We began the year with a journey into Bengal.

For me it was fitting but emotionally wrenching to start this year’s Karwan with a visit this morning to the home of Afrazul Khan, the migrant worker whose life had ended at the end of last year in a particularly brutal hate killing.

I had gone days after he was bludgeoned, hacked and then burnt alive, assiduously filmed by a teenager on 6 December 2017 to Rajsamand in Rajasthan as part of a fact-finding. We learnt there that Rajsamand district, like many parts of Rajasthan, is served by thousands of circular migrants from Malda in West Bengal, mostly Bengali Muslim workers skilled in construction and road-building.

They live lonely lives of hard labour some ten months every year far away from their families and home, to feed and educate their families. Just four days after the killing, most of the workers had fled home in terror. We had met in Rajsamand Afrazul’s son-in-law, who the police had asked to stay to assist with the investigations. I had resolved then that the Karwan must visit Afrazul’s family in Malda.

This morning, we passed mustard fields in flower and freshly transplanted paddy fields, before we wound our way through narrow lanes to Afrazul’s home in Saiyadpur village of the district Malda. Due to his long years of hard labour, his family lived in a pucca brick home. Led inside, we met his widow Gulbahar Bibi, and his three daughters. He had no sons.

We explained to his family who we were, and what our mission was. Her elder son-in-law Musharraf, who we had met in Rajsamand after the murder, recognised us.

Afrazul’s widow Bibi was composed, her face strained, breaking down only occasionally. She said they wanted nothing now except the hanging of the man who killed her husband so cruelly, for no reason except his religion. She and her daughters fondly recalled their father, who had devoted his entire life to their care. He had educated all his daughters, and married off the elder two. The youngest Habiba Khatoon, 16 years old, was in Class 10, and wanted to study further. A private residential school had given her admission after her father’s cruel death.

Afrazul would come to see them every few months and stay a few days or weeks each time. He had come to them last during the festival of sacrifice, Eid ul Zuha. But even the morning he died, he had called his wife according to his custom, at 8.30 in the morning. He had asked after his beloved daughter - had she gone to school? His wife asked him in turn had he eaten. He said he would come to see them at the village at the end of that week. This was the last time that they spoke.

His eldest daughter Jyotsnara Begum wept as she repeated, ‘My father was a good man. We have no brothers. There is no one to take care of us now. I want that his killer should be hung’. I tried gently to tell them that I agreed that he deserved severe punishment (although I believe no one should be given the death penalty). But I said I felt that even far more than him, the people, the organisations, and the leaders – up to those who hold high offices – are those who are even more guilty than him, because they have fostered the hate that blind men like their father’s killer. I told them a little about what I had learned about the man who had killed their father. (We had visited his family as well when in Rajsamand).

We left them with our eyes moist.

Outside Afrazul’s home, a large number of men from the village had gathered. Most said that they were circular migrant workers. ‘We have little or no land here. There is very little work to be had in agriculture. There are no factories. We can stay alive only if we travel to far corners of India in search of work’. We asked how much they earned. They said they managed to save six or seven thousand rupees a month which they sent home. They know that they should be registered as inter-state migrants, and be given many protections and services, but none of these came their way.

Many had returned in droves from Rajasthan after Afrazul’s killing, and were still too frightened to go back there to work. They said that they had never faced violence in Rajasthan before this. ‘But after all the killings of Muslims that we see all over India these days, we have started living with fear. We never know who will attack us, and where’. But they know they will have to set out one day soon again, otherwise their families will starve, and they would not be able to educate and marry off their children. ‘If not Rajasthan, we will have to find another part of India to travel to in search of work’.

We made one more halt in the same district, in another village Sharikganj to meet another bereaved family. But this was a more ambiguous meeting. Over one month after Afrazul’s hate killing, another Bengali migrant from Malda, again in Rajasthan in Jaipur, was found killed in his room. He was working in the tent business, one more field that has attracted a number of migrants from Malda.

Some ten days before our visit, his body was found mutilated in his room in Jaipur, a limb severed and damaged with acid. No one knows why he was killed, and by whom. He could have been killed by his enemies for other reasons than religious hate. But the worry is that just as Afrazul’s body was found similarly savaged and mutilated, if his killer had not had the murder videographed, the same mysteries would have surrounded his murder as those of this migrant worker Sakir Ali.

It is hard enough to be forced to spend most of your adult life toiling at low and uncertain wages without a decent room or food or the company of your loved ones in lonely, faraway lands. If now you also have to live with the fear that you might be killed just because of your religion, just trying to survive for those you love becomes an enterprise so fraught and dangerous that it becomes hard to bear.

Our second day of the Karwan e Mohabbat 2018 was India’s 67th Republic Day. We spent this day travelling in remote rural Bengal, meeting families of three young men who were lynched, and their bodies mutilated and dismembered. This was one more lynching in the country that was celebrated by the killers by videotaping the killing and circulating the recording triumphantly on social media.

It was claimed at that time, by the crowds, the police and even representatives of the ruling party, that a mob of villagers killed them because they were cow thieves. The story we heard in our travels was all too familiar, one troublingly similar to those that we have heard over and over again in the eight states to which the Karwan has travelled so far.

It was the evening of the 27th roza fast of Ramzaan in Eid on June 22 midsummer last year. Three friends in three different villages in the North Bengal district of Uttar Dinajpur were enjoying the special Iftar meal to break their fasts with their families, in anticipation of the Eid celebrations that were to follow. The friends were all in their mid-twenties. Two were day labourers ready to do any work that was locally offered to them – construction work, farm labour, tea leaf plucking, and whatever else came their way; one was trying to set up a small business. All the three friends were married, with small children.

Each of their families reported to us that their mobile phones rang while they were eating. Each said that the young men initially said to whoever called that they were reluctant to leave their family celebrations, but finally conceded. They speculate that because the three of them often took petty construction assignments together, perhaps this was what they were called away so urgently for. But they now have no way of knowing for sure. Two of the young men left on their bikes, one walked and was picked up some distance away. They did not return all that night. The next morning, each of the families were summoned to the police station. To collect their sons’ savaged bodies, dead and mutilated after mob lynching.

The first family we met was in the village Dhulagoch. The young man Nasruddin’s ageing father, Yasin Mohammed, with a white beard, white singlet and blue lungi customary for men of his age, met us weeping. For the hour that we were with him, he would not leave my hand. He was joined by his mother, bent over with age and mourning, the boy’s mother, his widow Anisa and their two small children.

The entire family sobbed out loud and long as they shared with us the trauma of his loss six months earlier, and the nightmare of what followed. He used to work in Delhi as a truck driver. After a road accident, his father called him back home. It did not matter if he earned less as work was uncertain and low-paid. At least he was safe and close to home.

The morning after he did not return home, a policeman of the village came to their home in civil clothes. He showed them a video of a lynching. To their horror, they could recognise that one of the young men being attacked was Nasruddin. They rushed to the police station, only to be handed his bloodied and defaced dead body.

The distraught families of his two friends were also there. We met their families as well in the course of our journey today. Nasirul’s mother Masida Begum and wife Marjina in the village Kutipada; and Samiruddin’s widow in the village Kandapora. Nasirul’s widow gave birth to a daughter months after he had died.

Two of the bodies of the young men were lying in an ambulance, and a third on a hospital stretcher. They were disfigured and dismembered, with limbs smashed and crushed, and even their genitals stoned. The police would tell them nothing more than that villagers of a neighbouring Hindu village Durgapur had found them stealing cows. They had caught and in their mass fury lynched them. The families were enraged at the charge of their boys being cow thieves. ‘Would anyone in their right mind set out to steal cows on motor cycles?’ they asked indignantly. But they reported that the police was rough with them.

Two of the post-mortems were completed before the families arrived. One was done with the family present. The police then handed over the bodies to the families. The dazed and grieving families spent their own money to transport the bodies to their home, before they confined each to their graves.

After their deaths, some local politicians came to see them, and some people from the local media. A local politician announced that he was convinced that the men were indeed cow smugglers, without offering any proof. No senior officials, to offer help or solace. One family reported that the local block office gave them some grain and a bag of rice. Nothing else. We found the families in extreme want, with their able-bodied bread earners suddenly lost.

The families were desperate to know the truth of who had killed their sons and husbands so viciously, and why. We looked at the papers of the cases, and found that the police had registered cases under Section 304, of culpable homicide not amounting to murder; and not murder under Section 302. The faces of the killers and a large crowd on onlookers were clearly visible in the video they circulated. But only three men were ultimately arrested, and released on bail in just a fortnight because of the lenient sections of the Indian Penal Code under which they had been charged.

The families went in delegations to the police station, but report that they were roughly tuned away without answers. They claim that the police threatened that they too would be locked up if they made too much trouble. The villages planned a gherao surrounding the police station. But a local representative of the panchayat – the same who said the men were cow smugglers - dissuaded them. He said that if they did this, it would anger their Hindu neighbours, and might result in Hindu-Muslim riots. It was wise, their representative advised them, to remain silent to avoid trouble in which in the end only they would suffer. They finally accepted this counsel – whether out of voluntary restraint, or despair.

We decided that we should try to get some answers from the police to the grieving families. We took representatives from each of the three families with us to the Chopra Police Station. We waited for an hour before the Circle Inspector agreed to see us. We told him about the Karwan, and our concerns for the families whose sons had been lynched, that they were entitled to know the progress in the investigations into the lynching. I also asked if charges of murder had at least now been instituted against the killers.

He said he would not speak to us until he had the permission of the District Superintendent of Police. He spoke to his superior in our presence, and then replied that he was not authorised to give us any answers at all. I asked heatedly how as a public servant, he could turn away the families of the bereaved families. But he was adamant.

We left Bengal intensely troubled about how deep the poison of communal hatred has penetrated even a part of India that has maintained greater communal peace after Partition than most others. The villagers in all the three villages to which we travelled said that apart from stray and minor incidents, there had before this been no major incidents of communal tension and violence between Hindus and Muslims of the area before this.

All of this lies shattered after the lynching of the three young men, aggravated first by the charge that they were cow thieves, and then the refusal of the state administration to extend to them solace, support or justice of any kind. This is a failure also that I feel compelled to point to, of local civil liberty groups and progressive and secular political parties.

My greatest disappointment was to observe that the attitude of the state administration to the victim families whose loved ones had been felled by hate violence was no different from that of the administrations of BJP ruled states. I could easily instead have been in Gujarat, or Rajasthan, or Uttar Pradesh, and not West Bengal. The betrayal of governments of political parties that claim to be secular in failing to defend their minorities rankles painfully and erodes the secular promises of India’s Constitution.

Today’s was a journey made even more painful because we made it on the day that the Indian government was celebrating its republic with displays of its military might and cultural pageantry. The despair and fear in the eyes of the members of the three families we met on this day in Bengal villages revealed how hollowed out are the promises of India’s republic to its most vulnerable citizens, and how weakly we all defend these.