Minorities in north India bear the brunt of post-election hate crimes

By  Amarnath Tewary and Ashok Kumar

t is the last Friday of Ramzan and lying on a blue rexine bed that is standard in private nursing homes, with an intravenous tube (IV) and a catheter attached to him, Mohammad Qasim, 29, has the anguished look of a man who is weary of carrying the burden of his name. As his cousins rush out of the nursing home to offer Alvida Juma (jumu’atul vida) namaz, tears course down Qasim’s cheeks. He says, “I cannot even get up to offer my prayers, and this is more painful than the bullet lodged inside me.”

Three days after the spectacular verdict of the 2019 general election that gave Prime Minister Narendra Modi a second term, Mohammad Qasim was shot at for being a Muslim in Kumbhi village. It falls under the jurisdiction of Cheria-Bariyarpur police station in Begusarai district, Bihar.

Looking back, it would appear that the atmosphere had already been vitiated by politicians in the run-up to the general election. Hindutva poster boy and Union Minister Giriraj Singh won the Begusarai Lok Sabha seat by defeating CPI candidate Kanhaiya Kumar, a former president of the Jawaharlal Nehru University student union; Rashtriya Janata Dal candidate Tanvir Hussain came a distant third. Campaigning for the polls, Singh repeatedly hit the headlines with controversial statements. “My ancestors died and were cremated… but you need a yard of land even after you die. If you say you cannot chant Vande Mataram, this nation will never forget you,” he had said in the course of an election rally. He had also demanded the Election Commission of India impose a ban on the use of green flags. This was not the first time Singh had courted controversy in his attempts to create a wedge between religious communities.

String of violence

The past five years of the Narendra Modi government have seen a spate of lynchings across north India. A potent cocktail of religion, the issue of gau rakshak and intolerance towards other faiths appears to be fuelling the violence. Almost every act is caught on camera and quickly disseminated on social media which amplifies it. Politicians from the ruling dispensation have kept their silence. Just a few days ago one such gruesome act was captured on camera where, in Uttar Pradesh, a group of men are seen beating daily wage labourers for eating meat.

Qasim is a stout man who walks with a pronounced limp. Along with other members of his community, he weaves quilts for a living during the winter and supplements his income by doing odd jobs in the summer. He says, “My younger brother suggested that I sell detergent door-to-door and I agreed. I had to support my family, after all.” Borrowing money from friends and relatives, Qasim bought a moped for ₹25,000 and started selling detergent. An additional ₹800 was spent on getting a microphone fitted to the moped. The microphone blared promotional jingles exhorting people to purchase Qasim’s 3 kg detergent powder for just ₹100. On a normal day, Qasim’s earnings touched ₹300.

Selling detergents for a lark

May 26 was just another usual day with much of the celebrations that followed the verdict of the general election having quietened down. Qasim had left home early to escape the heat and hoping to get some business done, persuading housewives to buy his detergent before they shut their doors for noon. May is a brutal summer month with most people preferring to stay indoors.

Qasim reached Kumbhi village, 10 km from his home. He recounts, “I had just parked my moped outside a paan shop, when suddenly a man [later identified as Rajiv Yadav] ordered me to switch off the mike. I turned it off immediately. He asked my name and upon hearing it, told me to go to Pakistan. ‘You should be in Pakistan or…,’ and he looked up at the sky. In a split second, he whipped out his katta (country revolver) and fired at me.”

As Qasim slumped forward, a number of bystanders stood by and watched. None came forward to his aid. Qasim was barely conscious to realise that he was losing blood. The bullet had hit him on the left shoulder and, as doctors would later find out, it had not exited. After what seemed like hours, a woman came forward to dress his wound with a cloth. Someone else came forward with a towel and took him to the village sarpanch’s house. The sarpanch, Raja Ram Sahni, offered to take Qasim to the local police.

By this time, news of the shooting had spread like wildfire in the neighbouring villages. Qasim’s family members decided to rush him to the government hospital in Begusarai town some 30 km away from Khumbi, only to be told by the doctors to admit him in the State capital, Patna. Says Qasim’s cousin, Mohd Mohd Mithun Alam, “It was at that time that some people had come to the government hospital in Begusarai to record Qasim’s statement.” His younger brother Mohd Javed, who is also physically challenged, adds, “We thought he could die of bleeding, so we requested the doctor to refer him to a local doctor in town. He then referred Qasim to a private nursing home.”

The police visited the nursing home at 2 p.m. to record the statement. Says Qasim, “I apprised the bara babu (in-charge of police station) of all the details of the incident telling him categorically that I was shot at for being a Muslim, but the FIR said I was shot at due to some scuffle.” He asks, “How could I have a scuffle with the accused whom I was not acquainted with? I put my thumb impression on the FIR without knowing what was written in it.” However, at one place in the FIR (no: 77/19 dated May 26), Qasim’s statement that he was shot at for being a Muslim does find a mention. Following the registration of the FIR, a case against the accused, Rajiv Yadav, was lodged under Sections 341 (punishment for wrongful restraint), 342 (punishment for wrongful confinement) and 307 (attempt to murder) of the Indian Penal Code and Section 27 of the Arms Act (punishment for using arms).

The accused was said to have been drunk at the time of the incident — Bihar is a dry State. He was arrested on May 30 and sent to jail. Says Niraj Kumar Singh, in-charge of Cheria-Bariyarpur police station: “He is a local criminal and has also been involved in illegal liquor brewing and selling… he is accused in four other cases as well.”

However, the Begusarai Superintendent of Police, Awkash Kumar, expressed ignorance about Qasim’s claim that he was shot at for being a Muslim. He said, “I do not know why he says so… we’ll investigate this but our investigations show that he was shot following a scuffle over the purchase of his detergent.”

But the shooting incident became prime time news and was amplified by social media. Kanhaiya Kumar tweeted, “In Begusarai, a Muslim hawker was shot at saying he should go to Pakistan. In order to promote such crimes, all such leaders are guilty who day and night spread hatred for political virtues. We’re not at peace until the perpetrators are punished.”

All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen leader Asadudin Owaisi too tweeted, “Qasim almost lost his life for literally just saying his name. But sure, I am ‘fear mongering’. Where does Rajiv’s brazenness come from? BJP’s leadership has constantly demonised us and associated us with Pakistan. We’re not human in their eyes, we’re target practice.”

Giriraj Singh too did not take long to respond. He told a news channel: “Owaisi has a habit of sowing hatred. The land of Begusarai is peaceful. I urge Owaisi to let the people of Begusarai continue to live in peace. This is Modi-ji’s (PM Narendra Modi) raj and here, only peace will prevail.” But local Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Imtiyaz Ali, State Communist party leader Arun Mishra and social activist Pushpraj, who visited Qasim in hospital, admitted that “after the Lok Sabha poll, the atmosphere of Begusarai has communally become toxic and people like Rajiv Yadav have started taking advantage of it”.

Meanwhile, the doctor treating Qasim says he is “out of danger now” but the bullet is still embedded in his left shoulder. Says Dr. Ashok Kumar, “We’ll review his condition after two to three days and take a decision on whether to go for an operation to take out the bullet or to leave it there… it causes no danger if it remains there.” Qasim’s family has spent ₹1.15 lakh on his treatment. Says Qasim’s younger brother, “Ornaments of our wives have been mortgaged and we’ve also taken a loan from people… villagers and relatives have also donated nearly ₹10,000 but we’re in deep debt.”

In the distance, Qasim’s new moped stands piled with detergent packets waiting to be sold. After the incident, most of the villagers in Khanjahanpur, to which Qasim belongs, have stopped hawking their goods for a living. The village has a substantial Muslim population engaged in petty trade, which appears to have taken a hit.

Another city, another beating

For a few weeks in the run-up to Eid-ul-Fitr every year, Mohammad Murtaza would hire a couple of tailors on daily wages to handle the increased load of work. Working in the narrow confines of a shop which is 10 ft by 5 ft, Murtaza, along with three other tailors, toiled away, furiously pedalling their sewing machines. All of them slept in the shop, which is an illegal unit operating from the basement of a house in the Jacubpura area of Gurugram. Shops such as these are common in this area.

Murtaza had migrated to the Millennium City in 1996, then a sleepy, dusty town on the outskirts of Delhi, in search of a livelihood. He worked with many well-known tailors in the city for over two decades before he could set up his own shop three years ago.

He had called his son Amir, who worked as a mason in Bengaluru, to assist him. Most often, it was the bigger tailors who outsourced their work to him. This year Murtaza called his distant cousin, Mohammad Barkat Alam, 25, from Bihar’s Begusarai district to learn the tricks of the trade. He thought the man would also be an extra hand in the festive season.

Looking back at the incident of May 25, Murtaza, who looks much older than his 45 years, with his grey dishevelled hair and stubble — is deeply perturbed by the turn of events over the past few days. Says Murtaza, referring to Alam, “It has not even been a month and he has already invited so much trouble for himself and all of us. The police and the media have all got involved. I had called him to teach tailoring for a better living, but will now send him back after Eid. That too will not be easy as he is now involved in a legal tangle.”

This is what had happened. New to the city, Alam was returning to the shop from the local Jama Masjid, about 100 m away, on May 25 around 10 p.m. through a narrow alley when a few young men on a motorcycle and on foot allegedly accosted him and told him to remove his skull cap. They told him that he was not allowed to wear the skull cap in this area. When Alam protested, one of them slapped him and hit him on the head, displacing the cap. An altercation broke out. Though there is no evidence to confirm or deny it, Alam claimed that his tormentor asked him to chant “Bharat Mata Ki Jai” and “Jai Shree Ram”, and threatened to feed him pork if he didn’t obey his command.

Recalls Alam, “It was not too late for a summer night and there were many people around. Some safai karamcharis were also working nearby. But no one intervened. They just laughed. The man punched me and hit me with a stick lying on the road. I tried to push him back and run but he held on to my kurta and tore it. I just started weeping. The men walked away.”

Alam is yet to tell his mother about the incident and is not sure how she will take it.

Murtaza, however, feels that things would not have come to such a pass had Alam exhibited a little restraint. “He is young blood and the man was drunk. The man said something and he reacted. Had Alam acquiesced to what the man wanted him to do, there would have been no trouble. He had only threatened to feed him pork, and not actually done so. I have encountered such situations many times, but the matter never reached the police station,” he argues.

Millennial city no more

Murtaza, though, concedes that a lot has changed in and around the locality over the past couple of years. A thriving meat market that was a stone’s throw from his shop and had been running for decades shut down two years ago following protests by Hindus. It all started some years ago with protests during Navratri by some Hindu outfits and the shops were forced to down their shutters permanently. Says Murtaza, “The Hindus objected to the presence of shops close to the temple, though the shops and the temple had co-existed for decades.” He rues how he has to walk a longer distance now to buy meat from the Jama Masjid market. In fact, the meat shops and dhabas in the Jama Masjid market too were forced to shut down during Navratri in October last for the first time but were reopened a day later after the police intervened, he recounts.

Alam grumbles how despite being a victim, he has been at the receiving end of the law agencies and the media. He breaks down on a couple of occasions in dejection. On fast for around 20 days and beaten up, Alam had to sit in the police station till the early hours of Sunday after the attack while the police completed the legal formalities. He was called to the station the following day to identify the culprits, though none was arrested. Alam says he kept sitting in the station for four hours and was let off only after a community leader intervened.

He is saddened by the narrative now being falsely built by the police and the media to discredit him. A host of reports appeared in a section of media over the past few days, with reference to the closed-circuit television footage of the incident, and about some insignificant details of the attack. The reports claimed that his skull cap was just touched by the accused and did not fall to the ground and that he was assaulted by one and not two persons. Some reports also claimed that his “kurta” was not torn, though a scuffle is evident in the footage. The police also said Alam could have been tutored to make a false statement with regard to the chants of “Jai Shree Ram” and “Bharat Mata Ki Jai” when there was still no evidence to support it.

The chairman of the Muslim Ekta Manch, Hazi Shahzad Khan, says while the incident has been dissected to disseminate insignificant details, no one seems to be talking about the moot point — that a young man belonging to a minority community has been targeted for his religious identity and prevented from practising his religion with freedom, as guaranteed in the Constitution. Khan says this is not the first time this has happened and that there have been a series of incidents in Gurugram over the past three years or so creating fear in the minds of the minorities.

He says, “Be it the protests against meat shops, mostly run by the Muslims, the offering of Namaz in open spaces, the cutting off of a Muslim man’s beard or the attack on a Muslim family in Bhondsi recently, the intolerance towards Muslims seems to be on the rise in Gurugram.”

Independent film-maker Rahul Roy, who is a part of the civil society group, Nagrik Ekta Manch, says the emergence of Hindutva vigilante groups in Gurugram is linked to the creation of a new political voice and the building of a constituency of support around issues which are both emotive and offered possibilities of breaking through caste/clan social divisions. For a new set of political actors to break this stranglehold of old networks and claim leadership positions required the setting up of new political projects. Cow protection and anti-Muslim hate amplification are time-tested ingredients that have for long ensured very high success rates in mobilising people.

Says Roy, “The administration has completely failed to address the genuine problems of Muslim and Christian residents when it comes to issues such as places of worship and burial grounds. The campaign by the vigilante groups to stop the Friday Namaz in public spaces was partially successful and the administration provided legitimacy to these groups and their leadership by setting up parallel negotiations with the Muslim community and the vigilante groups.”

On his part, Murtaza says his family back in Begusarai have been staunch supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party and had been voting for the party. He consoles himself that his nephew returned home to tell his story. Alive.

Link: https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/a-thread-of-fear-and-hate/article27690303.ece