Karwan e Mohabbat: A Journey Through Troubled Lands
NEW DELHI: It seemed like a very ambitious project, one that would not happen when former bureaucrat, now activist Harsh Mander first spoke of it. A journey through the troubled heart of India, touching hands, healing hearts with a Karwan e Mohabbat that would start from Nellie in Assam, where thousands were killed with no arrests or compensation or rehabilitation, through India ending the journey at Porbander, Gujarat on Gandhi Jayanti, October 2.
But the idea has been turned into action, with the Karwan doing precisely what it was intended to-with activists and chroniclers boarding a bus and travelling through the heartland, stopping to meet with the relatives of those who have lost their loved ones to communal frenzy, and feel vulnerable and isolated in the face of government apathy and inaction. Harsh Mander chronicles the days, and as the Karawan is about to enter Delhi at Tilak Nagar tomorrow, gives us a glimpse of the first five days of this “Call to Conscience”
We have completed the first day of the Karwan e Mohabbat in Assam. We had a heart-rending meeting with the families of two cousins Riyaz and Abu Hanif who were lynched in Nagaon. They were both teenagers fishing in a nearby non-Muslim village, where on the rumour that they were cow thieves, they were lynched to death by a mob, who also badly mutilated their bodies. Their parents are still inconsolable that their eldest sons were killed by their neighbours, and with such cruelty. We hope our visit offered them a little solace. Ten men were arrested and were quickly released on bail. A group of local lawyers have agreed to work to secure for them justice.
We were also able to constitute the first Aman Insaniyat Citizen Council in the district Nagaon. We hope that collectively civil society will be able to create these councils in every district, to fight hate and violence against minorities, Dalits, Adivasis and women, and all others.
Student leaders spoke in the afternoon of their vision for a new India without hate and exploitation, in Guwahati.
Even before the second day of the Karwan was over, we were stunned and grieved to receive the shocking news of the murder of Gauri Lankesh, a brave, fearless and uncompromising fighter against Hindutva politics. Once again the forces of intolerance and unreason have cowardly taken away from us a leading voice of reason and solidarity. But her voice will become only stronger even when she is no longer physically with us.
This second day of the Karwan e Mohabbat was filled once again with sad meetings with bereaved parents. But this time their sons were not killed by lynch mobs, but by other forces of hate. We first met the parents of 22 year old Yakub Ali, in his village Kharbuja in Goalpara District. In this and other districts of Assam, a huge number of persons have been served notices that they are ‘doubtful voters’. It is not unusual for the father or mother to be deemed an Indian citizen and their children to be deemed ‘doubtful voters’. Yakub joined a protest against this state action which they saw as targeted against Bengali Muslim citizens of India on 30 June 2017. A video records what followed. There was some mild stone throwing by the protestors. A policeman can be seen picking up a rifle, taking aim, and shooting dead Yabub. There is no use of milder force, no advance warning by the police, no shooting below the waist. It was a clear shooting to kill.
Equally distraught were the parents of Lafiqul Islam Ahmed who we met in Salakati Maszid Para village of Kokrajhar district. He was the very popular state president of the ABMSU (All Bodo Territorial Council Minority Students’ Union). He had tried hard to build bonds between the various communities in Bodoland, and fought the long history of his homeland of hatred and violence between these communities. His secular, inclusive and reform-based progressive politics made him very popular with all communities, and a threat to the prevailing politics of hatred and division. On 1 August 2017, two armed gunmen pumped a dozen bullets into his body in broad daylight in a busy marketplace. Several thousand people of all communities gathered for his funeral. His main killers are still untraced.
As the Karwan left Assam, it was with much sadness. Hate violence and an openly hostile partisan state have pushed Assam’s minorities further than ever before into an intense sense of fear and dread. People committed to constitutional values of equality and secularism from all across India need to stand firmly with them.
On a bumpy bus journey from Giridih to Ramgarh in Jharkhand, trying to type my short update for today, the third day of the Karwan.
My heart very weighed down in a day with many reminders of why this Karwan was important to attempt.
The cowardly killing of a fearless, charismatic, influential and uncompromising fighter against religious hatred and bigotry Gauri Lankesh of course cast a long shadow on our hearts. A sobering reminder that the climate of hate, intimidation and fear is mounted not just against minorities and Dalits, but also against those for defend their rights and fight for constitutional values.
We went to a village in Giridih, and found a terrifying replay of the Akhlaq lynching, not just of the events but of communal rationalisations in the village to justify the lynching. The old man who was lynched – Usman Ansari – has just about survived the lynching, but is terribly broken both in body and in spirit. He is still in hiding months after the lynching. The organisers did not let even us know where he had taken refuge, and agreed to only a small group from the Karwan visiting him in secret.
The story that unfolded on 28 July 2017 had many echoes from Dadri. One Muslim household alone in a Hindu settlement. The rumour that he had killed a cow, when a decapitated cow was mysteriously found in the village dump-yard. His neighbours attack him brutally in his home, beating him until he is unconscious. They take him for dead, and set on fire his home, reducing it to ashes. They are about to set his body aflame. His life is saved by seconds because of the arrival of the police and the DC.
The one silver lining of the story is the exemplary role of the young DC, and the police under his guidance. The crowd stones them and their vehicle. But they rescue the old man, and rush him to Hazaribagh hospital. He is unconscious for eight days, and treated in Ranchi hospital for to months. His scalp is still wounded, his hand bones crushed to pieces.
But none from his village tried to save him during the killing, and none have reached out to him since then. The state administration has also given no financial help. The old man wept often when he spoke to us About how his neighbours tried to kill him. About how his sons were out begging for money in the community to help his medical expenses and feed his family. About one son who has lost his mind after the trauma. About his resolve to return to his village, even if no one wants him, even if he may be attacked again, because there is nowhere else he can call home.
Our even greater sadness was in the village meeting that followed. Around 300 men had gathered. We spoke but there was no remorse. They were convinced that Usman was guilty. They asked why we did not express sympathy with the ‘innocent’ men who the police had arrested, and the man injured in the leg when the police fired to disperse the mob that wanted to burn alive the unconscious Usman. A replay of the same arguments that we heard in Dadri. That Muslims were guilty by definition, that Hindus were innocent and nationalist by definition. Our arguments appealing to justice, and to even elementary humanity, only led to anger and hostility among most who gathered there from the majority community, even members of progressive and left organisations. No compassion, no contrition of any kind.
Two reminders – the Lankesh killing and the absence of any compassion for the aged and broken survivor of the attempt by his neighbours to lynch him – of why this Karwan e Mohabbat needed to be done.
The fourth day of our Karwan began with an unexpected healing moment, when the local gurudwara in Ramgarh district headquarters in Jharkhand where we spent the night at a dharmsala, invited the Karwan e Mohabbat to the gurudwara to endorse its call for solidarity and love. They quoted from Sikh scriptures verses of both Nanak and Kabir to underline its message of inter-religious unity and tolerance. Speakers reflected on how relevant this message was for our times of rising hate. The small local Sikh community settled there after Partition. We remembered the two storms of hate that twice destroyed their lives – in 1947 and then again in 1984 – and how they should teach them the consequences of hate violence today against other minorities.
We then drove to the village Manua in Manoa block of the district, and met there the strong unbroken widow Mariam Khatoon of a man who had been lynched two months earlier in the busy marketplace of Ramgarh town.
On the morning of 27 June 2017, coal trader Amiluddin Ansari leaves his home in his car. About an hour later, imagine the horror of his seventeen year old son Shahban when he receives a Whats App video of his father being lynched brutally by a mob of young self-styled cow vigilantes. He jumps blindly on to a motorcycle to drive to the town in a desperate bid to save his father, but his bike crashes a little distance from his home. He calls his 22 year old brother Shehzad, who leaves immediately with his mother. When they reach Ramgarh, they find their car overturned and gutted in the centre of the market, and Shehzad’s father’s blood stains on the streets. People tell them that the police have taken Amiluddin for treatment to the civil hospital in Ranchi.
They drive in a rush to Ranchi. There they learn that he had died at the hands of the mob in the Ramgarh market itself. The police does a hurried secret post-mortem without allowing the family to see the body, and to date have refused to share with them the contents of the report. It takes multiple visits to the police that long night before they were given the body late after midnight.
In many episodes of lynching, we are witnessing this bizarre new social phenomenon of hate – of the lynching video. We watched in horror the video that Amiluddin Ansari’s sons saw on their phones, even as their father at that moment was succumbing to his attackers. These videos are typically taken by the attackers themselves. You watch them in Ansari’s lynching video laughing as the battered bleeding man begs for his life, as though this was a sport, a reality television show or a video game. At one point, a boy grabs the terrified man's face and turns it to the camera, asking the videographer to take a good shot. There are pictures of piles of red meat on the streets, but none of these actually being taken out of the car.
The state administration has done nothing to support the bereaved family. The younger children have dropped out of school. The meat was sent to check if it was cow meat. A group of local boys angrily protested when the police failed to arrest those of the attackers who could be easily identified from the video. The police has slapped a series of criminal charges against these protestors, who spent 25 days in jail. Some of the attackers were later arrested, but there are many others who eye-witnesses are willing to name. We saw the photograph of a young man beating Ansari with a fibreglass baton that closely resembles that of the police.
Mariam Khatoon was firm and composed as she spoke to us when we met her, breaking down only once when she recalled how difficult the police made it for them to get her husband’s battered body the night after he was lynched. ‘I only want justice’, she said to us again and again. ‘I want those who lynched my husband to be punished, not for revenge, but to ensure that no one has to go through what my children and I have undergone’.
In the aman sabha meeting that was organised in Ramgarh after we met Mariam Khatoon and her family, we took solace that there were at least no public rationalisations for the hate lynching as we heard in Giridih the night before, (for the lynching of Usman by his neighbours on the charge that he killed his cow a day before Ansari had been lynched). A few senior speakers from the town soberly agreed with me and said that they should have broken their silences and condemned the lynching when it happened, and not remained silence. They concurred that their silences made them complicit in some way in the hate crime. They agreed to constitute an Aman Insaniyat Committee to prevent and respond to hate crime in their district, and to support its victims.
In the afternoon, we arrived at Ranchi. Here the Christian community had organised a massive meeting to coincide with the Karwan to protest the draconian anti-conversion law recently passed by the Jharkhand assembly. The law, they feared, was designed instil fear in the hearts of the small Christina minority, and to tear apart tribal society, in which in the same family, there may be people who worship by their traditional Adivasi Sarna faith, some who are Christian, and some who identify themselves as Hindu. The gathering endorsed the importance of solidarity, of various oppressed minorities and castes and liberal elements, to stand together to fight violence and discrimination against any peoples, and to uphold and practice love, the call of the Krwan.
And now with a day for travel, we move to Mangalore in Karnataka. The Karwan there will both mourn and pay tribute to the fearless defender of justice and secular values Gauri Lankesh, and continue our sombre journey of atonement to the families who were traumatised by this new rising social epidemic of hate lynching.
This fifth day of the Karwan I arrived in Mangalore. Coastal Karnataka has been a laboratory for hate-mongering and hate attacks for many years now.
With local activists including Vidya Dinker and Samvartha, we drove to meet a family that has shifted recently to a village in bordering Kerala. Abdul Shameer was living the life of millions of wage workers in the country. At the age of 13, he went to Mumbai to serve in an eatery. He then changed many jobs, including spending a couple of years in the Gulf, and driving an auto-rickshaw in Mangalore. Just twenty days before he was attacked on 23 August 2014, he had switched jobs because the money was better. He was paid a thousand rupees a day to drive a tempo to transport old cattle sold by farmers for slaughter.
Passing through Mangalore one day, at the heart of the city, his tempo was suddenly blocked by a yellow bus. From this emerged a contingent of Bajrang Dal volunteers, armed with trishuls and rods, shouting terrifying slogans. He was too petrified to run away, as they smashed the window of his tempo. They pulled him out and attacked him with long rods. He recognised in the crowd a fellow auto-rickshaw driver, who he recalls ate beef with him on many occasions. He called out to him to save him, but he joined the attackers. The blows got worse, until one man pierced his skull with a sharp trishul.
He learnt later that the police chowki was just across the road from where he was attacked. They arrived much later, after he was almost dead, and took him to a public hospital. They did not inform his family.
His father insisted on shifting him to a private hospital. Over four months, he spent more than four lakh rupees, which he had paid for by selling their small house, and using up all his savings that he had accumulated for Abdul’s sister’s wedding. Abdul was unconscious for many weeks, and even when he regained consciousness, his body was entwined in tubes, and he could not recognise even his children, and could not stand or walk. After his discharge, his wife tended him night and day, carrying him in her arms.
Since then he has survived on extraordinary public charity, mostly from ordinary Muslims. Emotive television reports of his predicament spurred donations from all over, and this paid for his repeated hospitalisations, his sister’s wedding and the daily expenses for his family. The auto rickshaw union with many Hindu members paid for one of his hospital bills, of more than one lakh rupees. Recently a woman donated half the cost of a house for him, and the other half (of a total of twelve lakhs) was collected by crowdfunding. Today he can walk slowly and painfully a few steps with a walker, speaks with a slur, but his mind is alert. It appears that he will be disabled for life.
However, justice eludes him. the police arrested only a few men for attacking him, and they were out on bail in a few days. The trial has still to begin. But the police also registered crimes against him, under the Karnataka Prevention of Cow Slaughter Act 1964, and he barely escaped arrest by applying for anticipatory bail. Let us recall that it is a Congress government in Karnataka.