As attacks and arrests increase in the name of gau raksha, this Muslim community in Rajasthan is on the run.
Alwar: Palpably nervous, seven-year-old Aslam clutched the slightly-torn hem of his father’s kurta. “Let us go, Amma is alone (at home),” he said, nudging his father, Mohammad Islam.
Islam and others had gathered around the Meo leader Nasru Khan. Khan was visiting the Meo-dominated hamlet of Revada Bas after several houses in the village were allegedly looted, ransacked and wrecked by a mob comprising members of the Bajrang Dal, Shiv Sena and BJP after Eid.
“Don’t bother me anymore, go away,” a visibly traumatised Islam told his son.
Islam’s family has been on the run ever since police raided the village in the late hours of September 14 (the day after Bakr Eid) and claimed it had found the remains of 36 cows buried on the outskirts. The cops also said that the raiding team rescued six cows from slaughter. Over the next two days, the police arrested 12 people from the village and are still looking for another 12 named in the FIR. Fearful, most families fled the village following the raid.
Islam, along with a few others, decided to come back after helplessly moving from one place to another, but only to find his home a muddle of broken things.
“They looted my house. My bed, fridge, kitchen, furniture are all broken. When we came back, we found our grain shack (a ten-feet high airtight container) punctured at various places, all my earnings destroyed,” he said.
“Aslam is in a state of shock. He knows his friend’s father is in prison. He thinks if I get arrested, he and his mother will be left alone. So he always wants me by his side, always,” Islam told the leader.
An Eid to forget
Revada Bas is part of the larger Raghunathgarh village in Rajasthan’s Alwar district, in the shadows of Aravalli range. The village is next to the Gidwara jungle.
The sparse Meo-Muslim settlement has around 70 families. With hardly anyone who owns more than a acre of cultivable land – enough only for subsistence – these marginal farmers earn meagre incomes by herding cattle.
The villagers celebrated Bakr Eid in their usual way this year. They greeted each other in the morning after the ritualistic waqf namaz, had community feasts through the day and took children out to the nearby Naugaon bazaar. Those who could afford a goat, sheep or a buffalo performed the traditional sacrifice ritual.
The very next day, at around 10:30 pm, a cavalcade of police cars entered the village. “We waved at them,” Muhammad Usman, a resident, said, “but they didn’t stop.”
“Curious, some of us took our motorbikes and reached the nearby Gidwara jungle and found a few policemen and some strangers who had wrapped saffron stoles around their necks digging up the ground,” Usman said.
“We went ahead to know what is happening, but the strangers, who claimed to be gau rakshaks (cow protectors) drove us off with sticks,” he said.
“The said ‘Koi nahin bachega. Gaay ko maara hai saale Katuey (No one will be spared. You Muslims have killed a cow)’,” Usman narrated.
Threats and abuses are something the villagers have become used to. “Gau raksha dals have been doing their vigil at night for quite sometime now. We hear from our friends in Naugaon (the closest town) that they are keeping a close watch on our village and a few other neighbouring Meo villages. In Naugaon, some of them abuse us with slurs that are only for Muslims. They do not even spare children and women. But we know about the cow protection law and although we do not mind beef, we generally stay away from eating cow meat,” he said.
The gau rakshaks beat up the villagers on September 14 night, they said. The morning of September 15, the police arrested 12 men, including a former sarpanch and four brothers of another former sarpanch, at the crack of the dawn. Hearing about the mass arrests, most villagers fled.
The atmosphere of fear was such that none of them, not even the families of those who were arrested, went to the police station to meet the accused. “I was worried about my children. If I would have gone, they would have booked me too,” said Naseeb, whose son Irfan has been arrested. Only when the accused were shifted to the Alwar district jail did families and other villagers go to see them.
The police version
The allegations in the FIR, though, paints a completely different picture. It said that the police raided the village on an informant’s tip on the night of September 14. When the police team reached the village, it heard cattle mooing in pain and fear. Following the sounds, the team reached a spot in Gidwara jungle where they found around 20-25 people with sharp knives and a herd of dead cattle.
The FIR, of which The Wire has a copy, further said that they arrested 12 people from the spot but another 12 managed to escape into the jungle. Five cows and 31 calves had already been killed but police could ‘rescue’ six cows from the spot. The FIR also claims that a team of vets accompanied the team and did a postmortem on the spot. It concluded that the throats of cows were slit by a sharp object. Police claims that the sharp knives that were found at the spot were used to kill them. Soon after the postmortem, the team buried the cow corpses and took the rescued cows to the district gaushala (cow shelter).
The police used different clauses of the Rajasthan Bovine Animal (Prohibition of Slaughter and Regulation of Temporary Migration or Export) Act, 1995, the cow protection law enacted during BJP chief minister Bhairon Singh Shekhawat’s tenure, to charge the accused persons.
Following the arrests, the rumour that Meos killed 36 cows for Eid spread like wildfire, though the raids and arrests were made on September 14, a day after Bakr Eid.
“Raghunathgarh is a Meo village. Thirty-six cows were sacrificed on Eid. They should not have done this when they know that we respect the cow,” Raghubir Chaudhary, a farmer in Naugaon, said. Many others in the nearby towns expressed similar sentiments.
The villagers denied the allegations. “Qurbani (the sacrifice ritual) is not a mass programme. It happens in each household. The meat is then shared with community members and is meant to consume. Then why should we kill the cows after Eid?” asked Tahir of Revada Bas.
Most villagers said that killing 36 cows did not make much sense for a village that has only around 300 people. “Even if one of them killed a cow, he would do it discreetly,” said Sameer Khan, an aspiring cricketer from Ramgarh.
How can a vet conduct a postmortem in the middle of the night? Why were vets there if the raid was an urgent intervention? Why were the villagers not informed on what was happening? Did they assume all villagers, including the Hindu sarpanch of Raghunathgarh, were complicit in the crime? These were some of the questions the villagers raised.
The station-in-charge at the Naugaon thana, Shivram Singh, stood by the police’s version of events. “People from Delhi have been visiting the village. Everyone is worried about the villagers but no one is bothered about cows,” he said.
“We know,” he added, “gau kashi (cow slaughter) is rampant in the area.” On being asked why the accused would kill cows after Eid, he said, “Why don’t you ask this question to the villagers? Meos are known to trade in leather. In Punana (another Meo village), the police had found 125 dead cows recently.”
However, people – both Hindus and Muslims – in the region deny that Meos specialise in cattle skinning. “Some Dalits, mostly Rai Sikhs (a significant number in Alwar), are in the leather industry and trade. Meos are mostly marginal farmers,” said Ram Bahadur, a resident of Ramgarh.
Even before the facts of the matter were verified, a mob of around 250 men, allegedly accompanied by the police and legislator Gyandev Ahuja, descended upon Revada Bas to protest on September 15, villagers said. Most villagers had fled by then. The few who stayed were beaten until they were forced to leave their houses.
“My husband works in Palwal. He doesn’t stay here. I had no place to go. They came and took away everything. They destroyed things which they could not carry. Some of them snatched my jewellery and the little money I had,” said Shareefa, showing her bruises.
Shareefa runs a small grocery shop. “Our shop, generally, has things like trinkets, chocolates for kids and usual household items. But because of Eid, when business is better, we had bought things worth Rs 40,000. They took away everything that remained of the stock,” said Usman, Shareefa’s brother-in-law.
“Gyandev Ahuja, the legislator of the area, and a few BJP and Shiv Sena leaders accompanied the mob. Police was watching throughout as there was no one to resist,” said Shareefa.
While a significant number of people in Revada Bas have migrated after the incident, a few residents who came back narrated similar stories of loss.
In every household that was attacked, beds and refrigerators were broken. Shops were looted and destroyed. Any wood that had gone into the construction of a house was missing. Significantly, the borewells, the primary source of water to every household and farm, were jammed with mud and broken.
The police did a simultaneous raid to look for absconding accused persons. Unable to find them, they confiscated more than ten motorbikes. The villagers, despite having all the legal papers for the bikes, could not resist. In the Naugaon thana, this correspondent saw several such motorcycles lined up in the courtyard.
A larger pattern?
“Economically paralysing the Muslims is something that we have been witnessing in Muzaffarnagar, Dadri and other parts of western UP. Here too, the mob knew that if they attack their resources, it will affect their soul. The mob had planned the attack with due diligence,” said Noor Mohammad, who runs a Hindi fortnightly, Salaam Mewat, in Alwar.
“For instance,” he adds, “confiscating legally-owned motorcycles has become a common policing practice in Mewat. Many people have told me that they demand money to release them. Not much, but enough for a poor Meo family to skip a day’s meal. It has become a scam.”
On being asked why he clubbed the Hindutva mob with the police, Mohammad said that the district of Alwar, especially the Ramgarh assembly seat bordering Haryana, has transformed into a communal hotbed because of a politician-police-bureaucrat nexus. “Gyandev Ahuja, the BJP legislator of Ramgarh, is spearheading the communal campaign against Meos. He patronises the cow protection groups, shelters criminals and openly gives public speeches against Meos. The police obeys him like a master for small benefits,” alleges Mohammad.
A polarising politician
In the midst of a national debate on the freedom of speech and what nationalism is earlier this year, when three students of Jawaharlal Nehru University were arrested on sedition charges, Ahuja had claimed that 3,000 condoms and 500 abortion injections were used in the university everyday. He recently made headlines when he claimed that cow smuggling is rampant in Rajasthan and declared his unequivocal support to gau rakshaks.
Meos see him as a polarising figure. “Ahuja has been feeding hatred against Meos. Alwar has a history of communal harmony but not anymore,” said Nasru Khan, a Meo leader who is with the Congress party.
Meos of Revada Bas allege that the police works as a ‘B-team’ for Ahuja. They cited media reports alleging that Ahuja led a joint campaign of gau rakshaks and police to prevent the alleged cow smuggling in the area. “I give them (gau rakshaks) money, I give them support, I hold classes on the virtues of cow,” Ahuja had proudly claimed a few months ago.
“He (Ahuja) targets Meos in his speeches and exhorts people to keep a close watch on them, creating an environment of fear in Alwar,” said Khan.
A gau rakshak who operates in the neighbouring Ramgarh but declined to give his name confirms these allegations. “Yes, Ahuja recruited me. Many from my caste group have joined these gau rakshak dals. Ahuja sponsors our needs. He gives us money,” he said.
He comes from the Murtikar community, which mainly carves idols from stones. Their shops line the highway in Ramgarh. “Ahuja approached us to check cow smuggling as we could keep a watch on the traffic, given our shops are on the highway. We do not have any problems with Meos but they should stop cow slaughter,” he said.
Ahuja and his team has given him a list of Meo-dominated villages in the area. His task is to keep a tight vigil on village activities. When asked whether he has come across any incident of cow slaughter, he replied in the negative but immediately added that he has found cow smugglers transporting cows to Haryana.
On whether those smugglers were from the list of villages he was given, he replied, “All these people are related to each other, sir.”
When asked if they hand over the smuggler to the police, he said, “We have managed to rescue cows but have not been able to catch anyone yet.” But he agreed that the police occasionally gives his team company during night vigils. “They support us. Ahuja saab backs us always.”
Mohammad asserted that low-rung police officials are often communal in Alwar. “In 2014, Alwar’s superintendent of police, Vikas Kumar, constituted a special police force. He named it Cobra police. The members were given sophisticated weapons like AK-47s without any adequate training. During that time, many cases of atrocities the police committed against Meos were reported,” he said.
Three such incidents stood out in recent times. In the first, Arif, a BCom graduate from Tijara tehsil in Alwar was shot by a team of Cobra policemen as villagers stood witness. Witnesses alleged that Arif, who was on a motorcycle, was stopped at a check post. Fearing that his motorcycle would be confiscated, he drove off but a team of policemen allegedly followed and shot him.
Second, in July 2014, following a small skirmish between the police and a Meo in Alwar’s Shirmohi village, the Cobra police allegedly entered his house, undressed all the women and beat them with sticks. Only after the regional media reported the brutal incident extensively, the Alwar administration promised action on those policemen.
A similar incident was reported last year when during a raid in Berla Gaon village in Tijara, the Cobra policemen allegedly broke open a bathroom door while a woman was bathing. A tussle followed between the villagers and the police, in which the police raided each house and beat up many who protested.
“Police has always projected Alwar and Bharatpur, the two districts where Meos form a substantial 20% of the total population, as the most crime-prone areas of Rajasthan. But they never back it up with statistics or any form of evidence,” said Mohammad.
“At the same time, Yadav and Jat-dominated Bahrod and Neemrana districts witness heinous crimes but they are not as infamous as Alwar or Bharatpur,” he adds.
The British had identified Meos as a criminal social group — the prejudice continues to this day. Even the modernd day police look at them with suspicion.
“Police initially stereotyped Meos as ‘taklubaaz’ or cheaters. But in the last two years, the allegation of cow smuggling has completely alienated them from mainstream society,” said Mohammad.
Many cow vigilante groups have come up in the Alwar and Bharatpur regions of Rajasthan in the last few years. The cow vigilantes claim that most bovine trade happens in these two districts that border Haryana.
However, critics of the vigilantes and the political support they get say that the cow protection campaign is part of larger anti-Muslim propaganda. “Nowhere in Rajasthan will polarising the electorate on communal lines benefit the BJP as much as in Alwar and Bharatpur. The Meos, a substantial population, have always been in a position to swing the elections. Dividing the voters on Hindu-Muslim lines will obviously help the BJP,” said Mohammad.