04, Feb 2019 | Kunal Purohit
Naseerpur village, Mau: When the residents of Bholapur Hindoliya village in north-western Uttar Pradesh (UP) caught a 20-year-old outsider near a cattle-shed, trying to draw out a buffalo, they were enraged.
Having suffered enormous losses due to frequent cattle theft, they thought they had finally found the thief. Eyewitnesses said the villagers, mostly Jats, then asked the thief’s name.
On hearing Shahrukh, a Muslim name, they lynched him and did not stop until he was dead.
This incident was one of 61 from Uttar Pradesh (UP) recorded in Hate Crime Watch, a database of religious identity-based hate crimes across India from 2009 to 2018, which accounted for nearly a third of such crimes in the country.
Our investigation from the site of many of these crimes found that hate crimes are not motivated by religious hatred alone. Instead, most lie at the confluence of various factors–local politics, gender, and crucially, economics. Religious bias often proves to be the last straw.
‘Always an intersection’
Various factors have contributed to the rise of hate crime in UP, apart from an inherent religious bias, according to Sudha Pai, former professor of political studies at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, who has authored several books on UP. At the individual level, the people who commit such crimes are driven to it due to various micro and macro reasons, she told FactChecker.
“From sustained poor governance to the loss of aspiration among the young to poor social indicators, various factors have affected the population and created unhappiness in them,” she said. Such discontent, along with the growth of the Hindu right in the state, means “the state has become a fertile ground for mobilisation of such people by Hindu right-wing organisations, which then incite people into committing acts of violence”, Pai said.
Missing these factors, while examining religious-hate crimes, might lead to a flawed analysis, she added.
A hate-crime that creates more hate
Pai’s words find resonance in the death of 68-year-old Mohammed Younus in the eastern UP district of Mau.
Younus was killed late on the night of June 26, 2017, at the mosque in his village, Naseerpur, during Ramzan, a month of prayer and fasting for Muslims. Younus had intervened when one man in a group of five had thrown a gunny-sack at the mosque. The sack, it was later revealed, contained pork.
Naseerpur residents remembered being stunned by the killing. This had never happened in their village before, they insisted repeatedly when FactChecker visited in December 2018.
Naseerpur has a population of around 2,000. Nearly 35% of households are Muslim, who, along with the many lower- and upper-caste Hindu families, have lived in harmony as far back as most people’s memory stretches.
Arvind Murti, a Mau-based civil liberties activist, saw a pattern in the method behind Younus’ killing. “The killing reflected a hark back to the older days, when people would instigate communal riots in Mau. The attempt, clearly, was to spark off another clash here,” he said, pointing to the timing of the incident–during Ramzan, less than a week before Eid, one of the most significant Muslim festivals. Murti, who heads the Inquilabi Kamgaar Union, a Mau-based union which works for workers’ rights, said the killing was an attempt to widen existing communal fault lines.
A peek into Mau’s history is instructive. In 2005, the district headquarters saw deadly clashes between members of the Hindu and Muslim communities, which left at least 14 people dead. The clashes occurred after a dispute over the use of loudspeakers at a time when the Hindu festival of Dussehra coincided with Ramzan.
Hindu Yuva Vahini activists played an active role in the riots, news reports revealed. A ‘citizens’ report’ by Saajhi Duniya, a Lucknow-based not-for-profit, said Hindu Yuva Vahini founder Yogi Adityanath, now the chief minister of UP who was then the member of parliament from neighbouring Gorakhpur, had stoked tensions by holding a public meeting after being prevented by Mau police from visiting the district during the riots.
When Younus was killed, the local police believed the perpetrators had tried to create a similar situation. The police arrested local criminal Ramesh Singh Kaka and four of his accomplices. “The police had been trying to track down Kaka and in order to distract the police’s work, Kaka planned this attack,” Alok Kumar Jayswal, the deputy superintendent of police of Mau, told FactChecker, “He was hoping for a full-blown communal riot, but the people of Naseerpur reacted maturely.”
While a riot was prevented, Younus’ killing changed the way Mau lives, locals said. “Now, we are told we are a sensitive village, in police records,” said Umair Khan, 28, who works as a construction worker. An eyewitness to the killing, Abdul Jabbar Khan, said the villagers suspected an insider hand in the killing and all fingers pointed to someone in the Hindu community. “Otherwise, how would outsiders know how to get here and then escape within seconds of the attack?” Khan said, adding that these suspicions have worsened distrust between the communities.
Gender meets hatred
Another common theme that FactChecker found, in at least three of the 13 instances, was of an insistence by upper-caste Hindu men to ‘save the honour’ of Hindu women by opposing their relationships with lower-caste or Muslim men. In all three cases, this was the primary motivation for the hate crime.
In the run-up to the UP assembly polls, chief minister Yogi Adityanath had said that ‘love jihad’, a term used largely by the Hindu right to describe a relationship between a Muslim man and a Hindu woman, was a “key issue” for his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). He maintained this stand even after being sworn in as the state’s chief minister, when he said ‘love jihad’ was “dangerous”.
In February 2017, BJP chief Amit Shah said ‘anti-Romeo’ squads would be created across UP to “safeguard the honour of women” by preventing their “harassment” by men. One prominent BJP leader conceded in an interview to Huffington Post that this was one way of preventing interfaith relationships.
This fits into the narrative that the Hindu right-wing has been trying to build around Muslim men being “invaders”, Pai said. “In this narrative, the Muslim invaders attack Hindu women who, then, need to be ‘protected’ from such attacks,” she said.
In Muzaffarnagar, a senior functionary of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a Hindu right-wing organisation and an affiliate of the ruling BJP, said the organisation views interfaith relationships, especially ones where the man is a Muslim, very critically: “People don’t realise but this is a conspiracy against the Hindu religion.” The functionary said within the organisation and its affiliates, the general instruction is to try and ensure such relationships do not last. “We try and speak to their parents, we also speak to the couple,” he said, “Sometimes, things go out of hand and it gets violent.”
Pai’s words and the VHP functionary’s confessions find resonance in Bulandshahr’s Soi village, where the elopement of a Muslim youth with a Hindu girl ended with an elderly Muslim man, Ghulam Mohammed, being lynched by enraged Hindu Yuva Vahini (HYV) activists in May 2017. The activists believedMohammed had helped the couple elope.
Soon after the couple eloped, HYV activists threatened Soi’s Muslim families, villagers told FactChecker. “We were threatened and abused because they thought that it was a conspiracy that Muslims had hatched against Hindus,” Chidda Khan from Soi said.
Such an interplay of gender with politics often has a caste element to it.
In Bulandshahr’s Sonda Habibpur village, power play around gender, caste equations and religion came together when a young Dalit boy eloped with a Muslim girl from the same village, in June 2018.
“They could kill me, and nobody would care”
“They could kill me, dump my body somewhere and nobody will care,” Shrikrishna, the father of the eloped boy, told FactChecker. He said he did not leave home after dark, and had curtailed his working hours to be home before dusk.
Shiv Kumar, 20, had eloped with Razia, a 19-year-old Muslim girl, on June 6, 2018.
Shrikrishna belongs to the Kori (weavers’) caste, considered a Scheduled Caste in UP, from which President Ram Nath Kovind also hails. Shrikrishna’s family and his brother’s family, who live next door, are the only two Kori families in the village of 2,000.
After the couple eloped on June 6, the villagers went to the police. Shrikrishna accompanied them and then, for the next few days, did all he could to trace the couple, he said. “I was livid. My son’s actions had landed us all into trouble,” he told FactChecker. Finally, the couple were traced to Noida, from where they were brought back by the police. However, they said they wanted to get married, and on June 21, their marriage was registered in court.
Five days later, Shrikrishna said, he got a call early in the morning. It was from an upper-caste village acquaintance, asking him to attend a panchayat meeting called to discuss the elopement.
At the meeting, some 100 people from the village had gathered, Shrikrishna said. They urged him to ‘return’ the girl to her family. “I kept telling them, they are both adults and the court has agreed to their marriage. How can I interfere in that?” he said.
At this, some upper-caste men caught him by the ear and pushed him to the ground, he said. “They said, how dare I sit on a chair in front of the village’s upper-caste men,” he said, “So, I sat on the ground.”
According to the First Information Report (FIR) he filed, the villagers then asked him to leave the village as punishment. When he refused, a few of them started assaulting him, throwing punches and kicks at him. Then, he said, they threatened to bring his wife and daughter to the panchayat and take turns to rape them in public.
The villagers then asked him to lick his own spittle from the ground, he said, adding, “In that moment, I felt they would kill me if I didn’t do it. So, I did it.” When he tried to go back home, the assaulters followed him, assaulting him all the while.
Shrikrishna said the panchayat was convened at the behest of the girl’s family. But he blamed four upper-caste men for attacking him, along with Bhura Khan, the girl’s father.
The issue continues to fester. Shrikrishna and his family feel ostracised, while the accused continue with their lives as before.
The economics of hate
The road leading to the home of Krishan Pal, at the end of Bholapur Hindoliya in Bareilly district, goes past most homes in the village. It is flanked by mud huts with thatched roofs, with cattle tied outside almost every household.
Pal’s house is a pukka one, a simple brick structure, with green paint so thin that it exposes the brick underneath.
Pal, 19, is in jail. He is one of the eight people that the Bareilly police have booked for the murder of 20-year-old Shahrukh Khan, who was lynched on August 29, 2018, allegedly after being caught stealing buffaloes. Two of Khan’s accomplices, the police and villagers said, had escaped.
For years, villagers had suffered massive economic losses due to cattle thefts, locals said. So that night, when Pal and other villagers caught Khan, they thought they had finally found the thief.
“This has happened so many times. We have complained to the police, but they do nothing,” one villager who lives in the house next to Pal’s told FactChecker.
In fact, just four months before the incident, in April 2018, some thieves had made away with some of Pal’s buffaloes. “We had to create a lot of ruckus with the local administration and look for the cattle, [but] we finally found them,” Ramshri, Pal’s sister-in-law, said.
Cattle theft can be a huge financial setback in these parts. One cattle trader in Bareilly district, on condition of anonymity, said a buffalo would cost at least Rs 40,000. For families such as Pal’s, who depend on small-scale farming as well as dairy, buying cattle can be a substantial investment.
In August, weeks before the lynching, Pal’s family had just seen a heavy financial setback, having spent over Rs 1 lakh on a family member’s hospitalisation. “We had to borrow money to pay the bills, but despite that, she didn’t survive,” Ramshri said of her sister-in-law.
Villagers said these worries must have been on Pal’s mind when he spotted Khan next to the cattle shed that night, as he stepped out to go to the toilet.
But the family refuted the allegations that Pal had lynched Khan. “He was stressed; we all were. But we decided we will hand him [Khan] over to the police as soon as the sun breaks out,” his younger sister-in-law, Pushpadevi said. Around 6 a.m., when they called the police, other villagers gathered and started beating Khan up, she alleged.
Two blocks away from Pal’s house is the house of another accused, Mukesh (who goes by one name, even in the FIR), who is also currently in jail. His wife, Satwati (who also uses only her first name), said he had been falsely implicated. “One side of his body is wasted. How can he lynch someone?” she said.
The family depended on farm labour, Satwati said, and with her husband away, she did not know how to keep track of the investigations. They had not appointed a lawyer yet. “No lawyer came to us. No one even told us what to do,” she said.
But the police said their investigations had revealed that Pal, his 40-year-old uncle, Gajendra, along with three others, had lynched Khan to death because they were enraged that Khan and his accomplices were trying to steal their cattle. “In their anger, they lynched him to death,” a police official said, asking that his name not be revealed.
Khan’s family, on the other hand, made a counter-allegation. “They asked us to get Rs 1 lakh if we wanted to see Khan alive,” said Khan’s 18-year-old sister Noorjehan Khan, alleging Pal’s family had made a ransom call at 6 a.m.
Pal’s family denied having made the call, and blamed other villagers. “They got greedy, but we don’t want such money,” Ramshri said.
Pushpadevi said the family was in a bind. “As soon as we caught Khan, villagers mocked us for refusing to beat him up.” For hours, she added, the family ensured that Khan was safe.
“We kept staving off the mob, insisting that the police deal with him. Now, we are the ones in jail.”
In Thiriya village in Bareilly district, Zulfikar Khan, 17, and Noorjehan Khan, 18, younger siblings of Shahrukh Khan, recounted that the 22-year-old was a gifted embroiderer who worked in Dubai, and was his family sole earner. “I want to study to be a lawyer so that I can fight the injustice of the kind that my brother was dealt,” she said.
*Feature Image: Zulfikar Khan, 17, and Noorjehan Khan, 18, younger siblings of Shahrukh Khan, the 22-year-old who was lynched by a mob in Bareilly’s Bholapur Hindoliya village for allegedly trying to steal buffaloes. Noorjehan wants to be a lawyer so that she can fight against injustice, such as that meted out to her brother. Image by Kunal Purohit
(Purohit is an independent journalist, writing on politics, gender, development, migration and the intersections between them. He is an alumnus of the School of Oriental and African Studies, London.)