My friends from Jharkhand sent me a video of a man – to be exact, a Muslim – being lynched. I avoided opening it. Then a message followed – that the man being beaten up on camera has now died. They were at the police station and were meeting senior officers later. I decided to watch the video.
It is a long clip: ten minutes and 49 seconds. In it, you see a man – a young man – tied to a pole. He is half bent. You can see that he is writhing in pain. His head is unsteady and his legs twisted. There is darkness around him, but there is also some light – from the mobiles being flashed at him, to keep him in focus. There are sounds. Human sounds. Abuses. People moving. You can see eyes. Again, human eyes.
A stick is swung in the air and then you see a hand catching it. The man cries out loud. You cannot see if he has been hit or has cried out anticipating a beating. The camera is brought closer to the face. The man is asked to look into the camera. The crowd is moving around, you can sense some excitement in the air. He is asked his name.
“Sonu,” he says.
The crowd is not satisfied.
“Sonu Ansari,” he replies. He is swinging. There is blood on his face. Ansari? Sonu? Cannot be. “Sonu Ansari is an unlikely name,” the crowd opines. This strange combination of words raises suspicions. “Tell the full name, real name.”
“Tabrez Ansari,” he yields. “But I am called Sonu in my home, my neighbours call me Sonu.” He insists he is being truthful.
“Tell the name of your father.”
“He is dead.”
“The name of your mother?”
“She is also not alive.”
How can it be? Both parents dead. The crowd demands more from him. He tells them the name of his uncle. Another Ansari.
The beating continues. You hear cries, see the shaking of a dishevelled head and eyes wide open with fear.
“Stand erect,” someone from the crowd orders. The young man struggles to his feet. He keeps stumbling back down.
There are children in the crowd. And a burst of female laughter strikes at the darkness.
Blows follow. So do abuses.
The video moves slow. Then someone orders him: “Say Jai Shri Ram.”
“Jai Sri Ram,” Tabrez obeys.
He is asked to repeat it.
“Say Jai Hanuman.”
“Jai Hanuman,” Tabrez follows.
Noise, laughter, abuses, cries.
Tabrez slums back.
The video stops. Tabrez is alive until the end.
According to media reports, the police arrived at the scene and he was rescued. He was reportedly beaten after being caught red-handed by the villagers while stealing a motorbike. He was then taken into judicial custody for theft.
You start analysing the situation. The crowd must have been genuine in its suspicion of him being a thief. He was not being beaten for being ‘Tabrez Ansari’. An Arvind or Suman may have suffered the same fate in that situation.
Those beating him were ordinary people. It did not appear to be a premeditated attack. It must be spontaneous, even if it was an unfortunate response to the situation.
It happens, you tell yourself.
What is striking is the impunity in the air. As if the crowd is collecting evidence, recording it. The camera is repeatedly brought close to Tabrez’s face. The crowd puts his statement on record. It is an act of vigilantism.
Just four days after this collective assault, Tabrez died. Was the beating the cause of it? Or was this a natural death?
Do we call it a lynching?
Must I see a direct relationship between the desire of the crowd to hear a sacred invocation from an infidel to his death?
Does this video have any link to another video, shot at and emanating from Barpeta, a place far off from Dhatkidih of Saraikela, in which we see a crowd stopping an autorickshaw, assaulting the travellers and forcing them to chant ‘Jai Shri Ram’?
They are different people, speaking different languages.
Then there is an unrelated piece of news of a Muslim cleric being hit by a car after refusing to chant ‘Jai Shri Ram’. This one in the capital city of India.
Three regions, three languages, one demand: “Say Jai Shri Ram.” Now we have the mantra which ensures unity in diversity.
As I wait for the report from my friends who were to go to the village, I read John Dayal.
“I don’t have the courage to put the last moments of a living human being on my Facebook. Particularly one being lynched for sporting a beard or some such visual sign which condemns him as not one of those who make up the mob that is killing him.
He was not killing a cow. He was not skinning a bull. He was not carrying the flesh of some animal. He was not forcibly or fraudulently converting anyone. He had not eloped with someone not of his caste. He was not friendly with some girl not of his religion. He was not a Pakistani agent. He was not a home grown terrorist.
None of them can be punished by a mob. The police has to arrest them and bring them before a court of law where, if found guilty, they will be sentenced to death, or a term in prison, and if innocent, will be set free. Happens in some civilised societies.
He had not even enjoyed fully the fruits of living in a secular democratic republic where a job, a house, a life without fear, a yearning for happiness and the aspirations to do better were all for the asking from the Constitution of India.
Killed for fun, was he? Kittens playing with a baby mouse till he died of fright?
Who will respond?
The President of the ruling political party/
Or the Home Minister of the Union of India?”
Why is it that I do not any longer demand an answer from anyone? Nor expect anything from anyone?
Why then am I writing these lines?
Apoorvanand teaches at Delhi University.