The harrowing journey of our caravan of love laid bare a country both divided and devoid of compassion. People are compelled to live with fear and hate, and a hostile state, as normalised elements of everyday living. An old farmer in Uttar Pradesh lost his son transporting cattle to a lynch mob. The police did not register this as a lynch killing, the killers are untraced, and he has not even seen his son’s post-mortem report. He said to us, his face lined with sorrow, “Maine sabar kar liya.” I have learned to endure.
Attempting love, atonement, conscience and justice, the Karwan-e-Mohabbat travelled through India from east to west, traversing Assam, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Delhi, Western Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Rajasthan and Gujarat. The landscape changed — paddy fields, areca nut groves, sugarcane fields, millet farms, arid wastelands. But the stories we heard in state after state were frighteningly similar.
We found widows, mothers, fathers and children, numbed with incomprehension at the ferocity of loathing and violence that had snatched from them their loved ones. How could parents of two boys in Nagaon, Assam come to terms with the lynching of their sons by a mob from their neighbouring village, accusing them of being cow thieves? Why would they gouge their eyes out and cut off their ears? Why would complete strangers stab Harish Pujari 14 times near Mangalore, pulling out his intestines, only because they mistook him for a Muslim when he was riding pillion behind his Muslim friend?
Dalits are viciously attacked by upper caste neighbours to crush any assertion. Single women remain vulnerable to incredible medieval cruelty by family and neighbours, branded as witches. Christians in tribal regions are subjugated by violence targeting their priests, nuns and places of worship, and by laws criminalising religious conversions. But the foremost targets of hate violence by lynching and police killings are Muslims, and it is they who have most abandoned hope.
Against Muslims, the hate weapon of choice is public lynching. We read of lynching of Blacks in America as public spectacles, watched by white families in picnics. In today’s India, this same objective of lynching as public performance is accomplished with the video camera. Most lynch attacks are filmed by the attackers, with images of their victims — humiliated, cringing, begging for their lives. In a particularly horrifying incident in Jharkhand, in a busy market square in Ramgarh, a mob stops the car of a Muslim man. A huge pile of red meat — the size of the body of a full cow — appears on the street, the mob claiming that they “seized” this from the car. He is filmed as they beat him to death. Laughing faces of attackers appear in the video. They upload the videos even as they lynch the man and torch his car. His young son receives the video of his father being lynched on his mobile even as the lynching is underway.
We found that lynch videos are widely and avidly shared among young Hindutva activists. As evidence of what they see as their valorous exploits. As proof that the state will protect them. As public exhibitions of the humiliation of their enemy communities. And for drafting new recruits to militant Hindu supremacist formations like the Hindu Yuva Vahini founded by the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh Yogi Adityanath.
We found families that were bereaved by hate violence bereft of hope of either protection or justice from the state. The police in almost all the 50 families we met during our travels in eight states registered criminal charges against the victims, and treated the accused with kid gloves, not opposing their bail. A lynch mob, for instance, attacks a vehicle transporting cattle, killing some of the transporters. The police registers criminal cases of illegal cow smuggling, animal cruelty and rash driving against the victims. It obliterates completely the fact that the men were lynched. Or, in other cases, it mentions anonymous mobs who are never caught. The families of people attacked by lynch mobs sometimes do not even file a complaint with to the police, because far from getting justice, the police would register criminal charges against them.
Even more worrying, we found that in Haryana for the past two years, and in Western Uttar Pradesh since Adityanath became chief minister, the police has allegedly taken on the work of the lynch mob. And unlike lynching, targeted police killings have barely registered in the national conscience.
Dalits’ homes were gutted and women and men attacked by their Rajput neighbours in Shabirpur of Saharanpur district, only because they had the temerity to plan the installing of a five-foot statue of Ambedkar on their own community land. They could not accept that the statue on a raised platform would display Ambedkar pointing his finger at the public street on which they walked. In Dangawas in Rajasthan, six men were crushed under tractors because they dared to demand their land back after their claims had been validated by every court. In Anand district in Gujarat, the only crime of a Dalit youth was to seek a dry portion of the village commons that was not a swamp to skin a cow.
But hearteningly, we found that the Dalits in all three states were angry, proud, organised and fiercely determined to fight back. In Shabbirpur, the Dalits have converted en masse to Buddhism, immersing their Hindu idols in the village ponds. Jai Bhim was their resounding slogan everywhere.
This was in stark contrast to the Muslims, who are today crushed, isolated and despairing. And we found in all these local communities profound and pervasive failures of compassion. We encountered very little acknowledgment, regret or remorse among the upper-caste Hindu communities in any of the states we travelled. They remain convinced that somehow their Muslim and Dalit neighbours deserved their cruel deaths to lynch mobs or police bullets.
There is a gathering darkness in our land, less and less penetrated by the light of compassion and solidarity. As India is fast mutating into a republic of hate, why do we just watch from the sidelines?
In Nuh in Haryana, a young Muslim man said, “A poisonous wind is blowing through our country. I feel a stranger in my own homeland.”
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