Far from the turmoil he left behind in Alwar, Arjun Lal Yadav keeps his cellphone switched off while working with a road crew in Odisha’s Bhubaneswar, earning Rs 300 per day for laying white markings on the tarred surface. It’s been just a week in his new job, and the 22-year-old prefers to “just focus” on his work — and not what he ran away from. On April 1, Arjun was among the six people in two pick-up trucks who were assaulted by gau rakshaks on National Highway 8 in Behror for transporting cattle. One of them, Pehlu Khan, died in hospital two days later, triggering a wave of outrage across the country — and angry questions in Parliament.
“I was at the steering wheel, they gave me four-five slaps and let me off and then went for the Muslims,” Arjun told The Indian Express over phone Thursday evening. So far, 16 persons are in jail over the incident — 11 for alleged illegal transportation of bovines and five for assault — and police are hunting for the other accused in the lynching that also left four others injured.
Arjun says he was in one of the pick-up trucks, the one with the number plate RJ 14 GE 7209, which is seen in a video of the assault. But there is no mention of his name in the FIR of the incident, which states that Pehlu Khan was in a vehicle with a Haryana number plate with his sons Irshad and Aarif, while Azmat and Rafiq were in the other vehicle. “I have not heard about him,” says Alwar SP, Rahul Prakash.
But Arjun recalls those terrifying moments in detail.
“Azmat and Rafiq were with me. I didn’t know them and was merely transporting the cows they had purchased from the Saturday hatwada (fair) in Jaipur. We had municipal receipts and were at Behror when three men each on two-three motorcycles stopped us. They didn’t ask us if we had any permits but just looked at the cows we had,” he says.
Arjun, however, denies the version recounted by Azmat, one of the injured who is now undergoing treatment in Delhi — that the attackers “asked our names and let our driver Arjun go”; and, that they said ‘Let him go, he’s a Hindu’.
What he remembers is this. “I opened the door and ran away. It must have been after 6 pm. I kept running for five-six km till I reached a dhaba. I had left my mobile phone and wallet in the pick-up. I called my uncle Girdhari Lal from the dhaba around 8 pm and told him about what happened. He reached Behror around midnight,” says Arjun.
“While returning from Behror, my uncle stopped at Manoharpur, about an hour from our village (in Jaipur’s Chomu tehsil), and took me to a private hospital. I was okay but had pain in my ear so the doctor gave me ear drops. I had no other injuries,” he says.
Back home in Loharwada village, about 40 km from Jaipur, he says he went to sleep quietly, not telling his father Jagdish Prasad Yadav, mother Santosh Devi, brother Mukesh and two sisters about the incident.
“I am a poor farmer. I don’t know much about these things and his uncle takes care of his work. It was only in the morning that Arjun told us about how the men had stopped his vehicle and attacked them for carrying cows. We were worried,” says Jagdish.
With the pick-up owned by his family seized by police, Girdhari got him work through a contact. “My uncle asked me to work in Odisha,” says Arjun, who has studied till Class 12.
“It will take at least Rs 20,000 to repair the damage caused to the vehicle. He left on the evening of April 6 and might be there for some time,” says Girdhari, Arjun’s uncle.
According to police records, among those arrested so far for the assault are Vipin Yadav, 19; Ravindra Yadav, 30; Kalu Ram Yadav, 44; Dayanand Yadav, 45; and, Neeraj Yadav, 19. Police have also announced a reward of Rs 5,000 each for the other suspects, Bheem Rathi, a driver, and Vipin’s classmate Deepak Yadav.
Will the police contact Arjun at any point? “It is still a part of the investigation. We cannot say anything yet,” says Behror DSP Parmal Singh, who is investigating the case.