A full year has passed since dairy farmer and cattle trader Pehlu Khan was lynched on a busy Rajasthan highway in April. As this year elapsed, his family and other Muslim dairy farmers have tumbled into bleak times. Their fate is a sombre marker of India’s mutation into a majoritarian state, one that hurtles further away from the pledges of India’s secular democratic Constitution. As the Karwan e Mohabbat drove to his dusty village of Jaisinghpur in Nuh, Haryana, I recalled my first journey to the village a year ago, days after Pehlu Khan’s lynching. We found, now, that the tears of Pehlu Khan’s family had still not dried. His sightless mother, his widow, their children, looked at us through glassy eyes.
The men of the family had joined a gathering of dairy farmers in another part of the village, where they had assembled to meet the Karwan. The mood among the men was subdued, even as they held our hands in friendship. The six men Pehlu Khan named as his attackers before he died have been all absolved by the police of any guilt. This despite Indian law treating a “dying declaration” as evidence so strong that an accused individual can be convicted solely on its basis. (The premise upheld in innumerable court rulings is that a “dying man can never lie”). In this case, the villagers believe that the police discarded Pehlu Khan’s dying declaration, in its striving to protect influential cow vigilantes affiliated to Sangh organisations. The three men they arrested, instead, are out on bail.
Their anguish was amplified because the police in January this year filed charge-sheets not against the killers but against the young men, Azmat and Rafeeq, who had been attacked with Pehlu Khan, barely escaping with their lives. Police charged that they are cow smugglers. Directly after Khan’s lynching, the state’s home minister and the district’s police superintendent had also dubbed Khan and his sons and companions as cow smugglers, in effect building a cynical and dangerous alternate moral frame to justify the lynching. The police charge-sheet only gives a veneer of faux legality to the claims of the establishment that blames the victim. Since the charge-sheet was filed against them, they have desperately petitioned courts for anticipatory bail.
The major crime that Pehlu Khan’s associates are charged with is under Section 5 of the Rajasthan Bovine Animal (Prohibition of Slaughter and Regulation of Temporary Migration or Export) Act, 1995. The language of the Act makes clear that what this statute prohibits is transport of animals for slaughter. Since Pehlu Khan and his colleagues were transporting expensive milch cattle with calves, it was obvious that there was no intent to take them to slaughter. You would be foolish to sell an animal you bought for Rs 50,000 for slaughter which would fetch you little more than Rs 6,000. By what token, then, can they be called “cow smugglers”? What the misuse of this law has accomplished is that instead of the state extending compassion and justice to a family that lost their loved one to a hate mob, it has succeeded in painting the victim as a criminal. In our journeys of the Karwan to families affected by lynch violence in 10 states of the country, we found that such criminalising of victims of lynching is today commonplace across India.
There have been other lethal consequences of the hate lynching of Pehlu Khan on the lives of his family and community. There has been an extensive chilling of the livelihoods of cow rearing and dairy farming traditionally pursued by Meo Muslim farmers. “If you are Muslim, it has now become too dangerous to be seen on a public road transporting cattle”, said one of the dairy farmers. “We are terrified now even to buy or sell cattle from the next village”, said another, “let alone from the cattle fair in Rajasthan. You don’t know when a mob would attack us accusing us of selling the animal for slaughter”. There are instances when even a cow or bull tied in their homes attracts raids from uniformed policepersons. The Haryana government now has established a dedicated section of the police force specifically for cow protection. Farmers talked of their animals being seized from their homes and handed over to gaushalas. Even if the animal is ultimately released, weeks or months later after the owner has run from pillar to post, they have to pay the gaushala management large sums for the upkeep of their animal before she is released to them.
“If this continues much longer”, they said, “the day is not far when Muslims will be forced to give up on dairy farming altogether. We love the cow like a member of our own family. It is hard to imagine Meo Muslim rural life without a cow. This is work we have done for generations. But where are they are pushing us?” If they are forced to abandon dairying, this will further impoverish the people of the region. Their land is arid and unirrigated, therefore they can at best rear one crop a year. Most are marginal or small farmers. It is the cow and buffalo which enable them to feed their children the year round.
In the journey of the Karwan e Mohabbat last September, violent mobs had tried to block us even from our resolve to pay tribute by placing flowers on the sidewalk where Pehlu Khan was lynched. The VHP, Hindu Jagran Manch and Bajrang Dal threatened that any attempt by us to offer homage at the lynch site would be met with sticks and stones. Unwilling to let this deter us, we began the small journey of a few hundred yards to the spot at which I would place the flowers. The police tried to block our way, because an angered violent mob had gathered. It was only after prolonged arguments and a dharna that the police relented. With two fistfuls of marigold flowers, and surrounded by a few policepersons, I was finally able to walk to the site where Pehlu Khan had been lynched. I had knelt down then on the grimy sidewalk, and spoke the words, “I am not a believer, so I cannot pray. But in the name of humanism and justice, I place these flowers here. In memory not just of Pehlu Khan, but of hundreds of others like him who have fallen to hate violence across our land”.
The tragedy of the Meo people today is that they mourn alone, even as they grapple with indescribable injustice, fear of vigilante mobs and a malign police force, combined with the imminent destruction of their age-old livelihoods. We need to tell our brothers and sisters that they are not alone in times fraught with hate and state malevolence. That we care. May their tears dry. May there be compassion. May justice happen.