Jaisinghpur (Haryana): As we made our way to home of Pehlu Khan – the dairy farmer who was killed by cow-protection vigilantes in Alwar on April 1 – we came across a man pushing a cycle with a large vessel placed on the pillion. He had just crossed us when I suddenly turned around and asked him if it was biryani that he was carrying. Yes, he replied, promptly adding that it was chicken biryani. The tension was writ large on his face. An encounter with the wrong kind of strangers these days can sometimes end badly for a man with animals or meat.
Arriving at Khan’s home on the morning of April 8, we saw a few familiar faces at a makeshift construction site at the entrance. A journalist, a couple of activists and a prominent lawyer whom we had known from our last trip, apart from the neighbours and relatives of the family were present. We recognised Irshad, Khan’s elder son from media reports. We sat there for a few hours trying to get a sense of all the conversations and discussions. After a few of the visitors left, we spoke at length to Irshad and his brother, Arif. Irshad, 24, is the eldest of eight siblings; the youngest are seven and five.
On the fateful evening of April 1, Irshad, Arif, their father Khan and a couple of others (Azmat and Rafeeq) were returning home from the government-run cattle fair in Hathwara, which is on the outskirts of Jaipur. Khan and Azmat were seated in the first pickup jeep that had two calves, and the others were trailing in a bigger pickup truck. As they crossed the Jaguwas crossing on the Alwar highway intersection, a group of vigilantes on bikes stopped the pickup jeep and started questioning them.
Soon, a mob assembled and they began thrashing Azmat and Khan. Arjun, the driver of the vehicle, managed to flee after identifying himself as a Hindu. By the time the second vehicle reached the spot some ten minutes later, Azmat was already unconscious and a larger mob had assembled. The assailants also robbed around Rs 75,000 from them. The mob used sticks, belts and even the tools in their vehicle to beat them before constables from the Behror police station, located barely a mile away, managed to reach the spot after another 20 minutes. The crowd was ready to burn them alive and had sprinkled fuel on them when the police arrived.
It wasn’t the end of their ordeal. The victims were admitted to Kailash hospital nearby where all of them underwent treatment. On the same night, a few relatives and neighbours of the victims reached the Behror police station and asked to see them. But instead, the police demanded a bribe of Rs 10,000. One of them was conditionally allowed to meet Irshad at the hospital. The next morning, they came back again and were allowed to meet the victims only after paying Rs 5,000. That day, except for Khan, all the others were moved to the general ward while Khan remained in the intensive care unit on the third floor of the hospital.
The relatives said they were asked to furnish a sum of Rs 1,00,000 by the SHO, Ramesh Chand Sinsinwar, as a bribe if they were to let the survivors go home from the hospital. Relatives, including Khan’s brother, bargained and settled on a sum of Rs 75,000 by April 3. But since an FIR had been registered against them under Sections 5, 8 and 9 of the Rajasthan Bovine Animals Act, for not having a valid transit permit, and citing public pressure, the SHO refused to settle the case as a quid pro quo for the sum being paid. What upset the plans of the Behror police, however, was the death of Khan owing to internal injuries to the lungs, bleeding, blood clots on the heart and damage to the ribcage.
As the relatives arrived with the money on the evening of April 3, they demanded to see Khan, who was reportedly in a serious condition. However, they couldn’t find him in the hospital and were asked to wait. As the police tried to send Khan’s body for a post-mortem to a government hospital, his relatives protested and were finally allowed to take pictures of his body on their phones, “as they feared the body could vanish and they wanted some proof”. The police promptly got the other survivors discharged without permission from the doctors who were treating them and kept them at the police station in Behror overnight. By 11 a.m. on April 4, they were allowed to go and take Khan’s body.
After the detailed recounting of the incident, punctuated with several questions from our side to clear doubts, we got a clearer picture of their nightmarish experience. In the afternoon, I went to meet another survivor, Azmat, who lives less than a kilometre away in the same village. I also despatched my companion, someone who has worked in the Urdu press, to Behror.
Azmat was lying on a bed placed at the verandah of his home and could hardly speak. His father, an elderly gentleman who spoke clear Hindi unlike the accented Hindi spoken by most of the others we met at the village, gave an account very similar to that of Irshad. Unlike Irshad, he spoke without betraying any emotion and wasn’t bothered by our numerous questions to fully comprehend the sequence of events from April 1 to the 4th. Later, I also spoke to the fourth survivor, Rasheed, who was also the driver of the trailing truck.
By evening, my colleague was back from Behror where he had met the SHO and other officers. While the SHO flatly refused to admit they took a bribe of Rs 5000 or that they demanded a sum of 1,00,000 (later brought down to Rs 75,000), he eventually came around to acknowledging that he had demanded Rs 75,000 to settle the bill at the private hospital (Kailash) where they had admitted Khan and the others.
Nuh, despite being the district headquarters, has no decent hotels. The nearest town where one can find a place to stay or eat is Sohna, some 25 kms from Nuh. Since we were done for the day, we drove back to Gurgaon instead.
The next morning, I returned to Khan’s place that was still teeming with people. I had to clear some doubts and get further clarity on my understanding of the events along with the timings. I dispatched my colleague to Jaipur to cover whatever was left.
Rafeeq’s nasal bridge had been broken and he was about to leave for Delhi to seek treatment along with Irshad’s younger brother Arif when I reached there. My questions to Irshad were now being answered by a lawyer from Mewat and Irshad himself was giving answers that were different to the ones he had given the previous day. I realised that Irshad was being tutored to alter his statements by the lawyer. I confronted the lawyer on the matter and he told me that he was only trying to help and the case would not get a fair trial if issues like the police demanding bribe or certain other controversial things were raised. I asked the lawyer how exactly the administration had been of any help till now, but he didn’t have a response. I told the people assembled there that in my opinion, it would be better if they spoke the truth. Moreover, if the survivors gave different statements under Section 164 to the magistrate, it would only weaken the case.
I promptly rang up Ramzan Chaudhry, another prominent lawyer. He assured me he would speak to activist Kavita Srivastava of the People’s Union of Civil Liberties to seek proper legal assistance for the victims.
Before I left, I caught sight of a couple of buffaloes outside Khan’s home. His family members told me that they had always taken care of their bovine animals in the best possible way and that they have been among the milk suppliers at the village that is home to around 5,000 people.
My colleague was back late in the afternoon from Jaipur. He had found out from the cattle market at Hathwara on Ramgarh road in Jaipur that the Jaipur Municipal Corporation only issued receipts for the animals sold. He was directed to the district magistrate Sidharth Mahajan, who told my colleague that he had delegated the sub-divisional magistrate to issue transit permits. On his part, Baldev Ram Bhojak, the SDM, however, made it clear that he had no knowledge of the permits and he doesn’t recall issuing permit till date.
It was quite clear to us by then that the Rajasthan Bovine Act was just another political weapon for the administration to terrorise the minorities. As we were on our way back to Delhi, we hardly spoke to each other as we ruminated on the incident and somehow felt guilty for being part of a society that is gradually normalising such crimes towards fellow citizens.