MALDA, West Bengal: When Afrajul Khan’s coffin arrived at his house, two neighbours wrapped their arms around Gulbahar Bibi’s waist and held her back from falling on the body. The widow had spent the last two days slipping in and out of consciousness and when Khan’s remains arrived, all she wanted to do was hug him and cry.
But the small crowd of women who’d gathered at her home tried their best not to let Gulbahar touch or hug Khan’s body. It was only later that she realised why.
“When they started taking off the cloth wrapped around him, clumps of burnt flesh came off and stuck to the bedsheet,” Gulbahar said. She remembers screaming in horror and fainting again.
More than a year after Khan, a labourer from Malda district in West Bengal, was hacked and burnt to death in Rajasthan’s Rajsamand town by a man claiming to be a Hindutva ‘soldier’, his family is yet to come to terms with his murder.
Khan’s village, where the majority of men have migrated to other states in search of work, remains fearful of what may happen if the BJP gets a second term at the centre. Jobs are hard to come by in the area, and the men who have no option but to leave their homes keep their heads down, wary of attracting any attention on themselves.
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The labourer’s family barely had any savings and the Rs 3 lakh compensation they got from the West Bengal government has almost run out. Not only is Gulbahar struggling to make ends meet, she is still affected by the trauma of her husband’s gruesome death.
“She keeps sobbing all day at times,” said 15-year-old Habiba, her youngest daughter, who earns a meagre amount as a bidi worker.
HuffPost India met Khan’s family in Saida, a village in Kaliachowk in Malda, where the BJP has recently claimed to have made headway among the voters. Sreerupa Mitra, the BJP candidate from Malda South constituency, where Kaliachowk falls, recently shared a series of social media posts, including a few videos that showed a small group of Muslim women chanting slogans alongside her. The posts claimed that the women have joined BJP and indicated the party is getting some support from the community, especially the women. She also posted pictures of her visiting a dargah, though some commenters expressed their displeasure at her efforts.
Gulbahar, however, has not heard of Mitra. The election frenzy around her—fresh wall graffiti painted on the roads leading to her village, party flags strung across local shops, and vans fitted with loudspeakers blaring recorded messages seeking votes—has barely registered. “She can’t think of anything else,” Habiba told HuffPost India.
“He kept begging for his life”
On 6 December 2017, Gulbahar was sitting in the sun on the terrace of their small two-storey house when two men from the neighbourhood came to her house and asked if she had spoken to her husband in the past hour. She had asked her daughter to call him a couple of hours ago, but Khan hadn’t answered.
“Why don’t you try calling him again?” one of the men asked her.
Khan’s daughter kept calling. “Once, twice, five times… no answer,” she said. The men left hastily, telling Gulbahar that they had heard that Khan had met with an accident in Rajasthan.
It was only hours later that Khan’s wife was told that he was dead and even later, that he was bludgeoned to death.
Habiba, who was 13 when her father died, had heard from her friends about a ‘video’ doing the rounds. The low-end phone that Gulbahar and her daughter used didn’t support internet and therefore, she said, she didn’t receive the ‘forward’ of her father being hacked to death. Her friends, however, offered to show her.
When the video began playing, all Habiba could hear was a muffled voice and some stray words in Hindi. “I said I did not want to watch and ran away,” she said.
Gulbahar, however, couldn’t run away. When she came back to her senses the next day, some of the women gathered in her tiny, cluttered room were huddled around a phone and watching the video.
“I just caught a few lines. Kyun maar rahe ho babuji, mujhe chhor do. Babuji, babuji… (Why are you hitting me babuji? Leave me. Babuji, babuji),” Gulbahar said between sobs.
She didn’t see the video, but she caught snatches of conversations about what happened that day.
“The man dragged him across the forest, they said. He kept kicking him, then hacking him. He kept begging for his life… ‘leave me, leave me, please have mercy on me,’ he said. The man didn’t stop,” she told HuffPost India.
“I just caught a few lines. Kyun maar rahe ho babuji, mujhe chhor do. Babuji, babuji… (Why are you hitting me babuji? Leave me. Babuji, babuji),”
Gulbahar paused to catch her breath and then turned to a neighbour who was standing at the door of her room. “Was he alive when he set him on fire? Was he? You’ve seen the video, haven’t you? The whole country has, everyone said. They won’t tell me… but what will I do knowing now,” she said. The neighbour mumbled some words of consolation before hastily leaving the house.
Khan and Gulbahar were married for 30 years and had three daughters. The older daughters are married, their husbands labourers like Khan. The couple had wanted Habiba to study and get a ‘proper job’. Gulbahar, born to poor labourers, never went to school and was married off to Khan in her teens. Unable to read or write, Gulbahar struggled to recollect exactly how many years Khan had worked as a labourer in other states.
However, she did remember that a few years ago, Khan said he was tired of having to live and work away from home. “But we had another daughter to educate, and marry. So he had to go,” she said.
When Khan died, he was working in Rajsamand, a town just 5km away from Rajasthan’s capital Jaipur. Depending on how long he could manage to work, Khan would send anything between Rs 4,000 and Rs 10,000 back home every month.
“On very good months, it was Rs 10,000. He mostly sent four-five thousand rupees by the end,” Gulbahar said. Khan had been suffering from chronic back pain—from working at construction sites and lifting heavy things for decades—and had been complaining of a headache as well. “He couldn’t work as much and as long as he used to,” she said.
The day Khan was murdered, he was rushing to meet a ‘babu’ who had promised him work, the same one who killed him. Gulbahar had spoken to him before he left.
“I asked him ’did you have anything? He said, ‘no, just had a cup of tea’. Will come back and see’,” Gulbahar said.
“I complained a bit. ‘Have some food please’, I told him. On some days, he’d just have a samosa or two and tea the entire day,” she said.
Khan couldn’t afford heavy meals at home either, but he liked his plate of rice with a spoon of salt for lunch. “He didn’t get to eat that there. So on some days, he’d have a samosa, or a kachori or something and sleep hungry,” Gulbahar said.
That was the last time she ever spoke to her husband.
“It’s been two years that no one has asked me what I ate, if I ate at all,” she sobbed.
Gulbahar suffers from a nervous system disorder which makes it difficult for her to stand for long or walk too much. Her hands tremble as well, making it difficult for her to find work as a labourer. When Khan was alive, he’d spent a lot of money to take her to doctors in Malda town.
“Every visit plus the medicines would cost around Rs 1,000-2,000. I have stopped visiting the doctor since he died. Where is the money for all this?” she said.
Habiba, who was not sent to work even when times were difficult, has had to take up a job as a bidi worker. She earns about Rs 100 if she manages to roll and bind 1,000 bidis.
She took her tenth standard board examinations this year but every time she opened a book to study, she couldn’t stop thinking about her mother’s failing health and the groans of her father that she had heard briefly in the video her friend played.
While Khan’s murder hit the headlines and shocked people across the country, the story of the poor labourer from a remote West Bengal village disappeared swiftly from public memory. When his name did surface in conversations, it was mostly in relation to his brazen murderer, who uploaded more hate videos even from prison. Mirror Now reported last week that the Uttar Pradesh Navnirman Sena, which wants to give Lok Sabha tickets to Hindus who have lynched Muslims, may field Regar in Rampur, against Samajwadi Party’s Azam Khan and BJP’s Jaya Prada. The chilling video that Regar got his minor nephew to shoot was waved about by Hindutva goons as a warning to other Muslims and flaunted as a badge of honour.
Those who don’t celebrate Regar think of him as a symbol of the excesses of ‘Hindutva’ that the BJP government has invoked, but Khan’s name and the plight of his family was not widely discussed.
Gulbahar knows there’s an election around the corner and people will come asking for votes. She can’t say which party was in power in Rajasthan when Khan died (a BJP government, headed by Vasundhara Raje) and hasn’t thought much about BJP or Modi. “I am illiterate, what do I even know?” she said.
The Rajasthan government offered Rs 5 lakh compensation to Khan’s family but a person close to them told HuffPost India that Gulbahar did not accept the money, asking only for justice for her husband.
A desperate village
When Sakina, who lives a few houses away from Gulbahar, first saw the video of Khan being lynched, she ran back home and asked her daughter-in-law to call her son and tell him to catch the first train back home.
Most able-bodied men from the village of roughly 3,000 people work as migrant labourers in construction sites across India. Saida, a cluster of mud huts and low brick houses, is a short ten-minute drive away from the NH-34 highway.
Mohammed Zia-ul Chowdhury, a labour contractor from Khan’s village, told HuffPost India that men struggled to find work in West Bengal.
“Sometimes the pay is as low as Rs 100-150 a day. It is never more than Rs 200. Also, there is hardly any work here. The little work that’s there, too many people scramble for it,” he said.
In contrast, states like Rajasthan, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Kerala and even Jammu & Kashmir hire labourers from Malda for higher wages.
“They can earn anything between Rs 300 and Rs 350 a day. The contractor probably earns Rs 500 per labourer but spends on providing accommodation and food,” he said.
But even in many of these states, the labourers don’t get any facilities except the wages. If they fall sick and skip work, they’re not paid for the day. Companies which contract these labourers don’t pay for medical expenses.
“If it’s a small thing like a fever or a cough, or a worker has hurt himself on the work site, the company pays. Otherwise, they have to pay themselves for doctors,” Chowdhury said, explaining why Khan did not get treatment for his back pain.
The exodus in West Bengal, said Chowdhury, started in the mid-80s, corresponding to the time industries started crumbling from rampant corruption and red tapism in West Bengal under the Left government.
“I visited Rajasthan with my father in ’86 for the first time. I have been working as a contractor since then,” said Chowdhury.
Until 2014, he said, he had never heard complaints of Muslim labourers being abused for their religion in other states. “If that was the case, would this work survive this long?” he said.
Things changed, however, after the BJP came to power in 2014.
When news about ‘gau rakshaks’ heckling and lynching Muslims started making the rounds on WhatsApp, Chowdhury and other labour contractors in the area reached out to the men they sent for work and told them to stay clear of anything that could draw the attention of the cow vigilantes. “But the difficult part was to explain the ‘anything’. We couldn’t fathom what would anger them. We can’t stop being Muslims, can we?” he said.
Sakina told HuffPost India that she can still hear Khan’s screams when she shuts her eyes. And she is afraid for her son Mintu Sheikh, who is still working in Rajasthan.
The 30-year-old labourer saw the video while he was at work in Jodhpur, laying bricks for a big housing project.
“A man who worked as some sort of a contractor for the owners came to me. He said, ‘see, isn’t this guy one of you?’. I set my equipment down and saw the video. My blood ran cold. It was Afrajul,” Mintu, who’s currently on a month-long break from work, told HuffPost India. However, soon after confirming that Mintu knew the victim, the man sauntered away. “I went back to finishing my work,” he said.
Back home, Sakina couldn’t believe what she was watching.
“This boy who lives in the house across ours was the first one in the village to receive the WhatsApp message. He showed his mother and she told some of us women.” She pointed to a hut with brick walls and a tin roof, recounting how women gathered around the neighbour’s phone to watch the video.
“How much pain the man must have been in. He fell to the killer’s feet and begged, how much he begged…,” Sakina trailed off, looking at Mintu. After watching the video and briefly speaking to Mintu on the phone, Sakina headed to Gulbahar’s house, where she found that Khan’s widow had fainted in shock.
Mintu pacified his mother on the call but was actually petrified. He called his brother Babar Sheikh, who also worked in another site around Jodhpur, and asked him if a riot had broken out.
“We couldn’t understand. Why is a person killing Afrajul like that? We thought there must be a riot happening and people would be coming for us,” 24-year-old Babar told HuffPost India.
While no one attacked them, a week or so later, when Mintu was returning from a nearby shop to the rented room he shared with six other labourers, a group of six men stopped him. “They pushed me around, asked me where I was from. Asked if I had seen the video. When I said yes, they said we should go back to where we came from or else the same would happen to all of us,” he said. He said he’s always scared that local men will ‘catch them and beat them up’.
Mintu doesn’t know if the men were locals. A couple of days later, some other Muslim labourers also complained that they’d been roughed up and threatened.
“We just kept quiet and hoped it would all go away,” Mintu said. But it didn’t. While the frequency of the incidents has declined over the past few months, it isn’t completely unusual for groups of men to accost and harass labourers like Mintu. One time, a group of men shouted at them saying what happened with Afrajul can happen again.
The police just said, ‘yeah, why don’t you just go back and spare everyone all this trouble?’
“A group of 10-12 men surrounded 2-3 of us and abused us. Our contractor took us to the police. The police just said, ‘yeah, why don’t you just go back and spare everyone all this trouble?’,” he said.
For the past year and a half, the men try to step out in groups, avoid arguments and don’t talk much with locals. They even complained to the owners of the construction companies who pleaded helplessness in the face of mob threats. Some of the men harassing them, Mintu told HuffPost India was identified by locals as BJP workers, the reason why they did not want to get into conflicts with them.
Both Sheikh and Mintu had no option but to return to work in Rajasthan since Khan’s death.
“We have to go where they pay us. If we don’t, we will anyway die of hunger,” said Sheikh. Chowdhury said that though most labourers can’t afford to be picky about work, the number of men he used to send to Rajasthan has fallen considerably.
What about states like UP or Haryana, which has also witnessed a spate of lynchings?
“This was too close to home. Also, as long as this BJP is at the centre, these things will keep happening. How many states should we stop working in?”
“If I don’t go to work outside, if my children want two books instead of one, two dresses instead of one, or a chocolate, how will I get them all this?” Mintu asked.
Khan’s widow still finds it difficult to believe that Regar targeted Khan because he was Muslim.
“I often think, why him? He was a poor man trying to feed his family. Why him? But people say that the man killed my husband because he is Muslim. What does that mean?” asked Gulbahar.