Dadri and the killing of Mohammad Akhlaq is probably the first step in a larger plan to polarise the opinion and votes in the BJP’s campaign to win Uttar Pradesh.
BY ARPIT PARASHAR
PHOTOGRAPHS BY SUNIL
On the night of September 28, a mob of indeterminate size, with a predetermined target, barged inside the house of Mohammad Akhlaq. The loudspeakers of the temple at Bisada village in Dadri tehsil of Uttar Pradesh’s Gautam Buddha Nagar heralded their arrival. The priest had declared that a calf had been slaughtered in the village, and that Akhlaq and his family were eating beef.
The narrow lane that led to the house was full of bloodthirsty men, at least 500 by conservative accounts. They entered the house, molested and pushed away Akhlaq’s daughter and wife, and went for the man and his son, Danish, sleeping upstairs. They beat the two with iron rods and lathis, a can of rice and a sewing machine. They killed Akhlaq and grievously injured Danish while the village of 15,000 watched. Deed done, the mob quickly dispersed in the dark.
When the police came, among the first things they did was bag the meat for forensic examination to determine whether the family was consuming beef, whether the mob had a righteous cause.
The report said it was goat meat.
Akhlaq’s murder unsettled the country. With the active legislative and political support of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) governments in states and at the Centre, cow slaughter has become a cause worth killing for. The BJP and the Sangh Parivar affiliates have carried out relentless propaganda: a love for the cow has been equated with a hatred of Muslims.
The murder led to a wave of protests. In an unprecedented act, more than 40 writers, filmmakers and others returned awards and honours bestowed by the country. The number grows by the day.
At first sight the murder seems just one more case of missionary madness. But there is a subtext worth noting. UP has more elected legislators and parliamentarians than any other state in the country. A victory here reverberates in Delhi.
It’s the reason Prime Minister Narendra Modi contested from Varanasi; the reason the BJP is desperate to win the state assembly election in 2017.
Western UP with 77 seats is crucial to this plan. It’s a region that voted for the BJP in the 2014 general elections but it is also the region where the party has no great base. Beef and the killing of Akhlaq have already polarised voters; the BJP has the template of Muzaffarnagar 2013 to follow.
Initial leads in the case point to Akhlaq’s murder being a conspiracy orchestrated by Hindutva outfits with the help of some villagers, police officers investigating the case have told Fountain Ink.
The mob that attacked Akhlaq and his son could not have gathered so fast, since his friend Manoj Sisodia said he reached the house within half an hour of receiving the call from Akhlaq, when nobody had got there. Sisodia informed the police and rushed to the house but Akhlaq had sustained heavy injuries by then, while Danish lay unconscious and bleeding profusely. According to more than one person in Bisada, the mob was led by men who were not from the village. Police have said there was no weapon at the house with which Akhlaq and Danish could have defended themselves.
What happened in Bisada was the result of a concerted effort by Hindutva organisations, a product of a continuing aggressive, violent campaign to ban cow slaughter which is a virtual call to arms for Hindus. It is the dirty groundwork for the 2017 UP elections.
The road leading to Bisada through NH 58 is not as busy as it was till about a month ago. People are relieved that the government school has reopened and that the media has departed.
The temple from where the priest announced that a calf was butchered now lies abandoned. Children play on its premises. Some still come to pray though the sanctum sanctorum remains locked.
Police vehicles patrol the village every few hours. The police end up grilling people going about their daily chores, inviting much public displeasure “Even women carrying fodder for livestock on their heads are stopped and questioned sometimes by women constables,” a village elder says.
The sub-inspectors, including Raj Kumar Singh, recently posted to Dadri tehsil, make sure they visit the village panchayat ground every day, where men while away their time, discussing politics and smoking hookah while sipping tea so sweet that their lips stick together.
In addition to police, Bisada has another regular patrol. SUVs belonging to the Hindu Gau Raksha Dal make the rounds every day. It’s a loosely organised group of young men who are either affiliated with or regular members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) and the BJP, and have taken it upon themselves to protect the cow from all harm.
Two of the three Muslim houses in the heart of the village have been abandoned these many weeks and children have started to make up stories. “There is the ghost of a cow which has no ears and hooves and attacks anyone who goes inside,” says a boy running around the street with a small wooden wheel attached to a stick, honking out of his mouth to keep the path clear. The absence of ears and hooves comes from the rumour that they had been found in Akhlaq’s house.
Akhlaq and his elder brother’s families lived in the abandoned houses. Neeti Singh, a friend of Akhlaq’s daughter, says, “Who would want to leave their own village and house and live elsewhere? But the fear of people attacking them again and the media swarming the village was very harsh. They had no option but to leave; fear had gripped their minds.”
It is this fear upon which BJP and Hindutva outfits like Hindu Gau Raksha Dal bank to polarise votes in western UP.
Satpal Singh, a BJP member from the region says, “The present (Samajwadi Party) government treats Muslims like special citizens while ignoring Hindus. It is important that there is fear in the minds of people who may want to hurt our sentiments. Our aim is to bring some balance in society.”
Bidsada and western UP are important for BJP. It swept the region in the 2014 general elections, and it needs to win again in the 2017 assembly elections to take UP. This region, particularly the cluster of 84 Rajput-dominated villages of about eight lakh people has seen little communal violence post Independence—Muzaffarnagar in 2013 paid rich dividends for BJP—and has voted either BSP or SP in the last 30 years.
The BJP’s repeated attempts at building a base here have failed. Vijay Singh, a retired superintendent of the UP police and a columnist with leading Hindi dailies, who hails from Aghapur village and is now settled in Noida, says, “Both Muslims and Hindus were loyal to the Mughals and later to the British as a majority of them served in the armed forces and there was no question of enmity. Farming also picked up when the British built the canal system in the region and there was relative prosperity, leaving no reason for feuds. After Independence, the region voted for the Congress en masse.”
The Congress, however, started losing ground after the Babri Masjid demolition and the subsequent killings in 1992. Even so, the BJP till date only has offices in the urban areas of Dadri tehsil but not in any of the villages. “When there are not going to be any members from the villages why would anyone open offices,” says Vijay Singh.
The killing of Akhlaq in Bisada, not far from Badalpur, the ancestral village of Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) chief Mayawati, is seen as a one-off event by people who feel they have been treated wrongly and painted as villains because of the actions of some “misguided young men”.
Elders have different versions of the history of their village. But most say it was settled around 800 years ago when the Rajput king of the region awarded 84 villages as part of a dowry for his daughter-in-law to the father of the bride, from the Jodhpur-Udaipur region.
“The king was from a lower Rajput caste while the bride was from the Rana caste so he decided to award fertile lands as dowry and also employed warriors from Rajasthan in his army thereafter to increase his hold over the region. That is how these villages were settled over time by the Ranas,” says a village elder. He says this story was passed down to him by his great-grandfather, who heard it from his grandfather, who served the Mughals.
Whether or not this version is right, Ranas do constitute a major chunk of the Rajputs who are in an overwhelming majority in the 84 villages that stretch from neighbouring Ghaziabad and Bulandshahr districts to Gautam Budh Nagar, which comprises Noida and Greater Noida, the flagship cities of UP.
The villages saw a steady rise in the Muslim population since some Rajputs converted to Islam over generations while artisans and other lower Muslim castes also settled for work or farming.
But during Partition, a majority of the Muslim Rajputs moved out and settled in cities like Ghaziabad and Bulandshahr while others migrated to Pakistan, changing the demography drastically.
This is evident in Bisada, where Muslims number less than 300 in a population of around 15,000. Villagers proudly claim that there was hardly any bloodshed during the period.
Tasleem Ahmed, an octogenarian who lives in Rasoolpur village, not far from Bisada, says, “I remember that the village had 30-40 per cent Muslims (before Partition). Since they all had the same ancestry there was no enmity. But in the lead-up to Partition, some elements started to instigate both communities against each other and young men like me were easily misled.
“My father sent me to the army so I remained untouched but people did tell me later that there had been some bloodshed between Hindus and Muslims. That is what caused Muslim families to move out since they feared being in minority here, preferring to live in Muslim-majority areas in urban centres instead.”
The majority of the Muslims left in the villages after Partition were from the artisan and farming communities while Hindu Rajputs took over the lands of the Muslims who left. It was only during land reform in the 1960s and 1970s that some Muslims got a share of the land. But during this process, and even in the aftermath of the demolition of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya in 1992, there were no incidents of violence in the region, elders claim.
Mohammad Akhlaq’s family belongs to the artisan community of blacksmiths and Akhlaq used to run a metal business from the village. Some villagers point to items in their houses that were either made or repaired by Akhlaq.
The 84-village cluster, which has a reputation of voting together, is crucial to BJP’s electoral fortunes in the region.
Gautam Budh Nagar was part of the Khurja parliamentary seat till 1998. Rapid urbanisation and development of Noida and subsequently Greater Noida saw a manifold increase in the population. After it became a separate parliamentary constituency, the BJP won the seat through Ashok Pradhan, who had been a leader of the Zilla Panchayat and enjoyed credibility through his work in the region.
Pradhan was also a member of the cabinet during the Vajpayee regime and his interventions turned Noida into a satellite town of Delhi. In the state assembly, however, rural politics played an important part and the seats, especially Dadri—under which much of the region of the 84 Rajput villages including Bisada falls—stayed with the BSP.
Pradhan lost the elections in 2004 to Nawab Singh Nagar of the BSP and the seat stayed with the party till 2014, during which huge portions of rural land were acquired by the Noida, Greater Noida and Yamuna Expressway authorities as urban space expanded faster than planned. A major chunk of Bisada village, as well as many others, has been acquired by the Greater Noida Authority, changing the politics of the region.
Fast urbanisation has also changed demographics at a pace with which the BSP and SP have not been able to keep up.
The BJP, however, has managed to cash in on this change, since the present SP regime has ignored the region, and the spectacular defeat of the BSP in the 2012 state assembly elections has affected the region for the worse. While Mayawati laid special emphasis on its development, she ended up focusing mainly on shifting the power centre to Badalpur from Dadri. Government offices were shifted from Dadri and a new police station also set up, which angered voters.
During this period the movement for a separate Harit Pradesh, comprising the districts of western UP, over issues of development and distribution of state funds, also picked up pace and the BJP and its student wing ABVP moved in their cadres in large numbers to support the movement.
They also played a part in the farmer protests against acquisition of fertile land for urban development, earning some credibility.
Rupesh Verma, a social activist from the region who played an important role in organising the farmers in protest, says, “In times of crisis one does not look at the political leanings of people. What matters is that everybody unites for the cause. Who knew that the fascists (from BJP and ABVP) would use this genuine issue in an attempt to destroy the social fabric?”
In the 2014 election, the popularity of BJP’s PM candidate Narendra Modi, especially among urban voters—who for the first time outnumbered the rural voters—played a major role in Mahesh Sharma’s victory. A migrant, Sharma owns two hospitals in the district, both called Kailash Hospital, one in Noida and the other in Greater Noida. Akhlaq’s 22-year-old son Danish was treated at the Kailash Hospital in Greater Noida.
In spite of winning the election, Sharma didn’t fare well in the rural areas of the constituency. This lack of enthusiasm on the part of rural voters disturbs the balance BJP has been aiming to achieve ahead of the 2017 assembly elections. Promotion of leaders like Sangeet Singh Som, MLA from Sardana constituency in Meerut district—arrested after the Muzaffarnagar riots for inciting violence and circulating a video from Pakistan showing the killing of two boys and trying to pass it off the killing of two Hindu boys from Muzaffarnagar—is part of the strategy to polarise votes.
“If parties can polarise votes from backward communities and Muslims to attain victory in elections in the name of secularism why can’t we (BJP) polarise votes in the name of Hindutva to gain victory?” Som told me.
The BJP and Hindutva organsations have a three-pronged strategy polarise votes: issues of deprivation, Hindu honour and respect for their traditions, and religious symbols like the cow and temples. All three have been used on different occasions in different parts of the state to instil the sentiment of Hindus having been given a raw deal in the name of secularism.
In Bareilly in 2012, it was the kanwariyas who incited violence in the city’s Muslim-dominated areas but the BJP used it as a plank to call for respect for Hindu traditions and religious festivals.
In Faizabad the same year, there were riots during the Durga Puja celebrations after allegations that idols from a Hindu temple had been stolen by Muslims. They turned out to be false. In Muzaffarnagar in 2013, violence was incited in the name of the honour of a Hindu girl allegedly sexually harassed by a Muslim boy, although it proved to be a concocted narrative in the end. It led to organised riots in the district, especially in the rural areas and ended up marginalising the Muslims, who have been an important part of the social and political landscape, and forcing them to live as exiles in their own land.
It is a phenomenon that surfaces regularly when elections are around the corner or the BJP is losing ground in a certain region. In Bareilly and Faizabad, the party faced heavy losses in the 2012 assembly polls and the cadres were aiming to punish Muslims for it. In Muzaffarnagar, the aim was to polarise votes ahead of the Lok Sabha elections.
In Bisada, too, the aim was to polarise votes ahead of the Zilla Panchayat elections, 3,127 seats of which went to polls through the month of October. The fight was to be between BSP and SP with the chance of the Congress playing a spoiler. The BJP found itself marginalised, as it had no credible issue to fight elections except development. However, rural voters in UP understand that development can come to a region only when the administration has political backing to attend to the issues.
In UP, this happens when a panchayat is either under the rule of the SP or the BSP. If BSP wins, the administration is under pressure to deliver since the assembly polls can be tilted against the ruling SP next time and the BSP can raise massive protests in case of non-performance.
If SP wins, the administration has every reason to attend to the issues. In the case of Bisada and the 84-village cluster, the BJP was simply non-existent; the party needed something.
The first problem the cadre faced was establishing a permanent base in the villages. Since Bisada is geographically closer to the city and is en route most of the interior villages, it was ideal for a base. But neither SP nor BSP cadres would have allowed it.
“Gundagardi unhi ki chalti hai yahaan pe (Their gundas run the show in this region). We were in no position to take the risk of setting up a permanent base. Our people only went during the day to speak to the voters and campaign,” says Pradeep Singh, a senior member of the party’s Dadri unit.
The party members then decided to use the village temple as their base and started organising jagrans and bhandaras (community meals) on a regular basis. Radhey Shyam Gosain, the priest at the temple till August this year, said, “The response was very good and I was very happy. People donated wholeheartedly and there was also a discussion on expanding the temple premises in future. But some of the political talk was not in good spirit.”
Party members urged Gosain to call out “Narendra Modi, zindabad” at the end of every bhajan or recitation, which usually ends with “jai shri ram” or “har har mahadev”. “They said after all of it, you must also say something on Modiji. I refused; how can one take the name of a person, even if it is the PM, along with those of gods?”
When he refused, rumors of misappropriation of donations followed, although only in murmurs, he claims. Too proud to let them swell into allegations, Gosain contacted a priest from the Indrapuram area in Ghaziabad and decided to switch places. The new priest was ready to play ball. Starting from late August, calls of “Narendra Modi zindabad” and “Modiji ki jai” were regularly heard off the temple loudspeaker.
While Akhlaq’s family was not into farming they had owned livestock and people claim they owned a buffalo till recently. This seems to have irked members of the BJP.
To add to that, a rumour which had circulated a few years back about the family resurfaced at the temple during one of the many discussions there on the beef ban.
Narendra Singh, a resident of Bisada said, “I think the rumour was spread by some neighbour or villager who was jealous of Akhlaq’s family since they were comparatively well-off.”
Mohammad Sartaj, Akhlaq’s elder son is a corporal in the Indian Air Force while many of his Hindu friends are either unemployed or working in their families’ farms.
The rumour spread that Akhlaq’s family had “probably killed” and “eaten” the meat of a calf some years back, just as was announced on the night of his killing. According to Narendra Singh and some others in the village, Akhlaq’s family adopted a stray calf a few years ago and fed it every day, sometimes letting it sleep inside the house, especially during the harsh winters.
“This calf died due to unknown reasons and was given to the village’s valmiki community for proper rites to be performed, as is the custom. But someone later spread the rumour that the family killed and ate the calf, which was totally false and was forgotten soon as a result.”
When this rumour resurfaced from the temple loudspeakers, it incited a murderous rage in the young men. It was said that they (Muslims) were getting away with it because the SP was in power and allowed such sins to be committed.
“I do not know about this family, but there have been instances of people killing cows and consuming their meat and no action was taken,” says Pradeep Singh of the Dadri BJP.
Sangeet Som echoes this statement: “Killing of cows has been common in many districts and we have had reports yet no action has been taken against the killers. If sentiments are hurt and the government ignores such incidents to appease the Muslims, we cannot sit idle forever.”
People in Bisada say the priest disappeared within two days of the attack on Akhlaq and his son. There is no mention of this in the police report. Also, according to people in the village, some men from the BJP had taken control of the temple sound system and were shouting slogans like “Bharat banega Hindu rashtra”.
The police have so far not been able to establish the identities of the people present at the temple the night the announcement of cow slaughter was made before the mob murdered Akhlaq. While three men were arrested owing to media pressure, one of them the son of a BJP leader, none are said to have been present on the night of the attack.
Manoj Sisodia, Akhlaq’s childhood friend whom he first called, says, “Police might say the villagers were present and surely they must have been, but most were outsiders. When I reached his house and tried to stop the crowd I could not identify a single person though I have lived here all my life.”
He is not sure, however, whether the three men arrested were present among the attackers.
Events in Bisada bear a similarity to those that took place in Kawal village in Muzaffarnagar in 2013, where a large mob attacked Muslim houses late at night led by a handful of villagers who guided them.
Bisada and the Akhlaq family too were victims of a planned attack in which some villagers colluded, sources in the police say. That the family of his elder brother, who lives next door, was not even touched makes it clear that the attackers knew the exact location.
The strength of the mob has not been clearly established but the local administration has put it at anywhere between 500 and 1,500. Most people put it at around 500 but nobody knows the exact number since the attackers disappeared into the night as swiftly as they had swarmed into the village, within minutes.
The three-member team of the National Commission for Minorities led by Naseem Ahmad, although praising the administration for swift and stern action, which prevented a Muzaffarnagar-like situation where violence escalated and paramilitary forces had to called in and curfew imposed, has urged them to improve intelligence gathering.
As in Muzaffarnagar, where reports of the local intelligence unit (LIU) of the police were ignored, officials say unrest within the BJP cadres and their urge to do something “out of the box” and “inflammable” had been filed in a report.
A senior police officer privy to the report said, “It had been reported and all police stations had been directed to be cautious but it is hard to stop a planned attack. That our response was quick shows we were prepared and teams were alert.”
The export of beef and the money it generates has spawned a politics of polarisation in western UP playing on the themes of economic disparity and religious sentiments. Most of the meat industry in western UP is owned by Muslims, who have been in the business for long but have made handsome profits in the last 10-15 years.
Cow meat is not officially exported now, although old cows were butchered and their meat exported till a few years back. Of late, however, in the name of leather industries, many politicians have bought stakes in companies that export beef. Sangeet Singh Som, who had a stake in one such company, refused the allegations.
“The export industry is linked to the leather industry directly and the company in which I had a stake [he claims he does not hold stakes anymore] only exported meat of buffaloes that were dying and so butchered for leather and the meat used as a byproduct. It can in no way be linked to killing cows for meat, least of all calves,” he says.
Som claims that there are many abattoirs in western UP that covertly kill healthy cows and buffaloes for meat. The BJP has seized this opportunity on beef eating since it has led to a rise in the prosperity of Muslims, which in turn has seen the Samajwadi Party receive larger donations and consolidate its hold in the state.
“It boils down to economics and politics in the end. Organisations like the Hindu Gau Raksha Dal are only using the beef ban to target the rise of political parties they are going to be in competition with in the assembly elections in 2017,” says Rupesh Verma.
But Som would have none of it. “Sentiments of Hindus have to be respected and killing of cows cannot be tolerated,” he says. “I am a Rajput and it is told to us in our culture that we can eat pork once in our lifetime. Yet I do not know of any Hindu who would have consumed pork in this region. When we can use such restraint, why can Muslims not respect our sentiments?”
Buffalo meat is a cheap source of protein for both Muslims and Dalits, although its consumption has gone down drastically in the past decade. Buffalo meat can now only be bought or had in Muslim majority areas where the BJP has not spread its base.
The family of Mohammad Akhlaq—his sons Mohammad Sartaj, Mohammad Danish, their sister and mother—live in an Air Force area in Delhi since leaving the village. Sartaj says he does not intend to return to the village where he grew up. He will move his family to Chennai, where he is currently posted.
The people of Bisada, on the other hand, feel vilified and vandalised. When the media swarmed the village and were camping day and night, some had requested people to allow the use of their terraces to station cameras and crew, which most did. But people say that some journalists misbehaved with the owners and used their homes for drinking and sleeping at night.
When the issue was brought up at the panchayat ground in the heart of the village, the elders said that requesting the media men to vacate their premises would be better, which they claim were not heeded in most cases.
“Some media men started offering money to villagers, which was very insulting,” an elder says. As a result, the women decided to take matters into their own hands. Around 100 of them attacked the television crews with lathis and forced them to move outside the village. This was again reported in most of the media as the handiwork of the same people who planned Akhlaq’s murder.
Some are also angry that while Muslim leaders were allowed to meet the family of Akhlaq, Hindu leaders like Sadhvi Prachi and others were not allowed to enter the village.
“We too were treated like culprits by the media yet nobody took our side, instead even disallowing our leaders from meeting us,” says Rukma Devi.
While some votes might have been polarised in the region, the Zilla Panchayat elections did not give any encouragement to the BJP. Seeing that the beef issue had backfired since the meat found at Akhlaq’s residence was mutton, local ABVP cadres have now come up with a new story: the honour of a Hindu girl, as they did in Muzaffarnagar in 2013.
This has been reported to the higher-ups in the student wing and Satya Bhan, secretary of the ABVP’s Awadh unit, has claimed that the attack on Akhlaq and his son was because of an affair the 22-year-old Danish had with a Hindu girl.
Pradeep Singh of the Dadri BJP said, “The love jihad angle to the case is not being ruled out. Muslim men have often lured young Hindu girls into converting to Islam.”
The two houses, just across the street from the panchayat ground are deserted. The identity of the Hindu girl is the latest mystery in the village. So far no one knows anything.
(Arpit Parashar is a freelance journalist based in Delhi.)
(Sunil is a photojournalist based in Noida.