Adhauli village, Bulandshahr: Now, with the benefit of hindsight, people can connect the dots and see the pattern emerging across hate crimes in Uttar Pradesh (UP).
It starts with a minor incident, controversial enough to draw the crowds, but the situation remains on slow burn. Until people from outside the village appear, fuelling passions and inciting the mob until it commits a crime that destroys lives, relationships and neighbourly coexistence, for a long time to come.
“Mahual kharab karna chahate the wo log,” Dinesh Rajput of Adhauli village of Bulandshahr district in western UP, where a mosque was vandalised on August 25, 2017, said, meaning “they wanted to vitiate the atmosphere”.
After the crime, “they” disappear as quickly as they had arrived, often before the police reach the scene. Unable to pin the blame on anyone, the police start rounding up people at random.
Saddam (who shared only one name) of Purbaliyan village in Muzaffarnagar in western UP, where a dispute over a cricket match resulted in violence, narrated just such a series of events to explain how a riot was flamed and a hate crime committed; as did the neighbours of Mohammad Younus, who was shot dead in Naseerpur village of Mau district in south-eastern UP on June 26, 2017, where police investigations showed that the accused were local criminals trying to stoke communal tensions to distract the police from an ongoing investigation.
In Bulandshahr’s Soi village, where an elderly Muslim man was lynched, allegedly by a mob of Hindu Yuva Vahini (HYV) activists, locals said the activists had intervened in a dispute between two families over the elopement of an interfaith couple. The police, initially, had dithered over confirming the link to the HYV.
In Sonda Habibpur village of the same district, the police are yet to arrest the main accused in a case of violence against a Dalit man, after his son eloped with a Muslim girl from the village. The victim’s family alleged that the police were going slow because the accused had links with local leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is in power in the state and at the Centre.
UP has reported the largest number of hate crimes since 2009, as per Hate Crime Watch, a database of religious identity-based hate crimes across India from 2009 to 2018. In our reporting from the site of many of these crimes, witnesses and victims veered towards a consensus–there is a pattern to these incidents, which is nearly formulaic in its reiteration.
For many, the link became clear after the December 4, 2018, violence in Bulandshahr, when two people–including a policeman–were killed during a violent demonstration by a mob protesting against the alleged slaughter of cows. “The way the carcasses appeared, the way a mob gathered and indulged in violence. This was exactly how it happened here as well,” Rajput of Adhauli said.
S.R. Darapuri, a former Indian Police Service officer who retired as an inspector general of the UP police, agreed, pointing to a “careful strategy” behind these hate crimes.
“The plan now seems to be to communalise these small, seemingly trivial, and often even personal disputes so that both communities get mobilised,” said Darapuri. “The police, then, quickly steps in and imposes harsh charges on the Muslim community.”
Such a strategy is important to those among Hindu right-wing groups that want to trigger communal riots. “Their efforts to trigger major communal riots in UP have failed, largely because the Muslim community has not responded to provocations,” said Darapuri.
Early on the morning of August 25, 2017, a carcass, purportedly of a cow, was found in a pond just outside Adhauli village.
“We immediately called the police because we didn’t want any trouble,” said Arman Khan, whose uncle carries out commercial fishing in the pond. But, before the police could come, a crowd had converged at the pond. The villagers suspected them of being “Bajrang Dal, Shiv Sena-wale”–Hindu right-wing activists–from neighbouring villages.
Villagers such as Dinesh Rajput, who was the first to call the police, kept a tense watch–the village has always been communally sensitive, the local police told FactChecker during our field visit in December 2018. The crowd started chanting slogans, insinuating that Muslims from the village were responsible for slaughtering the cow whose carcass had been found.
After a couple of hours, the police decided to leave and file a First Information Report (FIR). Rajput said he was afraid that things would spiral out of control, and tried to prevent the police from leaving: “I told them they must stay in the village or else the situation might get worse.”
Shortly after the police left, Rajput’s fears came true. The mob in the village square, now in the hundreds, marched to the narrow lane where most Muslims live, and started shouting slogans. Locals later said the slogans were largely around “Bharat mata” and “gau mata”. As the anger built up, the mob reached Jama Masjid, the village mosque. A few in the crowd decided to break into the mosque, and the mob followed, armed with sticks and stones. Within minutes, the mosque had been vandalised, its doors broken and furniture upturned, Khan said.
Before the police could return, Rajput told FactChecker, the people from outside the village had left. “Most of us could not identify them properly because they were not locals,” he said, “So the police started picking us [villagers] up.”
Rajput said the issue would have been resolved in a less violent manner were it not for the “outsiders”. “People here know their limits,” he said, “We fight but we back off soon enough–it has never reached such a state. Those activists egged the villagers on.”
A year before this, on July 30, 2016, a near-identical sequence of events had played out more than 150 km away, in Muzaffarnagar’s Kadhli village.
This is the story we pieced together from our visit. Around 8.30 a.m., some villagers had started suspecting that a calf was being slaughtered in the home of cattle-trader and daily-wager Zeeshan (who was referred to by only one name, even in the FIR, and has since left the village). Some told FactChecker they had seen a calf being taken into Zeeshan’s house. However, one neighbour who did not wish to be named, said a Hindu man had sold Zeeshan the calf the previous night to entrap him. The neighbour alleged that the same man, later, tipped other villagers off about the slaughter.
Shortly after, a crowd had gathered, a trickle turning into a stream. “In no time, there were around 500 people there,” Ravi Kumar, a resident of the village, told FactChecker while pointing to a narrow lane outside Zeeshan’s house, less than 20 feet wide.
Kumar, an advocate, was getting ready to leave for work that day, he said, when he noticed the crowd. There was one thing about the crowd that disturbed him and led him to make a call to the police: “Most of the crowd were from the neighbouring Mandwandi village. Some of them were with the Bajrang Dal and other gau rakshak dals [cow protection groups].”
Before the police could come, the swelling crowd had attacked Zeeshan’s house and assaulted his wife Shehnaz and children. “They were beaten badly; we could see even the children bleeding,” a neighbour said, not wishing to be named. Scared, Zeeshan’s family fled the scene, only to return a week after the incident to find their house destroyed and their cattle stolen.
“The situation would not have escalated so much if not for those outsiders,” said Kumar, pointing out that the family had been living there for decades, despite whispers that they slaughtered the odd calf now and then, sold to them by villagers who had no use for it any more.
Until that violent episode, Kadhli had had an impeccable record for communal harmony. Around 40% of its 1,500-odd residents are Muslim. “In fact, our longest-serving pradhan was a Muslim man. He was loved and respected by all; even today, the village remembers him,” another villager added, also preferring to remain anonymous.
Life has gone back to usual for many Muslim families in Kadhli. Sabila Begum, who lives with her daughters in the house opposite the one where Zeeshan’s family lived, said that to her, the village remained safe. “No matter what happens outside in the world, nothing happens here. The Hindus and Muslims have always lived in peace,” she said.
Nevertheless, Begum did remember the day the mob attacked her neighbour’s house. “Before we could do anything, the family had fled,” she said. “While they were being beaten up,” a neighbour interjected.
What happened next is another common strand that ties together the hate crimes we examined.
When the police came to Kadhli, they saw Zeeshan’s house ransacked from the inside and its outer wall broken down. The first thing they did, however, was to register a First Information Report (FIR) against Zeeshan, his wife and a few other members of his family for cow slaughter, local police records, reviewed by FactChecker, show.
The station diary of the local police showed that no complaint was registered about the family having been assaulted, the house vandalised or the cattle stolen–these did not find mention in the investigations at all. Zeeshan, Shehnaz and their nephews Parvez and Saddam were booked under Sections 3, 5 and 8 of the UP Prevention of Cow Slaughter Act of 1955.
Zeeshan, Parvez and Saddam spent close to nine months in jail, though Shehnaz was bailed out.
Officials at the Khatauli police station, under whose jurisdiction Kadhli falls, told FactChecker there had been no violence at Zeeshan’s house or against his family. Instead, they said with finality, Zeeshan had been booked for cow slaughter previously too.
Turning the known into unknown
Across the UP hate crime spots that we visited, police action, or inaction, took different forms. In two of the hate crimes we investigated, the accused had been identified but the police did not press charges and closed the investigation within months.
In Bijnore, this played out in full police and media presence on July 5, 2018, when an interfaith couple, Monica and Suhel, were assaulted by BJP activists outside the Additional District Magistrate’s office where they had gone to register their marriage, as directed by the Allahabad High Court.
According to Monica’s FIR, a copy of which is with FactChecker, before they could do so, “a mob of 15-20 people led by Neeraj Vishnoi and BJP leader Harjinder Kaur barged into the room and starting assaulting and abusing us. Wanting to kill us, the mob even tried to abduct us and warned me to not get married with my partner.”
Monica added that despite the Allahabad High Court’s directions to the police to protect the couple, she feared for their lives.
The FIR mentions Kaur’s BJP links, and police officials told FactChecker that Vishnoi is a part of several Hindu right-wing organisations.
However, five months after the incident, when FactChecker visited Bijnore’s Kotwali Shahar police station where the FIR was lodged, the investigations had been shut down. “The couple was not keen on pursuing the case and hence, we found no point in pressing it,” one police official said, speaking anonymously.
In Moradabad, Haji Aslam had a similar experience. A meat-trader, 38-year-old Aslam’s mini-van was burnt down by five men on two motorcycles in August 2018.
His driven and cleaner, who were in the van, were dragged out, abused and assaulted, and some people in the mob drove away in the van.
Driver Aamir and cleaner Asim have since taken up other jobs. “The mob called them ‘katuwein’ [a communal slur referring to Muslim men] and asked them what they were carrying. As soon as they responded, the mob dragged them out and slapped them repeatedly,” Aslam said.
As soon as Aslam heard the news, he rushed to where the mini-van had been taken, in the heart of a Hindu-dominated basti (hamlet), a five-minute drive from the spot where the vehicle had been intercepted. “A huge crowd had gathered there to witness the burning of my mini-van. I heard slogans being shouted,” he said.
Aslam rushed to a local police post to get help. A constable accompanied him, “saw the sight [of the burning mini-van] and said there was nothing he could do. Instead, he told me to flee from the basti or else the mob would kill me too,” Aslam said.
Aslam then went to the Katghar police station in Moradabad city to register an FIR. The police did register one, but with different facts. “They insisted that I say that the mini-van was burnt by some locals who were upset with the pungent smell [of rotting animal remains],” he said.
When he refused, the police suggested another change – that Aslam record an FIR against “unknown” persons. Aslam refused: “After all, I had seen those people burning the van. I could not forget them. I knew their names, too; some of them were with the Shiv Sena.”
But the police insisted. Aslam was desperate – he needed to register an FIR to claim insurance for the van, whose loss had destroyed his livelihood. He had bought the van only two years earlier and was still paying off the loan. “I gave in. They realised my weakness and told me that they wouldn’t help me if I insisted on the names,” he said.
The “unknown” people were never arrested, and the police closed the investigations less than four months later.
When FactChecker visited the Katghar police station, the Station House Officer, Komal Singh, said he did not know enough about the case. “The officers in-charge of that case have been transferred out,” he said.
Aslam said he no longer cared about the outcome of the investigations. “Nothing is going to come out of this. I am certain the police won’t do anything,” he said.