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Multanpura, a settlement of about 10,000 people, was once known as the “village of widows” for the silicosis that killed its men. With its slate-pencil industry hobbled by low wages and reduced demand, the silica dust has settled somewhat but of late, the predominantly Muslim village, about 10 km from Mandsaur town in Madhya Pradesh, is trying hard to shake off another tag: that of a “village of cattle smugglers”.
On May 31, cow vigilantes waylaid two trucks that were transporting cattle from Rajasthan to Gujarat and attacked the occupants of one. Six of the eight men in these two trucks were from Multanpura. The others were from neighbouring villages. There have been other arrests over the years, including in 2007, when several cow carcasses were found not far from here. Of the 64 accused named in the 2007 FIR, more than 40 men were from Multanpura. The trial in the nine-year-old case is still on. Some of the accused have died and some have been forced to flee after the village passed a resolution boycotting 18 of them.
Salim Gulla, who was Multanpura sarpanch in 2007 when the resolution was passed, says the boycott helped diffuse the tense situation then but the village is still haunted by that incident. “Though only a few men from Multanpura were involved in that incident, the village and our community continues to pay a price for it. We are still viewed with suspicion,” he says.
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“It’s the most sensitive village in my constituency. The racket of illegal cow transport is operated from here. It’s a den of cow smugglers and history sheeters. Few people from here are convicted for their crimes because of lack of evidence. The administration should identify and extern people who are habitual offenders,’’ says Yashpal Singh Sisodiya, the BJP MLA from Mandsaur.
Farukh Lakkad, the present sarpanch, claims less than 20 per cent of the men in the village are involved in transportation of cows, both legal and illegal, and those involved in the trade do so because there are no jobs in the region. He says the taint of the 2007 case left some with no option but to trade in cattle.
Sisodiya disagrees. “It’s not logical that people should be driven to crimes due to lack of development or non-availability of jobs. They should work under MNREGA,’’ he says.
Stringent anti-cow slaughter legislation in BJP-ruled states such as Rajasthan, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh and the vigilantism by men who thrive on a strong network of informers in the police and toll booths, have landed several men from Multanpura in trouble even when they were legally transporting cows or bullocks from one cattle fair to another.
Advocate Ramesh Chandra Sharma, who is based in Pratapgarh, the headquarters of a district in neighbouring Rajasthan, alleges Muslim men from the Madhya Pradesh villages of Multanpura, Botalganj, Jaora, Malhargarh and Neemuch are “habitual offenders”. “Even the Banjara community of Rajasthan was involved in the illegal transport of cows, but we have broken their back,’’ says Sharma, who says he is involved in the “anti cow-slaughter campaign” and represents many of the vigilantes in court.
“Earlier, the police were very lenient and would book cow smugglers only for cruelty to animals and let them go after imposing a nominal fine. Now they are very active,’’ says Sharma. He says he had objected to the bail plea of the Muslim men who are in jail for their alleged involvement in the incidents of May 31.
On the morning of May 31, police and Bajrang Dal men flagged down a truck at Dholapani in Rajasthan. They had been tipped-off about a truck transporting cattle. Four men, Azad, Abir, Farukh and Shaukat – all from Multanpura – were arrested. The truck was carrying 50 cattle, which, the vigilantes alleged, were bought from Tonk and were being taken to Gujarat for slaughter.
Few hours later, police stopped another truck at Gomana village near Chhoti Sadadi, about 25 km from Pratapgarh. The truck was on its way from Nimbaheda in Chittorgarh district of Rajasthan. Bajrang Dal men, who chased down the truck and forced it to stop, caught hold of three of the men in the truck while the fourth managed to escape. The vigilantes stripped and beat up the three men before the police intervened and arrested them. While the three claimed they had bought the bullocks from a fair and were taking them to another fair for sale, the Bajrang Dal men said the ‘cattle smugglers’ had no receipts to show and that they were taking the cattle to Gujarat for slaughter.
The FIR filed at the Chhoti Sadadi police station says 52 bullocks had been squeezed into the partitioned truck. A dozen men and 150 ‘unknown people’ were booked for assault and for burning the truck. All the arrested Bajrang Dal men are out on bail while those arrested for transporting the cows continue to be in jail.
At their homes in Mandsaur, the families of Mukhtyar Shabbir Hussain, Nabinur Mushtaq and Azharuddin Iqbal Hussain, the three men attacked by the vigilantes in the Gomana incident and now in jail, have been waiting for news on them since May 31. While Mukhtyar and Nabinur live in Multanpura, Azharuddin is from Botalganj, a neighbouring village. The three men worked as labourers or as part-time drivers and cleaners.
What binds the three men together are their circumstances — all of them have had little or no schooling and their families, desperately poor, have no option but to wait for them to return. The families claim the three were probably transporting cattle for the first time and found themselves in trouble because “they load whatever the truck owners ask them to load’’.
At their unplastered house in Multanpura, Mukhtyar’s parents are convinced the police saved their son – that it could have been much worse if they hadn’t intervened. “We learned about the incident when we got a call from the Rajasthan police. They said we have saved his (Mukhtyar’s) life because the attackers were armed with big stones,’’ says Muhktyar’s father Shabbir, 50, who works in a slate-pencil manufacturing unit and earns around Rs 150 a day.
Shabbir and his wife Husni, 48, claim Mukhtyar, who worked as a driver for Rs 3,000 a month, has no previous criminal record. None of their four children are literate, with Mukhtyar having dropped out of school after his Class 2.
In the nearby Botalganj village, Azharuddin’s brother Zulfikar, who runs a small slate-pencil workshop in the backyard of their modest home, appears lost as he talks about the case. “I don’t know who misled Azharuddin. He can’t even drive a vehicle. There is no case against him in the past,’’ says Zulfikar.
Azharuddin, 28, had borne the brunt of the attack. He was beaten up in the presence of the police who later intervened to save him. He spent nearly a fortnight in hospital before being sent to judicial custody last week. The two brothers and their two other siblings are not educated. Azharuddin, who studied till his Class 4, lost his father Iqbal a few years ago. His mother Raeesa is hard of hearing.
Nabinur, 35, who lives with his wife and four children in Multanpura, is relatively better off than the other two accused. His brothers and their families live adjacent to each other. Their father Mushtaq, who used to trade in bullocks, died a few years ago.
“We did not ask him where he was going that day because he never shares anything with us,’’ says Nabinur’s elder brother Zakir, 45. “He is safe in jail,” says Irfan, another brother who works as a labourer.