How a Tradition of Shared Lives, and Shared Meat, Gave Way to a Divided Village

media persons interviewing askari

Media persons interviewing Askari. Credit: Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty

Bishara (UP): Askari Begum is tired of telling her story over and over again to strangers who have been streaming into her house for the last three days. Police, media persons and others visiting her house – in Bishara village of Uttar Pradesh’s Gautam Buddh Nagar district – are curious to know every detail about what happened on Monday night. The night when an attack by a mob, driven by rumours about the presence of beef in in the house, took the life of her middle-aged son Mohammad Akhlaq, left her badly bruised, and critically injured her 20-year-old grandson, Danish who is now fighting for his life in a private hospital some 25 kilometres away from home.

Askari has not even got time to mourn properly. “Last three days, I have not got time to eat or sleep, or even have a proper bath,” she tells this correspondent.

But she has to keep telling strangers her story. The 70-year-old widow, distraught with the loss of her son, knows that the strangers will stop coming home soon. And along with that might vanish altogether her only hope of securing her life and that of her family for the future.

“Please write in your report that I don’t want to live in Bishara anymore. I am hurt, scared, don’t know what to say. I want the government to lock up this house and shift me to a Muslim neighbourhood. I don’t want the 10 lakh rupees the government has offered me,” says Askari between sobs.

Till Monday night, Askari and her family had no problem living in a Hindu neighbourhood. She says they had lived here for at two generations, never felt not wanted, or threatened because of their religion. “My father lived and died in this house,” she says. It was on the lane outside the house that her children grew up playing with Hindu neighbours. In that lane, she too sat with Hindu women on charpoys and chatted for hours together sipping tea. Her son’s tiny electronic goods repair shop near the village school kept them going.

Rumours of a calf’s carcass

Monday night changed all that. Nothing seems familiar anymore. A violent mob descended on her house at 10 ppm, accusing the family of eating and storing beef and thereby hurting the sentiments of their Hindu neighbours. The mob – comprising mostly neighbourhood youths – reportedly gathered after the priest of the nearby temple announced on the loudspeaker that a carcass of a calf had been found in the village.

askari showing her brusies

Askari showing her bruises. Credit: Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty

With the festival of Bakrid on its third day, the mob directed the needle of suspicion towards the two Muslim families living in the Thakur dominated village. They soon marched towards their target. They broke open two wooden doors, beat up Askari, her daughter-in-law and granddaughter Mehraj, and raced up the first floor to pounce on her sleeping son and grandson. When they left, most things in the house were broken, Askari’s son was almost dead, her grandson was critically injured.

Among the things the mob broke that night in the first floor room was a sea green refrigerator. Mehraj says it was in the fridge that they kept a portion of the mutton sent to them for Eid that past Friday by a relative from Ghaziabad’s Loni area.

But the mob insisted the meat was that of the calf, prohibited for consumption in UP. One of the four policemen who were first to arrive on the spot, says, “Police seized the meat and sent it for forensic test to ascertain whether it was beef or not because we had to listen to their accusations also.”

He says most of the mob left on seeing their arrival following a call by a neighbour. Police rushed Askari’s son and grandson to hospital – first to one in the nearby Dadri town and then to Kailash Hospital in Noida. While the father died soon after, the son underwent surgery on Wednesday. He is still critical.

Shared meals, even meat

Monday’s details aside, what comes out through snatches of conversations with Askari, Mehraj and their Hindu neighbours, is a narrative which is much more complex than the usual one of slow-burning Hindu-Muslim tension.

Bishara is certainly a different place since Monday. Lamenting the communal atmosphere that has now taken hold in the village, a Hindu elder points towards a house with an ornate entrance saying, “This was where once our great landlord Shah Aflatoon lived. His family continues to reside there. It was Shah ji who gave the land to build the temple from where the priest is said to have made the announcement. Shah Ji also gave land for the village mosque, and gave a portion of his farmland for the Idgah just outside the village. He wanted all of us to live in harmony.”

Villagers seem to have walked on the path shown by Shah Aflatoon. People of the two communities shared food they cooked at each other’s house. On Eid this year, in fact, Askari and her family called a few Hindu neighbours for a feast. “Cows are never given qurbani (sacrificed) on Bakrid, only bakris (goats) are. But we didn’t offer any qurbani because it is an expensive affair. So our relative from Loni sent us meat on the Eid day because it is also a ritual to share the meat of the sacrificed goat,” says Mehraj. A portion of mutton sent by the relative was cooked on Eid day and served at the feast meant for neighbours. There was joy, chatter and merriment, she recalls.

Says a Hindu neighbour, “They cook meat really well. So some of us send our tiffin boxes when meat is cooked in their house.” Askari’s only Muslim neighbour and wife of her nephew, who was in her Dadri house that Monday night, confirms this has been practice. “There are always tiffin boxes to be filled for our neighbours. Like us, they are all chicken and mutton eaters. The canal in the village has a lot of fish too which everybody eats.”

The close friendship of her immediate Hindu neighbour saved her only son that night. “I will forever be grateful to her. On seeing the mob approaching our house, my son, who was alone in the house, jumped into the neighbour’s terrace. They hid him from the mob. ”

Village Hindus in denial

So far, the police has arrested six of the 14 men Mehraj identified. All are youth from the village.

accused Om's mother showing his NTPC i-card

The mother of one of the men accused of attacking and killing Akhlaq, Om, showing his NTPC ID card. Credit: Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty

The families of all those who have been arrested, however, deny their involvement and underline their amity. Says the mother of Om, one of the accused, “We have nothing against the Muslim families. We have lived with them for so many years. My son works in NTPC in Dadri. That night, he came home, had dinner, and slept because he had fever. The police came to our house late in the night and took him away.” Om’s sister, who has come from Meerut to be with her ailing mother, says, “Mehraj does parda, hardly comes out of the house. So I don’t think she knows my brother by his name. So how could she name him? I suspect someone gave her names of some innocent village youth to shield the real accused.”

Both Mehraj and Askari stick to their story. “There might be some outsiders somewhere in the crowd on the lane that night. But those who entered the house and attacked us were all village youths,” says Askari.

This tendency to blame communal violence on outsiders is a common phenomenon, points out historian Nonica Datta, who teaches at Delhi University. “You see that even in the Partition narratives. People go on a denial mode, may be because of guilt. Often in these renderings, local people don’t take the responsibility for the violence committed,” she says.

Datta, a historian of modern India, agrees the case is a significant departure from the typical kind of Hindu-Muslim violence experienced in the wider region. “The common trend is regional violence but this is localised violence. Also, it is not a collective going against a collective, but a collective attack against an individual to send out a message to the community to terrify them. The collective force is also used to erase an individual from a majoritarian space. It is the vulnerable that is targeted through their body and space.”

This phenomenon is particularly interesting for historians and sociologists, says Datta, “because it is used to decide who has the right to citizenship of the country. It is not any more the displacement of Muslims from one area to another but an effort to erase their presence altogether from the majoritarian space.”

“The fault lines are deep and one needs to recognise them, confront them, instead of dodging them,” labour historian and intellectual Dilip Simeon feels. “The fault lines make it easy for right wingers to create a cauldron of hate whenever they want it.”

“In Bishara, the local cadres of right wing outfits are at work. They may want to act against someone because of personal enmity or for some other reason but the right wingers are not bothered so long as their ideological atmosphere is intact, so long as these incidents keep reminding people of the basic divide. It doesn’t matter who you are so long as your ideology matches theirs,” he says.

As it often happens in a war of ideology leading to violence, many common people become unwitting tools. And also  sufferers. A Hindu village elder in Bishara puts it well for those who want to ponder on the point. “If for the last three days there is no fire in Akhlaq’s kitchen, there is also nothing being cooked in the houses of their Hindu neighbours whose sons have been picked up by the police.”

The violence in the end affects people from both the communities in some way or the other. Nobody wins, except perhaps those who instigated the attack.

Categories: Communalism

Tagged as: , ,