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Communalism

After Alwar Lynching, Meo Muslims Forced to Deal With Institutions That Neglected Them

"Every government that has come to power till now has ignored us. That’s the way it has always been.”

Kolgaon (Haryana): “The villages of Mewat are invisible,” said Akhtar Alvi, a local Dainik Jagran reporter from Kolgaon. “And I’m not just blaming the Bharatiya Janata Party government. Every government that has come to power till now has ignored us. That’s the way it has always been.”

Alvi was referring to the Mewat region where Rakbar Khan was lynched on Friday night, apparently because people suspected he was involved in cow smuggling, as he was crossing the border from Ramgarh in Rajasthan to his own village of Kolgaon in Haryana.

Though there are no prescribed boundaries for this region, it historically comprises border regions of Rajasthan and Haryana, and is home to the Meos, a Muslim Rajput community which was Hindu Rajput at one point but converted to Islam somewhere between the 15th and 17th century. There are also other theories on their origins, which say they came from Iran or were members of the Meena tribe who converted to Islam. What is known is that the Meos are a unique people, combining customs from both Hinduism and Islam.

On the one hand, they are practising Muslims who go to the mosque and celebrate Eid, but on the other, they continue to adhere to the Hindu caste system, even now considering themselves part of the Rajput clan and tracing their ancestry to figures like Ram, Krishna and Arjuna. They have also been engaged in cow rearing for centuries, with the profession being passed down from one generation to the next. “That’s why it’s so absurd that these people are being made out to be cow smugglers,” said Alvi. “Their livelihood depends on cows and they have nothing but love for them.”

Cow herder Subhan Khan from Mewat. Credit: Neha Mehrotra

“We buy cows and buffaloes in order to rear them, not to do business with them,” said Harun Khan, Rakbar’s brother. “As of now, there are five cows at Rakbar bhai’s house and 2-3 cows in my house. Even my chacha has 3-4 cows. We use them for milk and dairy. When Rakbar left home, he had taken Rs 50,000 with him to buy two more cows. But now, both the money and the cows are gone,” he said.

A cow in the front yard of Rakbar Khan’s house. Credit: Neha Mehrotra

A village situated along the Haryana-Rajasthan border, Kolgaon has a 3,000-5,000 strong population, and approximately 80% of them are Meo Muslim. Though the official literacy rate is 10%, unofficially, merely one or two families in the village can read and write – and their interaction with state and political authorities is bare minimum. “We mind our own business and have been minding our own business for a long time,” said Harun.

But in the last five years, communal tensions have built up in the region, dragging the Meos of Kolgaon into the political limelight against their will. “The relations between Kolgaon and its neighbours had always been cordial,” said Ashfaq Hussain, general secretary of the Social Democratic Party of India. “But in the last five years, there have been attempts to communalise Ramgarh and pit its Hindu residents against the surrounding Muslims. Elections are scheduled to be held in four months. And this same hatred towards Muslims will be invoked by politicians to garner votes in Ramgarh.”

Alvi agrees with Hussain. “Recently, the Haryana government has issued licenses to open four butcher houses in the area. So the government doesn’t really care about cows, whether they live or die. All they care about is fanning anti-Muslim flames. They want people to think, ‘There goes a Muslim. Let’s beat him up’.”

The SDPI is a minor contender in the electoral landscape of Mewat. The BJP and Congress are the only major parties in the region. And since the BJP came to power at the Centre in 2014, the saffron ideology seems to have made inroads in the areas surrounding Lalwandi. RSS and Vishwa Hindu Parishad offices have mushroomed, spreading roots and establishing strongholds in regions like Ramgarh.

This religious polarisation created a charged atmosphere in Mewat. Rakbar is not the first victim of the changed situation. The crisis, triggered by the death of Pehlu Khan in April last year, spiralled with the killing of Hafiz Junaid in June, Umar Muhammad in November and now Rakbar Khan in July of this year. All the attacks and killings have taken place in the same region of Mewat. “The people in the region are starting to get very scared,” said the sarpanch of Kolgaon, Jagram Harlal. “Earlier, villagers took the cows to graze on the hillside behind the village or in the fields. But now people have stopped taking the cows out to graze because of the fear of being lynched. Instead, they buy fodder and feed the cows in the house itself. This is more expensive, but what to do?” 

Bought bundle of fodder. Credit: Neha Mehrotra

District level analysis of aggregate development revealed that Mewat is the least developed region of Haryana. In terms of the standard of living, education and health indices, Mewat lags severely behind other districts in the state.

According to the 2011 Census, Mewat has one of the lowest literacy rates in the region. The overall literacy rate in the rest of Haryana hovers at 76%, while Mewat’s literacy rate stands at 54%. The reason for the discrepancy may be due to the fact that most villagers in Mewat have access to primary schools, but only 20% of them have access to secondary schools.

Fomenting economic woes in the region is the lack or even absence of institutions people can access. For instance, Rakbar’s family is yet to get any official communication from the government about compensation for Rakbar’s death. “No one from the BJP government has come to visit us yet. Everyone who came has gone to Ramgarh and then gone straight to Alwar from there. Even the home minister Gulab Chand Kataria only visited Ramgarh, but didn’t bother coming here. No one has come to Kolgaon and no one has officially informed us about any compensation for Rakbar’s death,” said Harun.

Harun Khan (right-most) and Suleiman Khan, Rakbars father (to Harun’s left) Credit: Neha Mehrotra

Though government compensation remains elusive, other organisations have reached out to the family. A paralegal volunteer from National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) visited Rakbar’s family on Wednesday and announced a Rs 5 lakh compensation for the family from the legal body. “Two and a half lakhs will be issued before conviction and two and a half lakhs after conviction,” said the NALSA volunteer. “This package is from the courts. The government has nothing to do with it. The district judges, the Jaipur judge and national judges have made a committee that provides institutional assistance to victims of crimes under the 2011 Peedit Pratikar Scheme. So the first two and a half lakhs should be issued within 2-3 days.”

However, the initiative hit a roadblock when Harun was asked for his Aadhar card, ration card and account number. “The account number is not linked to my pan card,” said Harun. And to make matters worse, Harun did not have a valid pan card. “I’ve sent in an application but I haven’t heard back yet,” he said.

This is not the only area where the family’s resources are inadequate. They have no legal representation and remain at risk of being exploited.

Rakbar Khan’s mother, Habiban, sitting on the bed and his wife, Asmina, lying on the bed. Credit: Neha Mehrotra

Rakbar Khan’s seven children. Credit: Neha Mehrotra

The police visited Rakbar’s family and asked Harun to sign an affadavit to confirm his identity and place of residence. Harun, however, could not decide whether signing the police document  could hurt his interests. “Should I sign it?” Harun asked the sarpanch, but since neither Harun nor the sarpanch can read, one of the only literate villagers from the community was called. After detailed deliberation, Harun finally put his thumbprint on the paper.

Rakbar’s neighbour signing a police affadavit. Credit: Neha Mehrotra

“The area might seem to be lagging behind because people here have never had to deal with institutions of any kind,” said Alvi. “They have never had access to education, the state, courts or any other formal structures.” So what happens when people like this, without warning, are thrust into the political fold? They are going to have to make up for years of institutional neglect all at once, or risk further exploitation.

Neha Mehrotra is a student at Ashoka University and an intern at The Wire.