Agni Bhaskar was as fiery as his first name. We gazed up at him from where we were sitting on the floor as the tall, wild-eyed 41-year-old held the mic in his left hand, his right hand in ceaseless motion to emphasise every point. He recounted how upper caste men attacked his Chamar community with knives and swords, and burned their homes in Shabbirpur village in Western Uttar Pradesh on May 5. Before this, the two groups had no conflict.
We were at the Ravi Das temple, where the battle began after Dalits decided to erect a statue of Babasaheb Ambedkar on a nearly six-feet-high platform. Ambedkar’s hands should be by his side, said the representatives of the Thakur community, who didn’t want to pass under Ambedkar’s raised right arm that would, when placed on the platform, point to the road in front of the temple. And don’t place the statue on the platform, they added. Things escalated rapidly and during the attack, which lasted five hours while the police looked away, the idol of the 15th century Bhakti saint in the temple was knocked from its pedestal. The Ambedkar statue that started it all is now stored in a room in the temple. The Thakurs narrated a cynical version of the story – the Dalits, they said, had burned their own houses for compensation.
If Kashmiris want their child’s first word to be azaadi, here in Shabbirpur – an agricultural village with one primary school – everyone teaches their toddler to say jai bhim. “The kings of this land have given so much freedom to thugs who attack us, armed, and with their armies yelling Maharana Pratap Ki Jai and Har Har Mahadev Ki Jai… We know they are only 2% here, they are our shame. We don’t hit back, we value the constitution,” said Bhaskar, who has five cases filed against him for that day’s events.
If you want to live in India, Bhaskar said, you have to chant “Modi, Modi,” and “Uttar Pradesh mein rehna hai toh Yogi, Yogi karna hai,” referring to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the state’s chief minister Adityanath.
Villagers said Adityanath visited the area recently and encouraged local administration to file cases using the National Security Act, which allows governments, the police or a district magistrate to arrest anyone to prevent them from doing what the state does not wish them to do, without charge, and for as long as it wishes. It has mostly been used to detain political activists, trade unionists and small time criminals. I could not verify this independently.
Indians like Bhaskar should be in television studios, said Dushyant, a lawyer and columnist from Delhi. In August he wrote a column for Mumbai Mirror where he explained why he had volunteered for Harsh Mander’s month-long Karwan-e-Mohabbat (karwan of love), which is travelling from Assam to Gujarat through nine states. “I want to find out who we are, who we are to each other and what we are going to become,” he wrote.
Most people are on the karwan because they are worried that India is changing. Are news organisations underreporting hate crimes because they are being censored? Or are they exaggerating them? They want to know firsthand and respond to the pain that must be out there. Mander is offering them a chance to do exactly that.
When he first announced the karwan, many people supported Mander, but few signed up to participate. He was against celebrity involvement, even though he was advised that it would be the easiest way to ensure this journey stayed in the spotlight. He did want artists, musicians and even stand-up comics to help chronicle what they saw and participate in community events held on most evenings, but artistes have their own travel demands. So most evenings were a mix of locals sharing their poetry and music and karwan members explaining why they had embarked on this journey.
“We believe the prime minister should have gone on this journey. He didn’t, so we have,” Mander said.
Prabhir Vishnu, a lecturer of business ethics at the Indian Institute of Management in Trichy, signed up for the journey because he was bothered by the lack of outrage among the students he taught. “I spend most of my time reading and teaching, I thought it would be good to get some ground access and take these examples back to the classroom,” said Vishnu, adding that he noticed that students no longer take the “truth” for granted. The tattooed professor with a penchant for singing old Hindi songs sometimes describes himself as a “libtard” in his course outlines.
Satyaveer Yadav met Mander when he was homeless and living on the streets of Delhi. He is on the karwan because he wants to be prepared for when his six-year-old son asks him: “What did you do then, father?” Retired scientist Amitabh Basu says he came for the same reason as everyone else: because he cares. Human rights activist John Dayal, 69, played the part of the supportive village elder and always sat next to Mander at family meetings. There were political workers, activists, journalists, a visual artist, four singing priests and a nurse – in case something happened.
Our visit to Shabbirpur was on the eight day of this journey. I travelled with the karwan for five days, through Delhi’s Tilak Vihar colony for the widows of the 1984 Sikh riots, Haryana, western UP and a part of Rajasthan, ostensibly to chronicle the stories along the way. The real reason I signed up, though, was that I was floored by Mander’s idea to spread some love. Most people I know expend their rage against hate crimes on Twitter and over Old Monk in private gatherings. They end up tossing around that tired question: “But what can we do?” Mander was providing an empathetic, heartfelt response to the rise of police brutality against the Muslim community and the recent spate of public hate crimes in the name of the cow.
“Why can’t we leave these families in peace? It’s the least we can do,” said a friend who was opposed to this journey. I didn’t see it that way. Most affected families were second-class citizens who had no access to police protection or legal advice. Turning the spotlight on forgotten crimes could only help them, I reasoned. Many families said they had given up on getting justice, that they had learned to “endure”. Some said that after meeting the karwan, they dared to hope again.
The karwan was Mander’s way to communicate to the minority community that they were not alone. It was also a call of conscience to Hindus to break their silence. Of the 78 bovine-related (cows and buffalos) hate crimes since 2010, 97% occurred after Modi’s government came to power in 2014. In 46% of the cases, the police filed charges against the victims/survivors, according to an IndiaSpend report.
On the road, the karwan met many families whose stories supported this data. “The pattern is exactly the same. The police consistently registers cases against the victims… there’s no defence against it,” Mander told a television host over the phone.
While some flashpoint lynchings such as those of Junaid Khan, Pehlu Khan and Mohammad Akhlaq have made it to the national consciousness, scores of cases with eerily similar stories are unheard. “No journalist has visited us,” said one father who had long given up on getting justice. His son Mohammad Salim was attacked in 2013 when he travelled to neighbouring Haryana from UP, possibly to trade cattle. The father was forced to do the unthinkable and exhume his dead son’s body for a late postmortem. Years later, he still hasn’t got a copy of the report. “If you can get that for me, you’ll go to heaven,” he told Mander, who is offering legal help to every family he meets.
Through most of the journey, men shared how they felt via folk songs, poetry and speeches about bhaichara (brotherhood). Except for Shabbirpur, where all the Dalits of the village attended, the women of the town or village stayed away from community gatherings. In family meetings, they peered from over walls and from behind doors, their heads always covered.
Fathers with deeply lined faces revealed what it is like to lose sons in the prime of their lives – something none of us had experienced. When Mander sat opposite them on a charpoy, leaned forward and began the meeting by explaining that the karwan was there to share their grief, apologise for what they had been through and to offer any legal help they might need, they couldn’t help but share their stories, anger and tears. “Hum log sharminda hai (We are ashamed),” Mander said every time.
“If Muslims don’t have the right to keep cows, the government should tell us directly,” one dairy farmer, who had lost his son in a police encounter, said.
In Ghasera village in Mewati, Haryana, where, the story goes, Mahatma Gandhi told Meo Muslims during the 1947 Partition riots not to leave for Pakistan, men said their masculinity was not about hatred or aggression. Mirasi folk artistes sang of lynchings and how India was changing:
Junaid Khan chalti gaadi main,
kuch gundo ne maar diya
Akhlaq tha Dadriwala
ghar main ghus ke maara
Bharat tha sone ki chidiya,
Narak bana diya sara
(Junaid was killed in a moving train,
they entered Akhlaq’s house in Dadri and killed him,
India was once a golden bird,
they have made it hell)
Samay Singh, a member of the Panchayat Samiti and a Hindu, who was elected by two Muslim majority villages, greeted the crowd with “Jaati pradhan desh ke sabhi nagrikon ko mera salaam walaikum (My greetings to the inhabitants of this nation that defines itself by caste).” The bearded Singh, who sat in the front row and clapped the loudest until his turn came to speak, said that Muslims were patriotic, that they had written history too. Across villages, people spoke up against narrow definitions of patriotism. “We live in a free country, we can eat whatever we want,” said Singh. He ended with the rider: “If you felt bad, please accept my apologies.”
When women in affected families shied away from the group, my friend Natasha Badhwar, an author and columnist who was also on this journey, took it upon herself to seek them out in their homes. “What should I tell her?” she asked me when she finally ran out of words to comfort a particularly inconsolable woman, who, after her son Sher Singh’s death in a police encounter – it was unclear if these were firefights or extrajudicial killings, as most families alleged – was struggling to bring up her two children.
In Hussainpur village in Haryana, dairy farmer Amin Khan, who quit the business after his eldest son Mushtaq was murdered, had the same story – the vehicle transporting milch cows was stopped on the road, overturned, his son was dragged out, the bones in his arms, legs and his ribs broken until he died.
“I’m sorry you had to lose your son this way,” I said to Mushtaq’s mother, hugging her. That made her neighbour ask me if I was a Muslim. “Hindus usually just greet with a namaste or a Jai Shree Ram,” she said, revealing that she felt fearful when the group first entered because she was unclear who exactly we were. While Mander’s team met all the families the karwan visited in advance, preparing them for the visit, other members of the village were often surprised to see us. By the time I left the journey in Jaipur on the 11th day, we had come face-to-face with 33 such families.
Occasionally, women did take the lead. In Mewat, Junaid Khan’s mother spoke for his family. “I’ve come so Junaid gets justice,” Saira told correspondents from the NDTV show India Matters, who were travelling with the karwan. “I wish my son were here today to see this.” She told Mander she wanted his help to set up a school for girls in Junaid’s name.
In UP’s Shamli district, a Muslim majority town where thousands displaced by the Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013 resettled, poet-principal Waseem Rashid, who moved here from Delhi two months ago, whisked away the women on the karwan to her house on the second night. The men stayed in a madrassa. This district made it to the national headlines when BJP MP Hukum Singh alleged that peace-loving Hindus were exiting the area in large numbers because of the growing Muslim population. It turned out to be fake news, but the correction memo didn’t reach everyone. On both the days the karwan was there, Hindustan newspaper featured stories of police encounter killings.
Rashid, who is associated with the #NotInMyName campaign, composes what she calls revolutionary poetry. It certainly appealed to the crowd gathered for the street meeting in Shamli the first evening.
Zulm ka har kirdaar badal ke rakh denge
hum aapke sarkar badal ke rakh denge
Hum firko ke hole se bahar aaye to
duniya ki raftaar badal ke rakh denge
Mazloomon ne jis din bhi angdai li
zaalim ka darbar badal ke rakh denge
Kaam Sahafi sachai se jo le toh
har channel akhbaar badal ke rakh denge
Hindu Muslim ek agar ho jaaye toh
hum saara sansar badal ke rakh denge
(We’ll change the character of tyranny,
we’ll change your government;
if we we break the moulds of creed,
we’ll change the speed the world runs at;
that day when the oppressed yawn and wake up,
we’ll change the courts of the tyrants;
if journalists hold on to the truth,
we’ll change the newspapers, the channels;
if the Hindu and Muslim are one,
we’ll change this world altogether)
In Shabbirpur, when someone asked if any women would speak, Bhaskar’s wife was the first to volunteer. Reena recounted how the attackers threw her eight-month-old son in the fire (he survived) and cut her arms, legs and chest with their swords. Then they burned her house. Her 14-year-old daughter threw water and dragged her mother out of the house.
“Nothing was left in my house,” she said.
“I thought I would die that day with my husband,” she told me later in her home.
“You’re fine,” replied Bhaskar, not impressed by her dramatics.
My introduction to Mander came from the editorial he wrote after the 2002 riots in Gujarat where he said his peers in the civil and police administration had failed to prevent the violence and protect people from the murderous mob. He then ended his 20-year sting with the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) to become a social worker.
“Every time Harsh speaks to a room, you can feel the mood plummet several degrees,” said Nikhil Roshan, a photographer who’s documenting the journey for the Centre for Equity Studies, the think tank Mander runs.
His books – he’s written roughly one every year since 2002 – have the same effect on a reader. They are invariably about the archaic oppressions that continue to plague a technologically-ambitious, fast-developing India. “The truth is that the distance between human beings is no greater than the elementary recognition of our equal human dignity,” he wrote in the blurb for his last book Fatal Accidents of Birth. Writing these stories is a catharsis for Mander; he pours his grief and anger into his books. At the end of every day on the road, irrespective of how late it was, he wrote a diary entry that he emailed to a group of people.
The only time I saw him looking irritated was when he dialled in to Nidhi Razdan’s show on NDTV and RSS ideologue Rakesh Sinha accused him of “poisoning the entire narrative” and added that he was “thrown out” of the bureaucracy (he resigned) and the organisations he ran received “foreign funding” (“What’s the worst they can do to me? Shut down my organisations? I’m prepared,” Mander said). Mander also runs Rainbow Homes Program, a network of 48 homes for street children. The Titan Sonata watch he wears was a gift from the first salary of a boy he rehabilitated.
Urdu papers were the karwan’s biggest cheerleaders. Most mainstream news organisations largely ignored the story. That is until day 11 in Behror, Rajasthan, when everyone took the time out to notice the iconic image of a 62-year-old man, camped in front of a bus on the highway, protesting because the police were not allowing him to place flowers at the spot where 55-year-old dairy farmer Pehlu Khan was beaten to death on April 1. Bystanders had watched as the murder was recorded and transmitted via WhatsApp and YouTube. Rajasthan’s home minister Gulab Chand Kataria had said then that it was “alright” that some people who were illegally transporting animals were caught. “No one has the right to take the law into their own hands,” he had added. Back then a group of IAS officers had noted in a letter to chief minister Vasundhara Raje Scindia the “delay and marked resistance” in arresting the accused.
Everyone was tense because the karwan’s entry into Rajasthan coincided with the news that the state police had closed the investigation against the six suspects Pehlu had named as his attackers in his dying declaration, a key standalone piece of evidence that can be used to convict a person. Organisations such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Bajrang Dal and Hindu Jagran Manch had threatened that they would welcome the karwan with sticks and stones.
Before he sat cross-legged on the highway, Mander visited the state’s senior police officers. He asked them why, in the case of Pehlu, the local police couldn’t tell the difference between a Rs 30,000 milch cow and Rs 5,000 cattle being transported for slaughter? According to Section 5 of the Rajasthan Bovine Animal (Prohibition of Slaughter and Regulation of Temporary Migration or Export) Act, only the latter required a permit for transportation across the state border, he said.
“That time for such questions has gone, the case is already in court,” replied Rajendra Prasad, additional superintendent of police.
Mander pointed to the increase in such incidents and that they were mostly against Muslims.
“When we wear this uniform we don’t distinguish between Hindus and Muslims,” said Prasad. “Why don’t you focus on love instead of trying to cause problems?”
Mander replied: “There is no love without justice.”
He reasoned with another police officer that Pehlu’s family would get some solace if he acknowledged the death of their child by placing flowers at the spot.
“It will become a new tradition to pay homage at these sites,” the policeman said.
“It should become,” replied Mander.
After a 20-minute stand-off, the police gave in. After he carried two fistfuls of marigold flowers and walked to the spot to place them Mander told journalists they were for “every innocent person who has been murdered, beaten to death by a mob on the street without reason”.
A young policeman who escorted him back to the bus leaned in and said: “Sir, you know we think of you as our national treasure.”
As the bus drove away, a stray stone struck a window.
Priya Ramani has been a writer and editor with Reuters, India Today, Indian Express and Mint.