On the night of 28 September this year, a Hindu mob in Bisara village of Dadri district in Uttar Pradesh barged into the house of a Muslim family. The reason: they thought he'd stored beef for consumption in his house. The agitated mob lynched to death 52-year-old Muhammad Akhlaq and brutally assaulted his son Danish. The incident took place days after the Muslim festival of Eid-Al-Adha or the Feast of Sacrifice.
The incident, which became known as the Dadri lynching, became political hot button, particularly since it took place just under two weeks from the Bihar Assembly election, the first phase of which was to begin on 12 October. Even as the Uttar Pradesh police sent the meat recovered from Akhlaq's house for "forensic testing", sympathy started swelling for the family of the deceased and politicians of various hues began flocking to Bisara Village, including Rahul Gandhi, Arvind Kejriwal, Asaduddin Owaisi and Sangeet Som.
Akhlaq's neighbours were apprehensive about speaking to me. One warned: "Aap yahan se jao warna koi aake aapki pitayi karega (Go away from here or else people will come and thrash you)."
Meanwhile, well beyond Bisara, a political war of words played out, triggered by a series of insensitive comments made by BJP leaders (here are some of the most egregious ones). In Bihar, while RJD chief Lalu Yadav asserted that even Hindus eat beef, former BJP deputy chief minister Sushil Kumar Modi described the Bihar elections as a battle between those "who eat beef" and those "who don't eat beef." Even Prime Minister Modi was drawn into the debate and forced to break his silence.
I was in Bisara on the day of the Bihar Assembly election results, but it was far removed from the excitement of the polls, bearing a deserted look and with a strong police presence maintaining a tight vigil even a month after the murder. The village temple from where the call was made to gather and head towards Muhammad Akhlaq's house no longer had a priest - he'd fled in the aftermath of the incident, earlier claiming that he was he was forced to make that fateful announcement by a few youngsters.
The villagers were reluctant to speak to reporters, and some were openly hostile, saying thing like, "Yeh media waale hain, inhe bhagao (These people are from the media, drive them away)." When asked about the reason for their hostility, they accused the media of one-sided coverage. "There is peace in the village. We've done a lot for Muslims. We've given them land and built the graveyard and the Eidgah. There is brotherhood between the two communities and no sign of any trouble," said former village pradhan Bhag Singh.
However, Bhag Singh was furious over the financial compensation given to some of Akhlaq's family members (an ex gratia sum of Rs 20 lakh, provided by UP Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav ). In his opinion, compensation should only have been extended to Akhlaq's immediate family members and not his three brothers, one of whom Bhag alleged is living in a kothi (bungalow) worth Rs 50 lakh.
I also visited Muhammad Akhlaq's house, which is situated in the Hindu-dominated area of the village. The walls were painted blue and the entrance was embellished Arabic calligraphy. Very much like other villagers, Akhlaq's neighbours were apprehensive about speaking to me. "Humein apni jeeb ragad ke kya milega (What will I get for running my tongue?)," said one. Another warned: "Aap yahan se jao warna koi aake aapki pitayi karega (Go away from here or else people will come and thrash you)."
Manoj, the 33-year-old village teacher taught Akhlaq's sons Sartaj and Danish. "Both the boys were toppers. Sartaj topped in 2009 by scoring 72.4% marks while Danish topped in 2011 with 74% marks," said Manoj. Sartaj, Akhlaq's elder son, currently working as a technician with the Indian Air Force, made news following the lynching of his father by maintaining his calm and promoting the message of "saare jahan se acha, Hindustan humara."
Manoj mentioned that before the lynching took place, Bisara village was well known for communal amity, with Hindus and Muslims living together in peace. He fondly recalls Akhlaq chacha and how Danish would greet everyone with a Namaste. He further mentioned that when Akhlaq's sister was getting married, the family did not have enough space inside their house. At that time, their neighbour Rajinder Rana provided them with a room.
Locals pin the blame for communal strains on the media but an incident of the kind which we witnessed in Dadri could not have taken place without fertile soil for it.
"Had the announcement not been made from the temple, nothing would have happened," said Manoj. According to him, the youngsters in the village were living in fear of being dragged into the case following the crackdown by the authorities. "The boys who've been picked up are educated," said Manoj. (Among the prime accused is Vishal, the son of local BJP leader Sanjay Rana.)
Social historian Mukul Kesavan holds the Dadri lynching to be an "unplanned" but "politically significant" incident. "The reason Dadri became so significant is because political parties chose to vest significance in it so I think the political party most responsible in this case was oddly enough the BJP. I say oddly enough because Dadri is in UP. The BJP bears no administrative or executive responsibility for Dadri. If I had been a BJP spokesperson I would have said, look your complaint is best directed at the address of Akhilesh Yadav who is the Chief Minister of the state," said Kesavan.
He further argued that "at every level of the BJP" be they ideological mouthpieces, local leaders and even central ministers "made comments about Dadri that seemed shockingly misplaced given the grotesque nature of that violence." According to Kesavan, cow protection has historically been among the core agendas of Hindu majoritarian movements. He reasoned that Sangh Parivar leaders were "torn between this need" to distance themselves from the Dadri lynching and yet cater to their Hindu constituency of voters by "expressing solidarity" with those "who were responsible for the carnage."
"And this conflict wasn't properly resolved and what happened was that instead of the BJP taking the stance that we are not responsible for law and order in UP, they effectively associated themselves with the lynching in a way that seemed shockingly inappropriate," said Kesavan.
When I met Akhlaq's friend Ikram, he still hadn't quite come to grips with what had transpired. He remembered praying daily in the local mosque alongside Akhlaq; this mosque no longer has an imam - he apparently went home for Eid but never returned after the lynching. As I was speaking to Ikram, a well-built man appeared and said, "Aap yahan khade hain isliye surakshit hai warna na jaane kya ho jaata (You are here that is why you are safe otherwise God knows what would have happened)." He asked me to leave, but not before pleading that I and other mediapersons should stop maligning the village.
Now that the Bihar elections are done and dusted, the Dadri lynching is no longer the topic du jour. But the seeds of distrust in Bisara, it was clear to see, have been sown. Locals pin the blame for communal strains on the media but an incident of the kind which we witnessed in Dadri could not have taken place without fertile soil for it.
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