NEW DELHI — Danish and his father, Mohammad Akhlaq, threw themselves against the door, but it was of no use. There was no bolt on the inside. A Hindu mob armed with rods and hockey sticks burst into the small room on the top floor of their house.
Danish felt the blows raining down on him. He fell flat on his back and covered his face with his hands. He could not see his father, but sensed that he too was writhing in pain, close by.
Then, a sharp pain ripped through his left arm, forcing him to drop his hand. Seconds later, a heavy stick came barreling towards his eye. He passed out.
“There was no time to say anything to them. I was thinking how can I save my face. I was thinking how can I stay alive,” Danish said in a recent conversation with HuffPost India.
On 28 September, 2015, a mob alleging cow slaughter lynched Akhlaq, an ironsmith from Bisada village located in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh. Danish, his younger son, who was thrashed within an inch of his life, survived.
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Two brain surgeries and more than three years later, Danish, now 25 years old, is trying to make sense of the past, even as he looks with apprehension to the future.
He has lost his father and his childhood home. The injuries to his brain have weakened his memory. There was a time he spent hours studying for Indian Administrative Service (IAS) examination, but now he cannot retain a lot of what he reads. He has found work as a graphics designer.
For Danish, whose life and liberty was threatened as a consequence of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Hindutva politics, the 2019 general election is more than just an exercise in universal adult franchise.
BJP’s re-election for another five years first and foremost is a threat to his physical safety and security, and second, a question mark on whether Muslim citizens can live and work as equals in India. In other words, will he have to continue looking over his shoulder, holding his tongue and living with fear.
It would be “better,” Danish said, if the BJP were not to come back.
Referring to incidents like the missing Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) student, Najeeb Ahmed, and 15-year-old Junaid, who was murdered in a Mathura-bound train, Danish said, “Itis a question of life and death. Muslims are afraid. A crack between Hindus and Muslims has been created. Will this get cemented? What if there is no going back?”
In the next few weeks, the sheer scale and pageantry of the world’s largest election are likely to eclipse these questions.
While there are debates over political stratagems, charismatic personalities, clever alliances and caste calculus, Danish — and other lynching survivors that HuffPost India spoke with — are wondering whether and how it could get worse for minorities.
“You want to make India a Hindu country? Would you kill all the Muslims or turn them out of the country? Please tell us to what extent you would go to finish Muslims?” said Danish.
“Why are you doing all this, yaar? Besides religion, do Muslims not do what Hindus do for this country. On what basis do you want to keep Hindus first and Muslims second. Are we not equal citizens?” he said.
Even with the specter of the BJP hanging over him, Danish, who intends to vote in the upcoming poll, is struggling to find a party or a politician that he actually wants to see in power.
He would have liked to vote for someone.
“I wish I could form the government and bring some peace. I cannot think of anyone whom I want to vote for,” he said.
You want to make India a Hindu country? Would you kill all the Muslims or turn them out of the country?
Five years of lynchings
Akhlaq’s was not the first lynching after the Narendra Modi-led BJP government came to power in May, 2014. Two months later, in June, a 28-year-old engineer, Mohsin Shaikh, was lynched by right wing goons in Pune. Shaikh’s father, Sadique Shaikh, who ran from pillar to post trying to get justice for his son, was a broken man when he died of a heart attack in December, last year.
Akhlaq’s murder was the first to be carried out by cow vigilantes, increasingly emboldened in the months after the Modi government took over.
If there were any doubt as to whether the BJP would rely on religious polarization even after it won, Akhlaq’s lynching laid that to rest. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s failure to condemn the lynching in a timely and emphatic made it clear that a violent brand of Hindutva would be tolerated.
Since 2014 to 2018, forty six people, the majority of them Muslims, have lost their lives in cow-related violence, according to the IndiaSpendHate Tracker. Not only has cow related violence increasedtenfold in the past five years, but spread from the cow-belt in northern India to other parts of the country.
Last year, the US Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) in its latest reportplaced India in the Tier 2 countries of particular concern along with Afghanistan and Iraq.
“India’s history as a multicultural and multi-religious society remained threatened by an increasingly exclusionary conception of national identity based on religion. During the year, Hindu-nationalist groups sought to ‘saffronise’ India through violence, intimidation, and harassment against non-Hindus and Hindu Dalits,” itsaid.
Some have called the upcoming election a battle for the soul of India, but it is well worth asking if there would even be a battle if the Modi government’s economic policies had not hurt millions of Indians across social strata.
With Modi seemingly recovering lost ground in the wave of post-Pulwama nationalism, and the Opposition not quite bringing the job crisis home, a second term for the BJP suddenly seems very real those who dread it.
“I’m very uneasy. I have a feeling that if the BJP comes back then something big will happen. I cannot say what it is. I feel as if something will break in our country and we will not be able to fix it,” said Danish.
A few days after this conversation, a Muslim man in Varanasi waskilled by a Hindu mob when he tried to stop them from destroying a holy structure, which was under dispute. A day later, a Muslim family in Gurgaon wasattacked with sticks and rods by a group of assailants.
There was no allegation of cow slaughter in this case, just Muslim boys playing a game of cricket outside their home, and some goons who felt entitled to yell, “goto Pakistan and play.”
I feel as if something will break in our country and we will not be able to fix it.
A changed life
The dark patch on his forehead reminds Danish of the violence that his family had suffered at the hands of their neighbors on 28 September, 2015. His heart and mind are healing slower than his body.
It does not help that the men accused of killing his father are out on bail, while his family has been slapped with charges of cow slaughter.
“Where is the justice?” he asked.
For a month after he came out of hospital, Danish was kept in the dark about his father’s passing. His family kept telling him that Akhlaq was traveling for work. It was only when he suspected something was seriously wrong, and insisted on speaking with his father, his elder brother was forced to tell him the truth.
He did not cry then, Danish recalled. It was the next day, while he was offering namaz, did he feel tears falling on his raised palms. It was then that he remembered everything in a flash.
“It was like a video playing out in my head. I felt that I did not want to live anymore,” he said. “If I see any movie or song, which has something about fathers, I cannot stop crying. I will feel his loss all my life.”
It is not often that Danish talks about the night of 28 September, and in the interest of self preservation, he actively tries not to think about it.
“There are times when I’m sitting and my eyes fill with tears. Work is my biggest distraction. If I’m not working, then I will plug in my earphones so that I’m not alone with my thoughts,” he said.
The biggest blow that Danish has suffered is having to set aside his dream of becoming an IAS officer.
At age 25, Danish knows the clock is ticking for him to take the exam, but he feels unprepared and unsure.
The injuries to his brain, compounded by the mental trauma, have changed his abilities to retain. He reads, but he cannot remember.
If I see any movie or song, which has something about fathers, I cannot stop crying.
It was his father’s dream that he become an IAS officer.
There are times when Danish thinks that his family was targeted because they were challenging the traditional role of Muslims in the village ecosystem — ironsmiths, carpenters, butchers and farm labourers.
With the elder son a technician in the Air Force, and Danish preparing for the civil service, Akhlaq’s family was looking to expand its horizons.
Rattling off the names of neighboring villages like Narauli, Rasoolpur and Rajatpur, Danish said there was no other family with a member in the Air Force.
“Our behavior and our presence was one of a family that was rising. My father only wanted one thing for me and that was to clear the UPSC (Union Public Service Commission). I was going to the library, every day, and preparing for the civil service,” he said. “People don’t like seeing other people doing well.”
If true, this fits in with a certain psyche that believes that Muslims should stay “within limits.”
It would also explain why UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanathrails against Muslims rulers and grand monuments from the past, but has no problem claiming that minorities werereceiving more than their population share in welfare schemes.
The BJP is banking on the Modi government’s welfare schemes, providing LPG (liquefied petroleum gas), crop insurance, bank accounts, and electrification, to win the 2019 election.
Our behavior and our presence was one of a family that was rising.
Neighbors and school mates
It’s been three years, and Danish is still struggling to understand why men he had called his neighbors and schoolmates attacked his family. He cannot make sense of their rage.
Rattling of the names of the men in the crowd, Danish said, “I would not say that we were friends exactly, but it was like ‘hi, hello.’ It was all good, yaar.”
“There are all kinds of bizarre thoughts in my head. We had lived with these people. They had come to wish us on Eid. We had gone to wish them on Holi and Diwali. I cannot say what happened,” he said.
Danish recalled that his family was having dinner and he had asked his mother for more rotis when there was an announcement from the village temple loudspeaker. It said that a cow had been slaughtered and people should gather.
“That announcement said that people should gather on the street. Then, why is it that everyone came out our house in a matter of minutes,” he asked.
Danish has internalized fear, he said.
Other than taking the bus to work and back, he does not travel more than 10 kilometers away from his home when he is on his own. His mother and sister worry every time he leaves the house.
“When I take the bus, I plug in my earphones and don’t talk to anyone. What if someone says or does something — what will I do? I have to inform my family of my every move. I have to call and tell them that I have reached here, I will be here for this much time and then I will leave,” he said.
In Bisada village, Danish recalled the house that his great-grandfather built was surrounded by Hindu homes for a radius of at least a kilometer. His family would have never dreamt of slaughtering a cow, and not just out of fear, but it was also not part of their tradition.
Returning to his village, Danish explained, is impossible. Not only are the accused out on bail, but the family is charged with cow slaughter.
The UP Police has failed to say whether the meat recovered from Akhlaq’s home was beef. The authorities first said that the tested sample was mutton, then said it was beef, and then it was beef but not from Akhlaq’s refrigerator.
After he returned home from hospital, Danish removed everyone with any links to Bisada village, including his two best friends, Kapil and Lalit, from Facebook. (Kapil and Lalit are not among the accused). It was like erasing his childhood, he said, but it had to be done for safety reasons.
Suddenly overwhelmed, Danish shared stories about his friends.
“Kapil was a really serious guy. He would go for coaching and go back home. Nothing else. Lalit was the same. I say it today as well, Kapil is a great guy,” he said.
Like Akhlaq’s family, Bisada too has changed. Those who live in the mostly Rajput village tell reporters that Hindus and Muslims still visit each other on festivals and during marriages, but it’s not the same as before.
There is so much resentment against Akhlaq’s family, that villagers, especially the kin of the accused, say that it was Akhlaq’s family who orchestrated the attack on themselves. It is after all Akhlaq’s family that wound up with compensation worth Rs. 45 lakh and four flats in Noida courtesy the Akhilesh Yadav-led state government.
Shaking his head, Danish said, “Are Muslims responsible for everything wrong in the world? Are Muslims the only people who do wrong? Isn’t there anyone else? This is a ajeeb fanda, yaar.”
After villagers from Dadri started visiting their house in Noida, Akhlaq’s immediate family decided that it was too dangerous to move in.
What he had hoped for was a job from then Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav, but the state election rolled around in 2017, and it never happened.
“I think he would have somehow got me a job, but he did not do it because of the election. Then, the BJP came to power,” he said.
Are Muslims responsible for everything wrong in the world?
Living in a Hindu country
On the one hand, Danish believes it is “only a few Hindus” who are resorting to violence against Muslims. On the other, he sees that it isn’t just the BJP that is resorting to majoritarian politics.
Muslims, he believes, will have to fight for the rights enshrined in the Constitution.
“Whether it is the Congress or the BJP, even if all parties favor Hindus, fine, but can Muslims at least ask for their basic rights through the Constitution? Where does it say in the Constitution that Hindus can live without fear, but Muslim cannot?” he said. “We need to fight for our rights.”
Danish loathes thinking of himself as a “victim.” He does not feel like a second class citizen yet, and it is not something he intends to submit to.
“I have fear inside me, but I want to finish off the fear. I have one life. If I live in fear, that is no life. I want to live with a free heart and mind. I want to do it in India.”
I want to live with a free heart and mind. I want to do it in India.”
Danish has not given up on his dream of cracking the civil service. There is a part of him that still wants to fulfill his father’s dream, but after the time he has spent recuperating, he feels the need to relax his mind and stand on his own feet.
He dreads spending time alone with his thoughts, and would prefer not to locking himself for hours to study.
Still, during the course of conversation, what Danish really wants became apparent.
“Say I’m a DM (District Magistrate) and I’m getting a regular salary, I want to take some amount and do something that could help others. I don’t know what it is yet, but something,” he said. “These are some of the thoughts in my head.”
Then, after speaking of other things, he returned to the topic.
“If I’m a DM, then whether I’m dealing with a minister or not, I will stand my ground for the truth. I want to be empowered and I want to empower others,” he said.