men on a motorbike had an altercation with four Maratha students in a car, as they drove past each other in the Azad Chowk area.

The incident became more controversial after Shaikh Amer – one of the complainants in the case – accused the police of pressurising him to withdraw his allegation.

A resident of the Muslim-dominated Kat Kat Gate area, 23-year-old Amer is the youngest son of a mason with a meagre income. In May, he was overjoyed to get a job as a delivery executive with food service app Zomato, where he could earn as much as Rs 3,000 a week.

That night, while he was on duty, Amer offered a motorbike ride to his friend, 20-year-old Shaikh Naser. At around 10.30 pm, when they were driving down Azad Chowk, Amer claims his path was blocked by a bus and a car whose drivers seemed to be arguing with each other about overtaking. Amer intervened and asked the bus driver to move on, but claims this angered the four men in the car, who turned on him, asked him where he was going and then asked him to say “Jai Shri Ram”.

“At first I refused, but then they threatened me with violence, so I said it,” said Amer. “Then they said, ‘We are Marathas, don’t mess with us’, and also abused my religion as I left.”

The Marathas, a landholding caste group, make up nearly a third of Maharashtra’s population and have been politically powerful for decades. In Aurangabad, however, Marathas have felt politically sidelined after the rise of backward caste leaders of the Shiv Sena.

Amer and Naser drove away from their attackers and went to Samir Sajid, a builder in their locality. With his help, they filed an FIR at the CIDCO N7 police station. “In the night itself, the police went with us to the spot to examine the CCTV footage,” said Amer.

The next morning, based on the car number plate seen in the camera footage, the police arrested 25-year-old Sandip Autade and three of his friends – all students at the Aurangabad College of Engineering. They were granted bail the same evening.

Around the same time, Amer claims he and Naser were summoned to the police station to give their statements again. According to Amer, this is when things started to go wrong.

“The police asked us where we worked and how much we earned,” said Amer. They told him they could get him a better job and a higher salary if he removed the part about ‘Jai Shri Ram’ from his statement. “I refused, because those men did force me to say ‘Jai Shri Ram’, and changing my statement would backfire on me,” he said.

After that, Amer claims he was repeatedly harassed by police officials urging him to change his statement. “They threatened to jail me on some other charges if I did not do so,” he said.

“They even took my mobile phone away for investigation, even though I told them that my job depended on taking food orders on my phone,” he added. When Scroll.in visited Aurangabad more than two weeks after the incident, Amer was still waiting for his phone to be returned.

On July 29, Amer sent a letter to the district collector and police commissioner describing the police harassment he and his family were facing. He also sent a copy of the letter to state government officials and the State Human Rights Commission in Mumbai. So far, no official has responded to his letter.

Shaikh Amer. Identity protected on request. Photo: Aarefa Johari

Naser did not want to speak to Scroll.in in detail, but expressed anguish at the one-sided reports in the local media. “They have published reports saying that our case is fake and we gave wrong statements, but they only spoke to the police,” said Naser. “They have not bothered to speak to us.”

At the CIDCO police station, officials dismissed Amer’s allegations – they called it a “fraud” case.

“This is a sensitive case and we cannot make our investigation public, but I can tell you that the part about ‘Jai Shri Ram’ did not happen,” said Ashok Giri, the senior police inspector at CIDCO police station. “There was a fight between Amer and Naser and the four men in the car, after which Amer and Naser went to a Muslim locality. The people there told them about the atmosphere of the country, based on which they filed a false police complaint.”

A junior police official, who did not want to be named, described Amer as a “dummy” in a political game to communalise the city before the state election in October.

Another junior official claimed the police had a video clip in which Amer can be seen confessing that he had filed a false complaint. But he declined to show Scroll.in the video, claiming it had been “submitted in court”.

Scroll.in met Sandip Autade in Harsul, a village that has now been incorporated into Aurangabad as an outer suburb. His father, Sainath Autade, is a real-estate developer and farm owner. The family is considered politically influential.

“That night, Sandip was dropping his friends home in his car and ended up getting into a fight with those two boys on the bike, that’s all,” said Sainath Autade, who responded to questions on behalf of his son, surrounded by supportive relatives in his office.

Sandip denied asking Amer to say ‘Jai Shri Ram’. “I did not even know he was Muslim – he was not wearing a skullcap.”

Sandip’s relatives cited instances of the communal harmony in their area. “We have so many Muslim workers on our farms, all living peacefully,” said one of Sandip’s cousins. “Half the Muslims in Harsul greet us by saying ‘Ram Ram’, and if a Muslim from our area gets into a fight with a Muslim from outside, all the Hindus stand by the one from their area.”

Sainath Autade believes Amer and Naser falsely accused his son after hearing about the cases of Muslims being forced to chant ‘Jai Shri Ram’ in other parts of the country.

“It is a good thing my son is a student – at least the police believed him. If he was unemployed, he would be in much more trouble.”

Sandip and Sainath Autade. Photo: Aarefa Johari

‘The situation is not good’

On June 28, the night he was attacked in Kanpur, madrassa student Mohammad Taj ran into nearby shops to ask for a phone to call the police. The shop owners refused to help. This shook Taj.

“It is a matter of humanity to help a person in danger,” he said. “Is it only because I was Muslim?”

Eventually, the police were called after Taj managed to run into a family member who was in the area. But by then, it was too late – the assailants had sped off.

The police investigation consisted of a case under section 153A of the Indian Penal Code, causing enmity between people of different religions as well as Section 323 for assault. Closed circuit television cameras were checked to identify the attackers. But both Taj and Ashutosh Vikram, the investigating officer agreed that it was too dark to conduct a proper identification of faces.

However, on the question of chanting “Jai Shri Ram”, Taj and Vikram differed significantly. While Taj claimed that he was asked to chant the slogan as an intimidation tactic, Vikram disagreed. “The slogans were shouted,” the investigating officer said, “but not in the communal way Taj claims. They [the assaulters] shouted it while running away to raise their spirits.”

Vikram blamed the media for falling for Taj’s claim. “The media now is irresponsible,” said the officer. “And now anyone claims to be media. As a result these rumours spread across WhatsApp.”

Taj, himself, however escapes blame in Vikram’s narrative. “He was tutored by a lawyer and a journalist in his family to push this story,” the officer alleged.

At Taj’s house, however, there was an undercurrent of fear. The family runs a small business supplying construction material. Aftab Alvi, Taj’s cousin, abruptly mentioned a social media complaint by the user of a food delivery app who refused to be served by a Muslim – he had heard about the case in the news.

Far too seriously for his 17 years, Alvi said, “Mahaul abhi kharaab hai” – the situation is not good.

Taj’s paternal aunt also pitched in: “I have never seen a time as bad as this. We are being made strangers in our own city.”