HARSH MANDER | 21 SEPTEMBER, 2017
Karwan e Mohabbat in Gujarat: Hate Punctured With Love
AHMEDABAD: The Karwan e Mohabbat will be completing its journey at Porbander on Gandhi Jayanti, October 2. It is currently in Gujarat from where Harsh Mander, former bureaucrat and now well known activist, pens this portion of his diary. It records the sheer horror of hate, a weariness of body and soul in the Karwan team, and yet the optimism that revives itself with the courage and resistance of ordinary persons in the field. Extracts:
The Karwan is approaching its final days. The team of travellers is feeling a weariness not just of body but of the soul, from bearing testimony to so much hate, cruelty and oppression in state after state. And yet we remind ourselves over and over again that even though it is so gruelling to deal with just listening to stories of hate violence; we must be always mindful that it is infinitely harder for families that have to live with and endure the loss of loved ones to hate violence, living every day with memories and persisting everyday realities of hate, supported by the state.
Today, the Karwan visited the family of Mohammed Ayub, an auto rickshaw driver who was lynched by gau rakshaks or cow vigilantes a year ago. His family had observed the first anniversary of his death just a day before our visit. They were just two brothers, Ayub the elder of the two. Their father was an alcoholic, and lived away from home, paying nothing for their upkeep. Their mother raised them with great hardship, working as a domestic helper. The two boys dropped out of school early to support their mother and sister. Ayub had married, and had two children.
Before Bakra-eid last year, he decided to earn some extra money for his family by transporting animals from neighbouring Rajasthan. They were returning from Rajasthan with some cattle in a pick-up, when a group of around eight gau rakshaks chased his vehicle in cars and on motor-cycles. They speeded as fast as they could, but the vigilantes pursued them hotly, overtook them and blocked their path on the highway.
The driver and other loader managed to make good their escape. But the gau rakshaks caught up with him. The fell upon him, pounding and pulping him until he was knocked unconscious. They then left him in the middle of the road, hoping that he would be run over, and his death thought to result from an accident instead of lynching,
Fortunately a police patrol jeep found him, and admitted him to hospital. The family showed us a photograph of Ayub in his hospital bed. His face and every limb seemed pulverised. He fought for three days before he died.
In what is almost a rule in every state that we visited, the police first registered criminal charges against the victim Ayub, charging him with violations of the severe law in the state prohibiting cow slaughter. A second FIR they filed against him for rash driving. A third FIR they filed against an anonymous mob for attacking Ayub. But the family and other human rights activists had seen CCTV pictures from cameras in shops and homes near the highway, which established clearly the identities of the gau rakshaks who lynched Ayub.
After he died in hospital, seniors of his community mobilised a crowd of over a thousand people surrounded the hospital, refusing to accept the boy’s body until their FIR which accepted that Ayub was killed by lynching and that this lynching was not by an anonymous mob but by a small group of motivated gau rakshaks.
They protested that there were a number of CCTV cameras in the area which had captured their faces, and the supporters of the family had identified the men. The police held off for as long as they could, but the protesting crowd swelled and just would not budge. There were many negotiations, and the police secretly shifted the boy’s body to their home.
But Ayub’s family would not still relent from their demands. They added that they wanted the men arrested in a maximum of a couple of days. The police finally gave in to all of these demands. A new FIR was filed, of murder under Section 302 of the IPC, of a targeted lynching by named gau rakshaks. The family finally tearfully lowered the body of their loved one under the earth, and made its last offering to it of soil. The gau rakhaks whose faces were recorded by CCTV were arrested. But they were released on bail, granted in appeal by the High Court.
Of all the families we met in this long Karwan, this one had been the most successful in fighting the consistent and shameful attempts of state administrations everywhere to protect the men who lynched, and criminalise the victims. The long and courageous battles for justice for the survivors of the 2002 communal massacre in Gujarat had set new traditions of human rights resistance by survivors of hate violence against their attackers protected by malevolent and communal state administrations.
In our third day in Gujarat, we drove to the site of a communal conflagration earlier this year that has barely registered in the national consciousness, but which led to one death, several injuries and the burning of 140 houses. We drove to the village Vadavali in district Patan, and sat with Naseem Ben, the widow of the Ibrahim who had been killed in the violence.
The official story was that the ‘riot’ arose from an altercation between students of different faiths. A Rajput boy was seated next to a Muslim student as they wrote their Class 10 Board examination. The instructor found that the Rajput boy was cheating, and turned him out of the examination hall. The boy was convinced that his Muslim neighbour in the exam hall had complained about his cheating to the instructor. When he came out of the hall, the Rajput boy fell upon him. An elderly Muslim man tried to mediate between them, but the furious Rajput student beat him up as well.
The Rajput boy then went to his village, which neighboured Vadavali, and returned with 15 older Rajputs who heatedly argued with the Muslim boy. Elders intervened and said that hot-blooded youths should not be encouraged to escalate a small matter. The Rajput men left.
A couple of hours later, a crowd of around 2000 Rajput men from surrounding villages arrived on tractors, cars and motorcycles, armed menacingly with daggers, rods and a few rifles. They also carried with them petrol and a white chemical to burn down cement walls and roofs. They went on a rampage, vandalising and burning each of their homes in the Muslim neighbourhood, and thrashing the men. Terrified women and children ran out and hid in the fields, the men often within their homes or on roof terraces.
Naseem Ben spoke of how her family were sitting outside their home when the enraged mob of Rajputs appeared suddenly. Her husband Ibrahim, a day labourer, panicked when he heard the roars of the rampaging mob, and sent out the terrified women and children from the back door. His sons ran outside and hid on rooftops. Ibrahim locked himself inside his house. The crowd came to his home, shouting out his name. They broke down the door, found him cowering in a corner. They dragged him outside and lynched him until he died. Through all of this, the villagers claim, the police stood by and only watched.
This official version of the events – that it was a spontaneous clash between the two communities sparked by the squabble between the students from the two communities - does not explain how within two or three hours of the scuffle, such a large mob of Rajputs from several villages could gather, and how they could have collected such large quantities of petrol and incendiary chemicals, as well as their array of weapons. This strongly suggests an earlier conspiracy, in which the fight between the students was not a flashpoint but an excuse for the assault on the Muslims of the village.
The Muslim villagers agree: they believe that the reason for the assault was quite different from the official claim. The panchayat elections were under way. The Muslims and Patels of the village had sizeable populations, but neither commanded enough votes to elect ‘their’ Sarpanch, a person from their caste. The leaders of the two communities reached an unprecedented agreement to join hands, and agree to have a Muslim Sarpanch for half the term, and a Patel Sarpanch for the other half.
The Muslim Sarpanch was elected unopposed, because the village knew they had the numbers. The Rajputs were reportedly furious, as their village had never elected a Muslim Sarpanch. According to this version, the Rajputs resolved to teach the Muslims a lesson that they would not forget. For this reason they shot the Muslim woman Sarpanch’s husband (the bullet entered his groin, but he survived); and to kill Ibrahim who was one of his main supporters.
The police surprisingly seemed to support the latter theory, by registering a case under Section 120A of the Indian Penal Code against the Rajput mob. This section deals with the crime of criminal conspiracy. But as we have seen in virtually every case of hate crimes that we looked at during this Karwan, the police also registered criminal charges against the victims, charging them of causing grievous hurt with dangerous weapons. They charged all the leaders of the Muslim community including the Sarpanch’s husband of this fictitious crime.
Also in common with most of the cases, no one from the administration ever visited the family who lost their loved one in the communal assault, or offered any assistance. And no one from among their non-Muslim neighbours came to their aid.
We drove a few hours from there to a village Kashor in Anand district. Here we met Shailesh Manibhai, of the Dalit Rohit community and his mother Maniben. The caste occupation of the Rohit community is the skinning of dead cattle. Although he has studied up to Class 10, Shailesh still could find only this socially demeaning work. His father had been bedridden for 15 years. His untouchable ‘unclean’ caste occupation thrust on him stigma, but helped bring food to his family.
He worked in partnership with a couple of Rohit brothers in a neighbouring village who owned a tractor. Whenever a cow or buffalo died in any household in the village, they sent word to Shailesh. He would call his partner, and they would lift the carcass in the tractor and transport it to a lowland of the village designated for disposing dead animals.
On 11 August 2017, a Rajput of his village sent word that his cow had died, and Shailesh arrived with his tractor and hauled the dead animal on to the tractor. Heavy rains in the village had turned the designated lowland for skinning into a swamp, so Shailesh drove his tractor to another waste patch of land adjacent to the funeral ground of the village. This angered the upper-caste residents of the village, and they went there with the Sarpanch to rebuke Shailesh for polluting the site with the dead cow. Shailesh agreed to continue to use the swampy lowland to skin animals in future.
There the matter should have ended. But the next morning, a group of around 150 enraged Rajput men stormed into the Rohit enclave, and began thrashing Shailesh for his comeuppance. His mother tried to intervene and they beat her as well. All the while they cursed them with caste-laden insults. His mother spent a few days in hospital.
An earlier generation would have accepted the beating and insults passively as part of their caste burden. But not Shailesh. He went to the police station, and filed a detailed complaint naming the upper-caste men who had attacked him. The police registered a case under the SC ST Atrocities Act against the upper-caset men of the village listed in Shailesh’s complaint. He also announced that he would refuse to lift or skin animal carcasses in future.
The upper-case people of the village are irate, incensed that a low-caste boy could challenge them in this way. The charge of committing atrocities against a Scheduled Caste family is a grave one, which if proved could result in long jail terms. And they now have to lift the polluting dead cows and buffaloes themselves, digging a shallow grave for them.
The upper-caste people of the village have unanimously decreed a complete boycott of the Rohit caste. Since they are the land-owners, the community is out of work. For fear of caste-taunts and retaliation, they have shifted their children to schools in more distant villages.
We found the spirit of the Dalits in the village high, because they had defended their self-respect before the upper-caste people of their village. ‘Jai Bheem’, they would shout at every step of our journey to the village. I said to them that when they fought for equality, they fought not just for themselves. They fought for all of us.
Our last visit to a family targeted by hate violence in this phase of the Karwan was to a single Dalit woman Dahiben in Karola village in the tribal Panchmahals district of Gujarat, who has been persecuted as a witch or daakan in Gujarati for a more than a dozen years since her husband died. But this is also the story of a woman who spiritedly fought back, and overcame.
When we set out on this journey, we expected to meet families hit by lynching, Dalit atrocities, and communally driven state violence. But our feminist hosts first in Rajasthan and then in Gujarat reminded us that along with religious minorities, Dalits and Adivasis, women, especially single women, continue to be battered by a medieval violence, by being branded as witches.
Dahiben was just 30 years old when her husband suddenly died, leaving her with two young sons. No one had detected any previous grave illness, and his death was sudden and immediate. From what she described to us, it sounded like a classic heart attack.
But her husband’s older brother was convinced that his sister-in-law Dahiben was a daakan or witch, and she had brought the death upon her husband through her diabolic witchcraft. Since then, she was blamed for every misfortune, illness or death in the family, even when a nephew took ill in distant Bangalore.
Her husband had earned his livelihood as a part-time sanitation worker in a public veterinary hospital, and after his death, she inherited his job. The salary was as little as 350 rupees a month, but it was precious in helping her feed her children.
However, her brother-in-law continued to harass her, labelling her a witch everywhere she went. He frequently followed her to her place of work, and abused her. Finding her alone anywhere, he would try to force himself sexually on her. His wife became paralysed and he attributed this adversity also to her evil witchcraft. He performed many dramatic public exorcisms.
He also stalked her in her home, a small earth hut which her husband had built in the fields he jointly held with his brothers. He demanded that she abandons her home, as she was destroying her husband’s family with her witchcraft. She argued back feistily that if she was indeed a witch, why would she leave him alive? She said she would never leave the home her husband had built, or his share of the land which she held for her two sons, whatever happened.
One day he accosted her as she was walking to work at the veterinary hospital. Screaming that she was a witch who must be destroyed, he hit her on her head three times with a hockey stick. She fell to the ground, her skull bleeding profusely, and her spine painfully injured. A shopkeeper phoned for an ambulance. She spent 20 days in hospital, with 24 stitches on her head. She recovered painfully. Her older son dropped out of school, and resolved that he would not let her out of his sight. He found work for both of them, making packing boxes in a milk cooperative, so that she would not have to go anywhere alone. They go to work together, and return together.
Anandi is a tribal and women’s rights organisation that comes to the aid of women who are branded as witches. With their help, they were able to get a police case registered against her attacker. But he was arrested only for a day and immediately got bail. He was an influential man in the village, a patwari.
Today was the last day of the second phase of the Karwan. We arrived late at night earlier in Godhra. The day began with a meeting at the Gandhi Ashram in Godhra. The meeting was significant for two reasons. The first was that it was the burning of a train compartment at Godhra station tragically killing its Hindu travellers more than 15 years earlier that have set in motion of a cycle of hate violence that has not ended until today.
The second was that the Gandhi Ashram in Godhra was established exactly 100 years back, in 1917, by the Mahatma, and he often held his prayer meetings, for peace between people of diverse faiths and for his work to fight untouchability, in the same hall with a high tiled roof in which we had gathered a century earlier.
(Cover Photograph: Harsh Mander laying photographs on the spot where Pehlu Khan was lynched)